Former teacher helps exploited children
Sharon Creppel "Mission Minded"
HAYWARD AND FRIENDS – Among Hayward’s countless friends are, from left, Youth Trafficking Advocate Kathy Cusimano, handler Lori Banks and forensic interviewer Jasmine Gardner, all with Child Advocacy Services.
Kathy Cusimano loves her job, her work family and the mission of giving voice, healing and security to children.
She is the youth and child trafficking advocate and prevention coordinator with Child Advocate Services.
A graduate of Southeastern Louisiana University with a degree in elementary education she taught fourth grade for 16 years and ran a summer camp and an after-school program at the university. She became part of the CAS family while doing volunteer work as a Court Appointed Special Advocate.
The Children Advocacy Center of CAS is a family friendly and safe place for children and youth who have disclosed allegations of neglect, physical abuse or sexual abuse, have witnessed a crime or have been trafficked or exploited.
In the center’s warm setting, they are welcomed with snacks and are invited to meet Hayward, the companion dog who has been with the center 11 years. Hayward has comforted more than 1,600 kids and has accompanied many of them as they tell their stories during a forensic interview. His handler is Family Advocate Lori Banks.
Before the interview, the children are assured that they are not in trouble and they are in a safe place to tell their story. Jasmine Gardner, a trained forensic interviewer, conducts all these interviews in Tangipahoa Parish. The children are informed that law enforcers or the Department of Children and Family Services is witnessing the interview via closed circuit video.
The information disclosed during the interview is confidential and can be used in the investigation and prosecution of the perpetrator. The goal is to protect children from the trauma of having to tell their story repeatedly. In 2020, 614 children were provided forensic interviews in the four CAC sites located in Hammond, Denham Springs, Gonzales and St Francisville.
Gov. John Bel Edwards and his wife, Donna, worked on a grant in partnership with Louisiana Alliance of Children Advocacy Centers and in 2019 received a grant to host nine regional child and youth trafficking coordinators. Kathy serves in this role for this region.
The average age of trafficked or exploited children is 12-14, mostly girls but about 40 percent boys. Statistics show that approximately 90 percent of trafficked youth have been previously abused or traumatized as a child. Many children are exploited or abused by someone they know and think they can trust.
Kathy suggests ways parents can assure their children’s safety: stay connected with open, honest and regular communication. Teach them about safe boundaries, privacy settings, and what is appropriate to share with others and online.
She also facilitates classes and provides education to the community and partner agencies. Trust-Based Relational Interventions is caregiver training that helps adults connect with children from hard places. Also offered are various classes about human trafficking.
Classes include a formal awareness and reporting, caregiver training to help parents keep their youth safe, and an engaging youth awareness and safety class created for teens.
CAS also offers the Darkness to Light-Stewards of Children training on ways to keep our children safe from sexual abuse.
Kathy thanks God for abundantly blessing her life with her husband, Todd, and sons, Alex and Zack.
Her favorite scripture is Ephesians 3:16-20, which, in summary, says, “Let Christ dwell in our hearts by faith, may we be rooted and grounded in love filled with fullness and experience the depth, width and length of God’s love.”
She hopes that everyone has the opportunity to experience His amazing love and knows as in verse 20 that “God can do abundantly above and beyond all we can hope or imagine!”
Children are God’s precious gifts so if you suspect any child is living in unsafe or abusive conditions, please call 1-855-452-5437 (1-855-4LA- KIDS). A 24-hour hotline operates 365 days. The website is https://childadv.net .
Call Sharon Creppel at 985-981-4368 to share stories about “mission-minded” people.