April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month. It’s unthinkable that we even need to have an officially designated month for something so heinous, but sadly there are more than 3-million cases of child abuse each year in the United States alone (and that’s just those that are reported). One in 10 children will be sexually abused before they turn 18; that’s 400,000 kids every year.
Luckily, there is one organization that focuses on cutting those numbers year-round: Mission Kids. An advocacy center for kids in Montgomery County, its mission is to help achieve healing and justice for victims of child abuse. Our profile this week is new Mission Kids Development Director Chuck Watkins.
PGN: So where are you originally from?
CW: Pittsburgh. I grew up about 7 miles from downtown and stayed there to attend the University of Pittsburgh. I was just back there for my sister’s birthday. Pittsburgh is going through a renaissance right now; they’re starting to be called the new Portland. There’s a lot of big tech industry buying in; Google has a big presence there, Apple has offices, Uber has been doing tests there with the self-driving cars. There’s a lot of innovation going on. It was pretty cool to see.
PGN: An ex-girlfriend of mine started buying some investment property there a while back and she liked it so much she moved there for a while.
CW: Yes, the cost of living is very doable and there are a lot of little hot areas being gentrified. There’s one section called East Liberty that used to be really nice, then went downhill and now they’re going through a new renaissance. Good and bad sides to that of course.
PGN: Tell me a little about your family.
CW: I had a pretty typical middle-class upbringing. My mom passed away about nine years ago, my dad is sort of seeing someone else, nothing special. I have an older brother and younger sister who both still live in Pittsburgh. I’m kind of like Jan Brady, the neglected middle child.
PGN: I’m the middle child too! What was a favorite family outing?
CW: My grandparents had a cabin in upstate New York that we would always go to and it was fun just hanging out with the family and going down to the creek and just being able to relax with everybody. Another good memory is going down to Ocean City and Wildwood as a kid. We were able to go to the beach, which was great because there isn’t a lot of beachfront in Pittsburgh! It’s much more accessible here in Philadelphia than it was for me as a kid. So that was always fun, walking on the boardwalk and playing on the beach.
PGN: The funniest person in the family?
CW: Hmmm, it depends on who you ask but I think that it would probably be me. I have a little bit of a sarcastic bent, but my sister is pretty close.
PGN: What was a favorite game as a kid?
CW: I remember playing cards with my grandmother. And I remember playing badminton at my aunt and uncle’s house, which was a lot of fun too.
PGN: What was your first job?
CW: Wow, that’s going back quite some time. My first job was a paper route. My brother did a different route than me so we would go out together, side by side, and deliver the papers. I don’t know if that job even exists anymore.
PGN: I always wanted to do that but my family was not exactly morning people. My friends used to tease me because we’d roll out of bed at 11 a.m. for brunch when they’d been up for hours.
CW: We weren’t really either. The paper route was in the afternoon after school. The only morning route was on Sundays and my dad was a trooper; he’d get up and drive us around. It was fun.
PGN: Was it lucrative?
CW: I’d say so. We made about $100 a week, which was pretty good for a kid. My parents liked it because we never had to bug them for money, we had our own.
PGN: Wow! I missed out. So what did you study in college?
CW: I was an English major at the University of Pittsburgh but I ended up getting a job in banking with PNC Bank. I had some friends who lived here in Philly and came to visit quite a few times. I liked it so much I got transferred to a branch in Philly. From there, I went to Citizens Bank and then a different bank. But they had me doing sales and it really wasn’t what I wanted to do. I was under a lot of pressure to open up new accounts for people who didn’t necessarily need them, à la Wells Fargo, and I wasn’t comfortable with it. So I went back to Pittsburgh and got a job at a small liberal-arts school, Point Park University, where I got my start in development and earned an MBA. Eventually, I got a job at Chestnut Hill College here in Philadelphia and now I’m with Mission Kids.
PGN: Where I heard a lot about your first big event — a fundraiser at the Franklin Institute that was apparently very successful.
CW: Yes, that was a great event. We had over 200 people attend. We honored Attorney General Josh Shapiro and raised a lot of money for a good cause.
PGN: Explain what the organization does, and what the need is.
CW: Mission Kids is a child-advocacy center. Our mission is to provide hope and healing to survivors of child abuse in Montgomery County. Oftentimes when child abuse is reported, the child involved is required to participate in multiple interviews, in sterile or scary places like police departments or child-welfare offices or courtrooms. Each time, they’re forced to relive the horrors of the abuse as they have to tell their story again and again to different authorities. The process can be very drawn out and traumatic to many children and by the time they go to court they’ve had enough; they don’t have the strength or desire to continue and the abuser gets off because the child has been through too much to testify. What we do is work with law enforcement and a team of experts. We bring the child into the center — which is a warm, child-friendly environment — and they are interviewed by a specially trained, legally sound forensic interviewer. Representatives of the D.A.’s Office, law enforcement and social services work together as a multidisciplinary team and they can observe — but don’t participate in – the interview as it takes place. They ask any questions they have through the Mission Kids advocate so there’s only one person that the kid has to talk to. The interviews are taped so the different parties that need it have access without the child having to retell the story over and over. We had a mother and child here recently and as they walked out, the child turned to her and said, “Now everything starts new for me, my life can begin again,” and that shows me how worthwhile the work is. It’s an honor to be a part of it.
PGN: That’s great, and smart.
CW: Yes, and that person becomes their advocate from the first day through the trial or court process, and the entire healing process to provide support, information, referral services, victim’s-compensation assistance, court support and other assistance. They work with both the victims and their non-offending caregivers. We also do a lot of proactive work to educate people about the signs of child abuse and how to protect children. We have a program called Darkness to Light that can be taught to professionals who work with children and a general public-awareness presentation that we can provide free of cost to any community organization, business or corporate group that would like to learn more about child sexual abuse and Mission Kids.
PGN: How big is the problem there? Can you share some statistics?
CW: Sure. In 2016, Mission Kids served over 520 children in Montgomery County, which goes from more urban areas like Norristown to rural areas like Bluebell and Pottstown. Sixty-seven percent were females, 32 percent were males. Twenty-one percent were 2-6 years old, 35 percent were 7-12 years old and 44 percent were 13-17 years old.
PGN: Sheesh. We always warn kids about stranger danger but I’ve read that most cases are perpetrated by people who are known to the victims: teachers, preachers, coaches.
CW: Yes, 83 percent of the alleged offenders were known to the child. So often they’re people who ingratiate themselves into the kids’ lives and are purported to be pillars of society. But also horrific is that 46 percent of the offenders were family members, including parents, stepparents, grandparents, siblings or other extended family members. Only 2 percent were strangers or unknown persons.
PGN: Well, I’m glad you guys are on the case. Changing the tone here, how do you put the fun in fundraising?
CW: We had a great time at the Franklin Institute and for the next event we are thinking about a SoulCycle ride where people can get friends and family to sponsor them and can ride to raise money to fight child abuse. I think it’ll be a lot of fun. We’re lucky that we have a lot of very-involved board members who do third-party events for us. One of them recently hosted a clothing trunk sale and we got a portion of the proceeds. We’re open to all ideas that help us raise money to help the kids.
PGN: What do you like to do in your spare time?
CW: I like to run, walk around Center City to see what new things are happening. I like trying different restaurants, I like movies and I love to travel.
PGN: What’s a favorite new restaurant?
CW: I just went to a place called Mission Taqueria, which is right above the Oyster House.
PGN: Worst movie of all time?
CW: Hmmm, so many. The one that comes to mind is “Maid in Manhattan” with Jennifer Lopez and Ralph Fiennes. My friend and I walked out, we both thought so poorly of it.
PGN: What was an early sign you were gay?
CW: I think I always knew I was a little different. Most of my friends were girls and … oh, this is going to sound so stereotypical but I used to do my sister’s hair. I also remember being in elementary school and a male teacher leaning in close to me to show me something and feeling little butterflies. Nothing happened, it was just that little feeling that my feelings were different. I didn’t act on anything until I was in my teenage years when I found other kids who were like me. It was great, I started hanging out with a new group of friends instead of staying home by myself as usual.
PGN: Who was your first love?
CW: My first love was Chris Dixon; I was 20 years old. He was a great guy, beautiful but with a bevy of personal demons. He unfortunately committed suicide. I still remember going to the morgue to retrieve a note he left for me. Seems like forever ago. Very sad.
PGN: That is sad. When did you come out to the family?
CW: I can still remember sitting in a chair while my mother was ironing and telling her that the new friends I’d been hanging out with were gay. She said, “OK, are you gay?” I said yes, and that was pretty much the extent of my coming out. There was never an issue.
PGN: Feature you get the most compliments on?
CW: My legs. I am tall and I run so I guess they are appealing to people! I do enjoy wearing shorts in the summer so I guess that says something.
PGN: Who would you choose as your partner on “The Amazing Race”?
CW: Is that show still on? I would choose Rafa Nadal. I think he’d be fun; he certainly can be quick and, well, he’s just completely handsome.
PGN: They couldn’t pay me enough to be …
CW: A window washer. I see these guys coming down skyscrapers and I simply don’t know how they do it! I would be frozen in fear. No, thank you!
PGN: Last person you talked to?
CW: Last person I talked to in person was my Uber driver from last night. I live alone and haven’t spoken to anyone in person today. But I did speak to you on the phone!
PGN: And I thank you for it!
For more information about Mission Kids, visit http://missionkidscac.org.
To suggest a community member for Family Portrait, email [email protected].