Andrea Hernandez, left, and Andrea Ramos-Topper of the EAC Network,...

Andrea Hernandez, left, and Andrea Ramos-Topper of the EAC Network, a Garden City-based nonprofit social services agency that has opened a child services center in Riverhead to serve children, youths and families on the East End who are victims of abuse. Credit: John Roca

A center in Riverhead devoted to assisting child victims of abuse and their families is trying to reconnect with the community after seeing its initial efforts interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When EAC Network, a Garden City-based nonprofit social services agency whose acronym stands for “Empower, Assist & Care,” decided to open a child advocacy center at 940 Roanoke Ave. in 2019, officials hoped to fill the gap of providing a safety net for children, youths and families on the East End who are victims of abuse — sexual or otherwise. The distance and geography of the East End make it difficult to access services they need, said Neela Mukherjee Lockel, president and CEO of EAC Network.

“We have a fully operational center in Central Islip, but we realized that people on the East End were not able to access our services in the same way just because it can feel like a very long ride if you’re coming from Cutchogue or Montauk,” Lockel said.

The center — which is open 24/7 and helped 95 children last year and upward of 70 in 2019 and 2020, according to center officials — provides a “child-friendly environment” where youths and children struggling with abuse can be interviewed by law enforcement, child protective services and medical staff in a comfortable setting, according to Andrea Ramos-Topper, the child advocacy center division director for EAC Network.

Bilingual advocates on staff are also available at the center, as well as trained medical providers who can conduct exams for injuries, pregnancies, infections and other medical issues, Ramos-Topper said. Family advocates are also on hand to assist those experiencing food insecurity or who need help with holiday gifts, back-to-school supplies or other support, as well as individual support such as referrals to food pantries, assistance with paperwork and other matters.

“Our family advocates really are the heart and soul of [the center] because that’s where the families receive that sort of response that they need,” Ramos-Topper said.

Despite opening in 2019, center officials said the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 slowed their ability to provide services, in part due to the underreporting of child-abuse cases during that time. Lockel said those reports have started to tick upward after children began returning to school. Since then, the center, which held an open house in August, has been attempting to reconnect with the East End community and spread word of its services in Riverhead.

Town Supervisor Yvette Aguiar said the town board recently committed to allocating $25,000 through American Rescue Plan Act funding to the nonprofit.

Looking ahead, Lockel said the center’s biggest goal is to spread awareness of its existence so people know there is help for them and their children.

“We want to make sure that our partners are fully aware that this East End CAC [child advocacy center] is available, it is a resource, we have buckets of information that shows that utilizing a space like this to explore allegations of child abuse is really important and helpful,” Lockel said.

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