WEIRTON - Jim Penebaker knows there are times when something as simple as a stuffed bear can make a world of difference in the lives of children trapped in an abusive family environment.
Penebaker and his coworkers give one to every child that's inteviewed at Comfort House, the Weirton-based child advocacy center tasked with finding out if anything happening to them in their homelife is criminal. Whenever abuse is suspected, the authorities arrange for them to be interviewed in the child-friendly confines of Comfort House. The relaxed setting helps lessen their anxiety. Occasionally they determine a child has been coerced, but most often the interviews lead to prosecution.
"It's a simple thing, we give them one before they leave and it makes them feel comfortable and happy again," said Penebaker, forensic interviewer and director of Comfort House. "Sometimes kids have to be removed from their homes quickly, they don't even get to take anything of their own with them - that bear may be the only thing they have that's their own."
Comfort House board member Lisa Zdinak and Jim Penebaker, forensic investigator and director of the child advocacy center tasked with interviewing children suspected of being abused, show off some of the 50 bears donated by the congregation of Trinity Lutheran Church recently. The bears, a mission project adopted by the women of the church, are given to children after they're interviewed by the staff at Comfort House. -- Contributed
He said they make a point of letting the children and their families know the bears are a gift to the children of the community from Trinity Lutheran Church, not Comfort House. The church women took it on as one of their mission projects a few years back.
"We used to get carnations for everybody every year on Mother's Day," said Nancy Lorello, president of the women's group. "(But) we decided that instead of giving something to the ladies, the ladies would give something back to the community. The second year we did it, a member of our church who had something to do with Comfort House told us about them and what they do, so we started giving them the bears."
So for the past five or six years, she said the women's group has gotten together once or twice a year to make the bears, which currently sport a T-shirt embroidered with a "TLC" logo. They presented this year's haul - 50 bears - to Penebaker after a blessing service one recent Sunday.
"The bears are given to children who are either victims or witnesses to abusive situations, to provide a little comfort to them when they deal with the tragedies that have come up in their lives," Coleen Daily, president of Trinity's congregation, said during the service. "We all were wearing purple T-shirts with 'TLC' on the front. (People) asked if TLC meant 'tender loving care' - we've kind of taken that as our theme. Yes, TLC means 'tender, loving care' to the children of West Virginia, and this is one of our outreach projects we do to help the children. This one, particularly, stays local. It's our gift to children who need comforting."
And Penebaker said there are plenty of them.
"We were very busy last year. We did more interviews than we've ever done," he said. "It's not that there was a big influx of abuse, but I think we've become more established - (the authorities are) utilizing us more."
In fact, they interviewed 141 kids in 2012. That's up a whopping 59 percent compared to 2011, when they did 84 interviews.
Before Comfort House came along, Penebaker said those interviews would have been done in the back of a cruiser, at the police station or maybe in a school setting, "and the kids would constantly have to retell their story." Now, he said they record each interview so children only have to tell their story once.
Weirton Police Chief Bruce Marshall said there's no disputing the calming effect Comfort House has on the children.
"Say we have a victim 5- or 6-years-old," he said. "They're going to be afraid of us, especially since, more often that not, the perpetrator is a man. We take our cases to them - it's much easier for kids to talk to them and it makes a very difficult investigation run a lot smoother. It's definitely easier for the victim, plus it's a neutral party asking them questions. And anytime we call them, they're here."
Penebaker said the children can be referred by Child Protective Services, law enforcement and prosecutors. Though their service base is Brooke and Hancock counties, he said they'll do courtesy interviews for other jurisdictions.
He said they operate on grant money as well as donations from groups like the Sisters of St. Joseph, Hancock County Commission and Chesapeake.
"We get a lot of community support," he said. "We got a grant last year from East Liverpool City Hospital that funded our first conference, and we also do some fundraising. And sometimes we just get checks in the mail from individuals, the different churches and businesses.
"Working here, we definitely see the good and the bad," he said. "We see evil done to kids, but we also see the good in people - the church is a perfect example of that. They reached out to us wanting to help."
(Harris can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)