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Five Questions: Barbara Brown-Johnson

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Barbara Brown-Johnson, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center Inc., knows how to care for traumatized children. Her work to serve the needs of the area’s most vulnerable kids was recognized in October when she was named a Child Advocate of the Year by the Ozarks Health Advocacy Foundation.

Q: What is the Child Advocacy Center, and what does this recognition for your work mean to you?
A: We serve 18 counties, and whenever there’s an allegation of severe sexual abuse or physical abuse or neglect, or if a child has witnessed a crime and is a potential witness in a criminal case – instead of taking him or her to the police station or the sheriff’s department to talk to someone – the child is brought here, to a home environment. We perform two main services. The first is what we call a forensic interview, and we have folks on staff who are highly trained to talk to kids about abusive events. We also provide physical exams.

(The award) is a wonderful confirmation of the work we do. We all have to have a paycheck, and working for a nonprofit, you don’t always get the paycheck that you might … in the for-profit world. But there are more important paychecks than the paper kind.

Q: What is your typical workweek?
A: Most of the time, there are meetings both inside and outside of the house, lots of phone calls (and) grant reports, talking to donors and board members, tours, talking with our development director on new fundraising ideas – and that’s just my part. … We talk about how to work our mantra: Child first. We’ve had a huge increase in the number of children we are seeing, which means we have to do things more efficiently. Even as recently as 2006, we were averaging more than 60 children per month; in 2010, we’re averaging 99 children per month.

Q: You owned Learning Tree preschool for 25 years before taking the job at CAC 12 years ago. How did that work lead to what you’re doing now?
A: I really learned how children think, how they feel, and how they operate and respond. Little did I know that I would use that knowledge to switch to the field of child abuse. If someone would have told me that, I would have told them they were crazy.

Q: What children’s issues are most prevalent in southwest Missouri?
A: Poverty. All of the research says that poverty is the biggest risk factor for children. Poverty impacts children because it so thoroughly affects the functions of the family. People don’t always see that because this is a very giving community, and it absolutely is, but let’s just say that there are more needs than there are champions.

Q: What has kept you on the job for a dozen years now?
A: I joke that I’m already insane, so why leave? Honestly, it’s the mission. Who could not love this mission? I knew early on that, in some way, my work with children would be my life’s work. While I didn’t exactly feel it would be in this context, this is just a mission that speaks to both my heart and my head. From my head’s perspective, it makes sense that we respond differently to the children who find themselves to be victims or witnesses of crime. From my heart’s perspective, who could not empathize with a child who has been victimized and not want to help?
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