Hung outside the Kids First Child Advocacy Center of the Ninth Judicial District office in Lenoir City are 360 small blue ribbons tied to trees.

The ribbons represent the number of children CAC gave forensic interviews during the 2017-18 fiscal year. Since 2002, the CAC has conducted about 5,000 forensic interviews.

“It’s unfortunate that we know of 360 children who have suffered severe physical abuse, mostly sex abuse,” Chris Evans-Longmire, CAC executive director, said. “However, the great part of that is we do know 360 children that we had the opportunity to serve through the forensic interview, through a medical exam, to get these kids plugged into therapy, to help these children understand that they didn’t do anything wrong, that their life isn’t over, that they are not bad people. They didn’t deserve the things that happened to them.”

During the last fiscal year, 64 percent of children interviewed were under 12 years old. The average age was 5.

“That child’s voice wasn’t heard, and that child wasn’t asked if this was OK,” Evans-Longmire said. “That child wasn’t able to give permission. That child wasn’t able to say, ‘I don’t like that.’ Our job is to give them the right to be heard in their words the way they need to say whatever they want to say, and they deserve that.”

The emotional toll is difficult on CAC employees, but it’s something Evans-Longmire believes is a responsibility.

“These kids come in here and they unload the worst thing that they’ve ever experienced,” Evans-Longmire said. “They unload secrets that they’ve carried for a very long time and our staff receive that information and you don’t walk out here and leave it — it goes whatever we go. But we also get to see these children get to walk out with their head up and not feeling shameful, not feeling like they’re bad people. So it’s a challenge.

“It’s a challenge to be able to support the folks that do the work to give the children that have suffered abuse the services they deserve,” she added.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. On Friday, the CAC welcomed various agencies that make an impact on the center and its services.

The day was all about awareness, Evans-Longmire said.

“It surprises me how many families still aren’t aware of some of the services that are offered by the CAC,” Jason Smith, Loudon County Sheriff’s Office representative who has been part of the Child Protective Investigative Team for 12 years, said. “I think that us as law enforcement we’re trying to get that information out there. It usually comes as a reactive. Knowing that these services are out there, knowing that there’s a place that they can go. ... The awareness is out there.

“... It has come a long way in just that 12 years with everybody that they’ve helped, everything that they’ve been able to service to the individuals, and not just Loudon County but for the nine, but as far as for us in local law enforcement,” he added.

Felencia Vincil told her story as a child abuse victim.

“I remember being in middle school and telling several of my classmates that that never got reported, and so it was just always something I kind of lived with, and had I not — because I did go to college and took a lot of psychology classes and different things — had it not been for that I wouldn’t have had the tools to kind of persevere and to be able to get past that myself,” Vincil said. “I feel like even though all that happened I really lucked out because I was able to not cope with it with drugs or alcohol, not let it get to me to the point I wanted to harm myself.”

Vincil hopes to help others going through similar situations to let them know they’ve got support. She worked as a member of the Child Protective Investigative Team from 2015-18 and now plans to volunteer with CAC.

“So if we educate with them not only if this happens to you but if somebody else tells you it happens to them, this is what you do, and we can get that early, then we can prevent so, so much as far as domestic violence, mental health, drug use and suicide because sometimes kids let this fester and fester and it blows up,” Vincil said. “Working with the CPIT team as a professional I was kind of fighting on the other side trying to help get the bad guy and try to set up services for the kids, but I wasn’t able to share my story and give them hope of I know what you feel like and you can get through this.”

State Rep. Lowell Russell, R-Vonore, who was at the CAC on Friday, introduced a bill he believes will make the community safer by doubling the minimum time in jail for a sex offender from 90 days to 180 days. Russell was present to support the cause.

“What it does is basically a sex offender is on the sex offender registry, they’ve already committed their sex offense, they’re placed on the registry, and then they go out and commit a new sex offense, they violate the sex offender registry, which is now classified as a Class E felony,” Russell said. “For some reason that was sort of left out of the law. The bill that I proposed corrects that.”

The House passed the bill on first consideration. The Senate is still considering it.

Last year, 4,410 students in kindergarten, first, third, fifth and seventh grades in 21 schools across the Ninth Judicial District were educated through the Stop Child Abuse and Neglect program, which focuses on intervention and prevention.

That program, along with the Teen Parent Education Program, is made possible through United Way of Loudon County for Loudon County Schools.

“The volunteers that come out of this area, the businesses, the agencies, the community as a whole is just — I mean we couldn’t ask for (more),” Evans-Longmire said.