A labor of love

Jennifer Ginsburg finds her purpose at Safe Harbor.

From the pages of In Business magazine.

Brightly painted hallways starkly contrast with the dark conversations occurring behind the walls at Madison’s Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, where Program Manager Jennifer Ginsburg leads a small staff dedicated to helping young abuse victims minimize the trauma they’ve experienced. “This is a safe place for a child to come and tell their story to a trained forensic interviewer so an investigation can continue,” Ginsburg explains.

In Dane County, there are about 6,000 cases of child abuse reported every year. “This is a traumatic place,” Ginsburg admits. “We deal with one issue and it is very hard.” Yet the victims, ages three through 18 (and developmentally delayed adults), inspire her, she says. “It’s an honor that they would trust us enough to talk to us. They open up about things they’ve never before discussed. It’s very humbling because they are so brave.”

Safe Harbor is the only child advocacy center in Dane County, and one of 15 in the state. Before centers like this existed, a young victim of physical or sexual abuse would be interviewed impersonally in a police car, or required to recount and relive their horrific story over and over again as the case moved through the system.

Here, the system comes to the child. In a safe, comfortable room, victims share their stories one-on-one with Ginsburg or another trained forensic interviewer while a multidisciplinary team — law enforcement, medical experts, and child protective services — observes in the next room. The recorded conversations are often used as evidence in court.

Ginsburg recently explained her difficult but meaningful career choice.

IB: How hard is this?
It’s very difficult, but sometimes I think to myself, if I left today, the issue would still continue, so it’s better to be part of the solution. This is where I need to be, and I’m really proud of the work we do here.

IB: What have you learned from your interactions with the abused and their families?
That everybody has a story, regardless of how perfect things might seem on the outside. Sexual assault and abuse is so common among women. One in four girls and one in six boys are abused before their 18th birthday. I’ve learned to be compassionate knowing that we’re all really complex people.

IB: Is there a common link running through the stories you hear?
Often, trauma is not connected so much to physical touch, it’s about a complete shattering of trust. More than 90% of abusers are known and usually loved by the child, so the victims experience a tremendous amount of shame, self-blame, and a fear of what’s next. That’s where the trauma truly happens.

IB: Can children get through this?
Absolutely, and they do! But we know that outcomes are better when there is an immediate response.

IB: What about staff?
Seeing and hearing these stories every day takes its toll and can lead to nightmares, depression, anxiety, and can affect their relationships and physical health. I am working to procure the resources to have support groups and other services for our team.



IB: Aside from the obvious, what’s the most challenging part of your job?
Ginsburg: The constant hamster wheel of fundraising. We cannot charge for our services, so we have to fundraise 40% of our budget just to keep the doors open and the lights on. We desperately need a couch, for example, and we’ve held off on things like Post-It notes to stick to budget.

IB: What is your annual operating budget?
Ginsburg: About $500,000 a year. We do a lot of grant writing and rely on individual fundraising. We also have an amazing group of volunteers and corporate support.

IB: What should the business community know about Safe Harbor?
Ginsburg: That we are not law enforcement; we’re the bridge, and we see 320 different cases each year. If your child were abused, you’d want Safe Harbor there to minimize the trauma and get your child the services needed.

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