WEST JORDAN, Utah — Leaders of the LDS Church's Primary, Young Women and Relief Society organizations delivered a check for $120,000 on Thursday to a Utah organization that helps children recover from child sexual abuse.
Sister Joy D. Jones, general president of the church's Primary organization for children, presented the check to leaders of Utah's Children's Justice Centers. The state's 22 centers provide warm, welcoming places for child victims of sexual assault to tell their stories to investigators and for their parents to learn about resources available to their children and families.
"The Church of Jesus of Latter-day Saints supports you in the effort to support, sustain and strengthen children and families," Sister Jones said. "On behalf of the church, we are pleased to provide $120,000 to help you establish on-site medical services at Children's Justice Centers throughout the state."
Sister Jones and three other church leaders toured the South Valley Children's Justice Center in West Jordan.
The centers are designed to empower child victims and allow them to begin to heal. Utah families whose children suffer abuse are directed to the centers. Upon arrival, each child can play with age-appropriate toys. Then she or he is allowed to choose from several themed interview rooms — for example, the West Jordan center includes rooms with giraffe, jungle, and beach motifs. The choice empowers the child, providing a sense of control. Further empowerment is provided during the interview as a trained detective listens to the child without interrupting.
Each interview is videotaped. A multidisciplinary team of investigators, prosecutors and others view each video to consult on decisions about prosecution, medical needs, parental support and possible psychological support.
Children also may undergo a forensic medical examination to determine the children's health and to collect evidence to help identify and convict offenders. Thursday's LDS Church donation will provide medical equipment and supplies for forensic exams.
Even if a sexual assault exam provides no evidence to help in a criminal case, it still can be a powerful, positive experience for child victims, who generally heal quickly from physical injuries, said Suzanne Mitchell, executive director of the Children's Justice Centers of Salt Lake County.
"The exam can liberate them from concerns that some victims otherwise carry with them into adulthood or marriage," Mitchell said. "One little girl came out of an exam at one of our centers and said, 'Mom, the nurse said I was just perfect.'"
The LDS Church has provided nearly a quarter of a million dollars to support Children's Justice Centers in Utah in the past three years.
The church provided $100,000 in 2015. In 2016, it donated $25,000 to the Children's Justice Centers at the same time it gave $100,000 to the National Children's Alliance. At that time, the church released a statement that called child abuse "a societal plague" and outlined the church's efforts to prevent abuse in its congregations. The church declared a zero tolerance policy against abuse and said that victims are innocent.
Salt Lake County District Attorney Sim Gill said Children's Justice Centers are a safe harbor that give vulnerable, abused children a place where their voices can be heard and where they know they are believed and safe. He said the first priority is a child's and a family's healing, safety and growth.
LDS Church leader support is vital beyond the donation, he added.
"Their involvement is essential, pivotal. It represents their commitment to the community. That church leaders who are here represents the need for all of us to be involved. They represent a very significant part of our community, and it takes a community effort to address this in a holistic way."
The most important message, Sister Jones said, is to tell a child, "It's not your fault."
Sister Bonnie L. Oscarson, General President of the Young Women organization for girls 12 to 17, noted that nearly half of the victims seen at Children's Justice Centers are teens.
She said church leaders receive letters regularly from people abused as children. Most of the letters come from adults.
"That drives home to me how important it is for child victims to get help as soon as possible," she said.
More than 20 Children’s Justice Center locations statewide assist 5,500 child victims every year. The number of medical exams conducted at Children's Justice Centers in Utah has doubled in the past three years as more centers have opened statewide, said Tracey Tabet, the director of the justice centers program with the Utah Attorney General's Office.
Sister Carol F. McConkie, first counselor in the Young Women general presidency, and Sister Reyna I. Aburto, second counselor in the Relief Society, also joined Thursday's tour.