Nonprofit Spotlight: River Bridge helps our most vulnerable — abused kids

Caitlin Causey
Post Independent Correspondent
From left to right, service dog Frasier, Meghan Hurley, Lori Bennett, Bridget Derkash and Blythe Chapman.
Chelsea Self / Post Independent |

Before 2007, abused children in Garfield County had no centralized location where they could receive the help they needed. When River Bridge Regional Center opened its doors in December of that year, however, things changed.

“Before there was a child advocacy center in this area, these kids had to go through a much different process than they do now at River Bridge,” said Blythe Chapman, who has served as the Glenwood Springs-based organization’s executive director since 2011. “Before, a child might have disclosed information to a school counselor or someone they trusted, and then the police or human services would be contacted. A caseworker would come out, and attorneys might interview the child — sometimes at school, at home or even in the location where the abuse occurred.”

This swirl of individuals coming to children at various times and locations, Chapman said, often led the kids to feel even more afraid of talking about their abuse. The county’s disjointed protocol, though well-intended, was not effectively serving the community’s most vulnerable members.

“A task force was formed to help push through the idea of creating a solution, which included people involved with human services and other local agencies, plus Garfield County Sheriff Lou Vallario, who has remained very supportive of this cause,” Chapman recalled. “It took a lot of fundraising, but eventually River Bridge opened. The task force approached our county commissioners, who decided it was worth the time and money to bring something like this into our community.”

“I would estimate that less than 2 percent of offenders are true strangers.” Blythe ChapmanRiver Bridge director

River Bridge, housed in a small building on 21st Street, seeks to ensure that all abused children who enter its doors feel comfortable enough to disclose information about crimes committed against them.

“What we do is turn down the dial on a child’s anxiety, to allow the child to say what they need to say so that investigators can do their job. The idea of our center involves having a child come to one single place where all the necessary professionals involved in a case can then come to the child,” Chapman said. “It all happens here, and we are also able to refer kids for mental health and medical services.”

Chapman noted that the amount of time spent with each case varies widely. Some kids are sent to the center for a preliminary forensic interview, but do not disclose any details and never return for further services. Others, she said, are involved with River Bridge for years while their cases navigate the courts.

“Sometimes we might have a family of four interview here, and we will help them throughout the entire court process, no matter how long it takes,” Chapman said. “Our victim advocates will connect with them and support the family in court. The judicial process can be slow.”

In 2010, River Bridge received an important accreditation from the National Children’s Alliance. By 2012, it expanded services to children living in Pitkin, Eagle and Rio Blanco counties. Today the nonprofit is outgrowing its facility and is helping more kids than ever: in 2016 River Bridge saw a total of 208 children.

“This is a 23 percent increase over the previous year,” Chapman reported. “But this does not necessarily mean we’re seeing more abuse in our community — it just means we’re seeing a better response to what’s going on. We’re getting more referrals, and benefiting from a more collaborative approach between all the entities we work with. Plus, maybe kids are feeling more comfortable disclosing information now — and a level of comfort from them is so important.”

Chapman added that among the total number of children who came through River Bridge last year, 62 percent lived in Garfield County. Most of the kids were female, although boys still accounted for nearly a third of the group. And while River Bridge sees minors from 2 to 18 years old, 40 percent were in the 7-12 age range.

The most alarming statistic that many local residents wouldn’t expect, she said, relates not to the kids but to the perpetrators: more than 90 percent are known to the child they abuse.

“This could mean a parent, relative, family friend or some other person the child knows,” Chapman noted, adding that the vast majority of cases involve sexual abuse. “I would estimate that less than 2 percent of offenders are true strangers.”

All services at River Bridge are provided for free to abused children and their families. As the organization continues to expand, Chapman anticipates that the organization’s needs will continue to grow, as well.

“We are currently talking to Garfield County about a solid plan for physical growth over the next five years or so,” she said. “And our annual budget increases each year, but that’s normal. Our budget for 2017 is a little over $400,000.”

River Bridge receives a large portion of funding through federal, state and local grants but also from foundations and individual donors. Money raised at the nonprofit’s annual event are significant, as well; this year, the nonprofit will host “Imagine 5” on April 29 at the Old Thompson Barn in River Valley Ranch. The evening includes a silent auction, live music and food from local restaurants. Tickets are $50 and will be available at starting in March.

“Our community is really lucky to have a center where kids can go and feel believed and supported,” Chapman said. “It’s our job to make sure children don’t slip through the cracks.”

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