Clarification: The number of children diagnosed with STDs last year has been updated to reflect new information.

MYRTLE BEACH, SC (WBTW) — The Children’s Recovery Center is existing “on a shoestring” after seeing its government funding cut by 30%, on top of receiving $60,000 less in community fundraising than in previous years and taking another $30,000 hit from its foundation funders. 

It’s able to survive. For now. “Next year, it will be a different story,” said Louise Carson, the center’s executive director. 

If the center sees more cuts next year, Carson said it’ll have to eliminate an interviewer position at a time when the center is seeing constant year-over-year increases in the number of children brought in after being physically or sexually abused. 

The center has seen an increase of 20% more children using its services annually year over year for the last six years, according to the organization’s application for a Community Development Block Grant from Horry County Government.

That boom has led to the center creating a second interview room to cut down wait times. A forensic interview can last between 30 minutes and three hours, depending on the child. Staff try to keep children busy while they wait, but it’s still hard on the survivors.

“We don’t think it is a very good mental impact,” Carson said. 

Children are referred to the center if authorities suspect they have been abused. The children are interviewed by one person while outside agencies are able to watch that interview in real time or on a closed circuit screen, preventing the child from having to repeat their story.

“These stories that the kids come here and tell us are so horrific and traumatic that we don’t want them to have to repeat the story two or three times,” Carson said. “It is traumatic every time they have to tell it.”

About 48.3% of those sexually battered last year in the state were under the age of 18, according to the Crime in South Carolina 2019 report from the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and the South Carolina Department of Public Safety. Of the total number of survivors, 16.1% were under the age of 10 and 32.2% were between the ages of 10 to 17.

The large majority of those offenses are committed by family members and acquaintances. 

The average age of a sexual assault survivor the center saw last year was 9 years old. 

In 2019, the center helped a record 377 children. It’s seen about 365 this year despite an increase in domestic violence cases, which Carson said tend to go hand-in-hand with child abuse ones. However, it can be several months before children come forward. The center typically sees an increase in cases in September and January — right when children return to school and start disclosing their abuse to teachers. 

The center opened the second interview room in February. The two were only used at the same time for a handful of interviews until the pandemic shut the center down for six weeks. Emergency cases were still seen during that time, but 41 referrals were delayed until it reopened. Now, only one adult and one child are allowed in the building at a time. 

Carson doesn’t attribute the increase in cases to an increase in crimes against children.

“I think the cases have been here all along,” she said. 

Instead, Carson said there’s been a generational shift that’s led to a different mindset about reporting these crimes, legislation that has taught children they can confide in a teacher and outreach from the center to raise awareness of the services it provides.

Those services include medical examinations, which, unlike a typical visit to a pediatrician, test the children for sexually transmitted diseases. Last year, 30 children — making up 7.96% of all the children seen there — tested positive for an STD.

Testing the children, Carson said, can help the children get the immediate medical interventions they need. She said no child should have to live with an STD, especially ones like herpes that can follow them their entire lives. 

“They not only need medicine for that, but they need therapy for that,” she said. 

But the monetary cuts, much of which come from a shrinking federal Victims of Crime Act fund, put some of those services at risk. That difference has been about $60,000, on top of losing funds from having to cancel events like its annual 5k. 

Fundraising, Carson said, is a big part of the center’s budget. It will do virtual fundraising events next year, is planning to apply for more grants and is hopeful that a 25th anniversary gala will help with the budget. Donations are also accepted through the center’s website.

It’ll be enough to get through this year, at least.

“We are able to survive because we have been really careful with our money over the last few years,” Carson said. 

She said the center, which is designed to feel like a home in order to get children to open up more than they would in a police interrogation room, fulfills a need in the community. Carson said children whose trauma goes untreated are more likely to commit violent crimes, have teen pregnancies and face drug addictions. She encourages anyone who suspects a child is being abused to call authorities, urging that it’s better to be wrong than to let a child continue to be hurt.

“It is so important that these kids get help before they become adults, because this is such a terrible trauma that they have, and we don’t want them to carry that into adulthood,” Carson said.