Inside a one-story house in Central Islip where teddy bears and toys greet children, a team of doctors, psychologists and county investigators helps minors come forward with painful allegations of sexual abuse.
The Suffolk Child Advocacy Center is a safe haven that was developed in response to the high-profile case of Katie Beers, who 20 years ago was held captive in an underground bunker for 17 days.
The recent release of a book she co-authored, recounting the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her captor, John Esposito, and earlier in her life by a surrogate caretaker, has thrust the case back into the spotlight. It reminds Long Island child advocates about the role the case played in prompting changes in the handling of sex abuse claims.
"All the things that were wrong in the Katie Beers case are corrected here," said outgoing Suffolk Social Services Commissioner Gregory J. Blass recently at the center.
The kid-friendly center, which opened in 1997, was one of several changes adopted by Suffolk County in response to Beers' abduction. It's meant to spare children from having to repeat details of their ordeal numerous times to a bevy of investigators in intimidating settings such as a police station, as Beers did.
Creating the center, which annually treats some 500 children, was a key recommendation issued by a grand jury convened by then Suffolk District Attorney James Catterson in 1994 to examine Child Protective Services in the wake of the Beers case.
The 80-page grand jury report criticized the agency for having lax monitoring, shoddy record-keeping and ill-trained caseworkers.
In response to the report, CPS caseworkers, Suffolk Police Special Victims Unit detectives and the district attorney's office now routinely share information throughout an investigation to try to prevent cases from falling through the cracks, Blass said. They also hold monthly meetings at the center to discuss cases and catch possible trends in sex abuse crimes.
CPS caseworkers also now carry digital cameras to document physical abuse complaints and receive training in forensic photography from the police, Blass said.
The county also has changed how it trains new hires, placing them in "training groups" where they can receive added attention, instead of putting them directly into an investigations team, where Blass said they often had a hard time keeping up with more experienced workers.
Beers' discovery by police on Jan. 13, 1993, also coincided with a series of Suffolk legislative hearings that were held at that time to discuss deficiencies with CPS.
Kevin Lucey, who served as a school psychologist at West Babylon Junior High for 34 years before retiring in 2006, was one of dozens who testified then, blasting the agency for not responding quickly enough when he forwarded abuse complaints from students.
Today, Lucey said that while he remained critical of CPS' handling of physical abuse cases up until his retirement, he did notice improvements in the handling of sex abuse cases. "I don't know that overall things got better since my testimony at the hearing," he said. "I think what they really got better at was the sex abuse cases and the sensitivity in how they handle those cases."
"The child advocacy center movement grew out of cases like this," said Anthony Zenkus, director of education for the coalition. "The need for an integrated approach became more obvious."
Back in Suffolk, Andrea Ramos-Topper, regional director of children's services for Education and Assistance Corp., a Hempstead-based nonprofit contracted by the county to run the center, said she hopes Beers one day can visit the facility.
"Had it not been for her, the center may not have opened up, at least not when it did," Ramos-Topper said. "I hope she realizes the impact she has made on hundreds and hundreds of children."