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City announces massive expansion of Lincoln's Child Advocacy Center
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City announces massive expansion of Lincoln's Child Advocacy Center

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In a move that organizers say will drastically enhance local child abuse prevention efforts, Lincoln Mayor Leirion Gaylor Baird announced Monday a $5.2 million expansion and remodeling of the Child Advocacy Center, ushering a new era of proactive child abuse response into the city. 

The center is a nonprofit organization that aims to create a safe space for conducting forensic interviews and medical evaluations for abused children, serving 17 counties in Southeast Nebraska.

The facility's 17,000-square-foot expansion will accommodate the relocation of the Lincoln Police Department's Special Victims Unit, a move that organizers hope will lead to better collaboration and improved legal outcomes in the prosecution of alleged child abusers.

"This expansion will truly lead the CAC to be a one-stop shop for child victims of abuse," said Paige Piper, the executive director of the center, who called the announcement "momentous" and a "pivotal point" for child victim advocacy in Lancaster County, where the center has served 18,000 children since its founding in 1998. 

The public-private project will also allow the center to expand its in-house medical program. The center plans to hire full-time staff to perform medical exams on child victims, including on-site sexual assault exams, which are currently performed in emergency rooms at local hospitals.

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The expansion will provide additional room for evidence storage, classrooms for abuse prevention education and space for triage services for children being removed from their homes. 

Gaylor Baird's announcement comes a year after the Child Advocacy Center set off on the "Room to Heal" fundraising campaign to pay for the expansion.

The organization has raised more than $3.5 million. Contractors are set to break ground this year, Piper said, despite the fact that the center needs another $1.7 million to fund the project. Monday marked the beginning of the public fundraising campaign after a yearlong private effort. 

"We just can't wait," Piper said. "Some organizations will choose to wait until all the money's been raised, but our kids need us. They need this now. And so we feel very strongly that we'll be able to fund raise the remaining money within the next few months."

Piper said the center hopes to open its new building — which will sit yards from the center's current location at 5025 Garland St., also being renovated as a part of the project — in the fall of 2023. 

After remodeling, Piper said, the center's existing building will include two additional medical clinics. The building's entire lower level will be dedicated to mental health services and triage for children awaiting foster care placement.

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The new structure will house 18 LPD investigators and Jake Dilsaver, the captain who will lead the newly formed Special Victims Unit. The police department already has investigators working cases in child abuse, sexual assault, domestic violence and human trafficking, Chief Teresa Ewins said. The new structure will put all of those investigators in the same building.

"We're gonna be having a larger umbrella, so to speak, under one roof," Ewins said. "And really, traditionally, that's what you want to do so there's direct communication — so you're not missing the fine points of these types of investigations, because a lot of times they cross over. 

"So we wanted to make sure that we're really thorough."

The building will also house the evidence storage facility and the center's medical and education hubs, Piper said.

The expansion will help the center strengthen its partnership not only with local law enforcement, but also with mental health care providers, Lutheran Family Services, Foster Care Closet, Bryan Health, CHI Health and Lincoln Public Schools, among other partners — a comprehensive cross-section of nearly every major child-centric organization in the city. 

"What this means for children in Lincoln is a better and more collaborative approach that will lead to better outcomes, better support for them," Piper said.

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"We know that it's important to not just address abuse as it's happening, but that it's a long road to recovery. And it's critical that we address the physical, emotional (and) mental aspects of abuse. And our hope is that through this Room to Heal campaign ... we'll see a much more robust response to child abuse and prevention in our community." 

Gaylor Baird said the city and county have been eying the model since it was recommended by a governor's task force in 2003. 

The center first opened its doors in 1998  serving 36 children with a full-time staff of one. 

This year, the center is set to serve about 1,200 children, Gaylor Baird said before organizers and officials broke ground on the center's next chapter. 

"All of us can be proud that our community is taking this step and setting an example  and a wonderful example  for Southeast Nebraska," the mayor said. 

Reach the writer at 402-473-7223 or awegley@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @andrewwegley

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A Kansas City, Missouri, native, Andrew Wegley joined the Journal Star as breaking news reporter after graduating from Northwest Missouri State University in May 2021.

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