Neela Mukherjee Lockel, the president and CEO of EAC Network speaking at an open house for the organization's East End child advocacy center in Riverhead Tuesday. Photo: Alek Lewis.

A center dedicated to advocating for and protecting at-risk children and youth wants the community and local law enforcement agencies to know it has opened a Riverhead office to serve the East End.

The nonprofit EAC Network opened a child advocacy center on on Roanoke Avenue in 2019 but the center remains underutilized, thanks in part to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, which delayed outreach efforts. The organization hosted an open house at its Riverhead child advocacy center office on Tuesday so it could give officials a tour and talk to them about its work.

The child advocacy center provides a child-focused setting for forensic interviews and exams for child victims of abuse, and helps assist in investigations and prosecutions of those cases. The organization also provides the victim’s families with services and assists them throughout the investigation and legal processes. 

“Protecting children is our primary goal,” said Neela Mukherjee Lockel, the president and CEO of EAC Network.

The center is “built around a multidisciplinary team of experts from a variety of different professions, a variety of different entities, who are involved in caring for children and families who have been affected by child abuse,” Lockel said. The center is a child-friendly, family-friendly space that offers a calm and neutral place for children to be interviewed, examined medically, and evaluated psychologically once by a multidisciplinary team..

“It’s also meant to be a resource for all of you in the community,” she said.

Child abuse – whether physical, sexual, neglectful, or psychological – is a nationwide issue that affects children of all ages. Roughly 92% of children know their perpetrator and 65% of all reported child abuse cases involve sexual abuse, according to EAC. When child abuse allegations arise, children must often relive their trauma by retelling their story to multiple parties (law enforcement, medical teams, etc.).

EAC’s main child advocacy center in Central Islip is serving around 500 children a year being served in Islip, while the new center in Riverhead is serving about 60 to 80 a year, Lockel said. 

“That doesn’t mean that less children are being affected by child abuse out here, she said. “What that means is we need all of you to remember that we exist. We need you to remember that every child deserves equal access to resources, services [and] people who care about them,” she said. “It is not fair to not give every child the same kind of access to the supports and services that they and their families need in the aftermath of something as traumatic as child abuse. It affects the whole family. It affects the community at large.”

Photo: Alek Lewis

Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone and Police Commissioner Rodney Harrison on Tuesday highlighted the partnership between the county and EAC Network to help prosecute cases of abuse.

Bellone said that child abuse is an unfortunate reality in the world. “We know, unfortunately, that it’s going to happen…it’s happening everywhere. And so all we can do then, is to hold those accountable — very importantly, that is critical  — and to make sure we’re doing everything that we can to help those children through a horrific situation by having the best possible treatment and care in that very difficult process,” Bellone said.

“And what EAC does… represents a best practice in that,” Bellone said. “And so what we can do, when faced with his horrific reality, we can make sure as the adults that we’re doing everything we can to support programs like this, support the CAC and utilize it to its maximum effect, so that those children have the best chance to recover as they move on from that tragedy. “

Keryn Lemp, a community educator at center, said the Riverhead office increases the availability of services to areas such as Riverhead, Southold, Greenport and Southampton. She said she didn’t realize at first the impact the center’s location would have on the community, until she was working as a family advocate on the office’s first case.

“It was three brothers, who were just placed recently into foster care. And I could see that they were terrified from the parking lot. Some kids tried to put up a brave face, I think, but you could tell they were terrified, they were holding on to each other. They wouldn’t let go,” Lemp said. 

“And our newly opened CAC allowed our multidisciplinary team to have them come just a short drive here, to walk through those doors and be greeted by a room full of toys, the butterflies in their eyes, and staff who are really just truly, genuinely here to help make them feel comfortable and safe. That’s our primary goal,” she said. “There was an immediate difference in their nature.” 

Lemp said the child advocacy center was able to connect the children to trauma-informed therapy and more victim services. “That is what CACs are meant to do,” she said.

Riverhead Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said Tuesday the town would pursue a partnership between its police department and the child advocacy center. She said she would invite the organization to a work session to discuss the partnership. 

“As a New York City police detective trained in sexual abuse, who experienced many, many cases of sexual abuse, I know how credible this agency is,” Aguiar said. “Three years ago, you had a vision, the EAC, and the county executive had a vision. Our colleagues, our elected officials had a vision. And I want to thank the EAC for making this a reality,” Aguiar.

The Riverhead Police Department does not currently utilize the services of the child advocacy center, Aguiar said, noting “Riverhead does have a high level of child abuse cases and unfortunately, this agency hasn’t been able to support them.”

The county police commissioner pledged his department’s support.

“In order for us to get down to the bottom of a case, of an investigation, you need facilities like this to make that child, that survivor, feel comfortable. In order for us to be able to hold that person accountable and bring them to justice,” Harrison said. “These are the facilities that we need, not just [the Central Islip facility], but out here as well. To make that transition easier throughout the county. So this is an important location, this is an important building, important facility, for the whole county.” 

Suffolk County Social Services Commissioner Frances Pierre said EAC was thinking about closing down the Riverhead center because it was underutilized. She said Bellone made a call to her to make sure the organization got the county funds it needed to keep the site operational.

“I thank you all for your partnership, for your collaboration, please utilize this location,” Pierre said. “Our children need a facility and a place that is safe, that’s providing the families with the support that they need here in Suffolk County on the East End.” 

EAC Network’s board Chairperson John Durso and President/CEO Neela Mukherjee Lockel accept a certificate of appreciation from Riverhad Supervisor Yvette Aguiar on Aug. 1, Photo: Alek Lewis

During the press conference, Aguiar presented Lockel and EAC Network board Chairperson John Durso with a certificate of appreciation on behalf of the Town Board.

Durso said the work that staff does with children makes them “heroes.” He said his mother lived in foster care as a child and was burned by her foster family. “I haven’t thought about that in years. She grew up in downtown Brooklyn, they didn’t have this for her,” he said, referring to the child advocacy center. “But it stayed with her and I remember her talking to us about it.”

Durso urged Bellone, Suffolk County Legislator Al Krupski and Assembly Member Jodi Giglio to continue to support the EAC Network’s facility with funding from the county and state governments. 

“Bottom line is, this work can’t get done unless you guys come across with the dollars,” Durso said. “We could have fundraisers, we could have this, we could that, we could have these lovely speeches. It’s all nice. But if you don’t come through with the friggin’ dollars, we can’t do this,” he said.

“Alright, these people as it is, are doing God’s work,” Durso said, referring to the center’s employees. “They are all, as you said, the angels in our communities. They could be doing other things, but they’ve dedicated their lives to our community.”

The child advocacy center has been open since August 2019, but government officials only took the first tour of the facility prior to the press conference on the parking lot of the building Tuesday morning. EAC officials said an open house was planned in 2020, but had to be delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

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Alek Lewis is a lifelong Riverhead resident and a 2021 graduate of Stony Brook University’s School of Communication and Journalism. Previously, he served as news editor of Stony Brook’s student newspaper, The Statesman, and was a member of the campus’s chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Email: [email protected]