Jennifer Ginsburg has one of the toughest jobs in town. She’s the forensic interviewer for Safe Harbor, where child victims of abuse or young witnesses to crimes relate their stories in a process designed to minimize their trauma.
It’s a job that involves coordination with multiple agencies, from law enforcement to child protective services, and a supremely delicate touch to make kids — more than 200 a year — feel safe enough to open up.
Safe Harbor was started in 1999, part of a national movement to create child advocacy centers to ease the burden on child victims. Rather than subject the child to numerous interviews with teachers, principals, police, social workers, prosecutors or any of the rest of the array of people who get involved with a child abuse case, the child conducts just one interview, captured on video, that is admissible in court. That way the child can hopefully avoid having to testify in court.
Ginsburg, who has spent her entire career in social work helping victims, has been the principal interviewer with Safe Harbor for two years. Shortly after her arrival, the private nonprofit saw its $500,000 budget shaved by about 10 percent, the result of 2010 state budget cuts. Safe Harbor adapted with administrative changes that included making Ginsburg the program manager, in essence putting her in charge of the day-to-day management of the agency, as well as continuing her role as forensic interviewer.
While the finances have stabilized, Ginsburg has suffered personal setbacks: she was diagnosed with breast cancer last August, then suffered a stroke, putting her on part-time medical leave for the past several months. Now on the road to recovery, she somehow takes it all in stride.
“It’s been an interesting ride,” she says. “I always feel that whatever happens to me in life helps me in my work.”
A married mother of two girls, ages 8 and 10, she counts her blessings.
“I think about single parents. I think about people without insurance.”
Ginsburg plans to be back at work full time by the end of April, which is also National Child Abuse Prevention Month.
About 45 percent of Safe Harbor’s budget comes from community donations, and the agency is planning three fundraising events. Find more information on those here.
The Capital Times: How did you get involved in social work?
Jennifer Ginsburg: I started in the late ’80s as an undergrad. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I answered an ad for a volunteer at a women’s crisis center in Ohio, where I’m from. At that first training session, I knew that was what I wanted to do.
You’ve worked with adults and families for most of the time since. What got you interested in Safe Harbor?
I’ve always had an interest in child advocacy centers. Before coming to Madison I was living in Chicago and they were building a child advocacy center on Damen Avenue, really close to where I lived. I watched that go up and I was constantly bringing my resume over there. I wanted to be part of that movement.
What about child advocacy centers drew your interest?
It’s about looking at the initial process and how to make that better, realizing how important it is to the rest of the process for the child and the family. I went to Safe Harbor also to expand my skills and interest around investigations and forensics.
It must be pretty difficult to interview kids about the awful things that have happened to them.
I’ve listened to a lot of horror stories over the years, and it can make it hard to sleep at night. I generally feel very humbled that they are willing to talk about it. I’m often in awe of their strength and insight and ability to live their lives.
There appear to be a lot of people who have an interest in what you do. But is the primary goal to prosecute the children’s abusers?
Not all cases get prosecuted. Maybe there’s not enough (evidence) for a prosecutor to feel like they could go to trial. But child protective services can work with the family. So the ultimate goal is not prosecution. The ultimate goal is increased safety for the child and to create the best information possible so that the investigative team can make a decision.
Isn’t it sometimes hard to gain their trust, especially with older kids?
There are, rightly so, plenty of kids that are mistrustful. They’ve been hurt often by someone they know and love. They’re worried about that person getting into trouble. They’re suspicious of the interviewer’s motives. Our goal is to try to meet them where they are and have a conversation. The goal of any forensic interview is for the kid to tell their story. I’m just showing them the path. It’s their choice to go down it and what they’re going to say, or not say.
You’re agency was involved in the Chritton abuse/starvation case, which has gained national attention. Has awareness generated by that increased demand for your services?
It heightened people’s awareness, and so they were more likely to report. (Child protective services) will tell you they’ve increased the number of cases they’ve opened. I’m pretty sure the detectives and prosecutors have an increase, too. But children don’t come directly to Safe Harbor. They’re brought in by either a child protection worker or detective, or ideally both together. The good thing about high-profile cases is that they raise our awareness that it can happen to anybody, even in our city.
While your agency worked with the victim in the Chritton case, she ultimately ended up testifying in trial. So the video of a child’s interview doesn’t necessarily rule out the need for a child to appear in court.
Most of the time the Safe Harbor interview will greatly decrease the time that a child is in court. However, there are laws and requirements around ages. She’s 16, and with the older kids, especially when they’re 16, they need to testify in court.
Because of your medical challenges, you’ve been down to part-time status. Who’s picking up the slack?
It was amazing the number of detectives and social workers who volunteered. People rallied while I was on leave. I’m repeatedly impressed by the level of dedication and intelligence, and I want the community to know how hard people are working on behalf of abused children and families, how dedicated the lawyers, social workers and detectives are. People are arranging for child care. They’re missing their child’s birthday party. They stay up until all hours of the night. There’s a real dedication to creating the best circumstances for these children.