Jackla Lawson is the Executive Director and SANE Coordinator for The Treehouse, the children’s advocacy center and sexual assault center in Thomasville, Georgia, serving Thomas County.

CACGA: What is The Treehouse CAC?

Jackla Lawson: The Treehouse is a children’s advocacy and sexual assault center in Thomasville serving Thomas County. The Treehouse provides a safe, comfortable environment for children to give their statements about abuse or witnessing a violent crime and to receive a sexual assault exam. The Treehouse operates under the multi-disciplinary approach working with numerous agencies involved in the investigation, intervention, and treatment of child abuse.

CACGA: What would you like the community to know about the professionals who work there?

Jackla Lawson: Each of our staff members, like many other professionals in the field, have a passion for the work they do. They recognize the need for services provided by The Treehouse Children’s Advocacy Center in our community and are committed to providing the best service possible to children and families in Thomas County. In addition to their heart for helping others, each staff person also has extensive training in the field of child abuse and sexual assault.

I am our Executive Director, SANE Coordinator, and conduct the majority of forensic interviews at The Treehouse. I began working in the field of child abuse and domestic violence in 2007 and have been the Executive Director of The Treehouse for 3 years. I hold a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from Valdosta State University and have received extensive training in the areas of child abuse, sexual assault, forensic interviewing, domestic violence, and victim advocacy. I conduct forensic interviews, schedule sexual assault examinations, facilitate multi-disciplinary team meetings, testify in court, write grant proposals and provide community awareness presentations in addition to other administrative tasks.

Natalie Scarbrough is the part-time Child and Family Advocate at The Treehouse. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Georgia. Before starting at The Treehouse in October 2013, Natalie was a special education teacher for 7 years. Natalie meets with families as they arrive at the center, enters all of our case information into the computer tracking system, makes all counseling/service referrals, and is the backup forensic interviewer when things get super busy. She is a wonderful asset to The Treehouse.

Dr. Amy Geer is the center’s Medical Director. She has been a practicing physician at Thomasville Family Medicine since 1998. Dr. Geer drafts and reviews all medical protocols and procedures. She supervises the center’s sexual assault nurse examiners and facilitates quarterly Peer Review sessions with the nurses. In addition to volunteering her time and expertise to the center’s medical program, she also serves on The Treehouse Board of Directors and Chairs the Fundraising Committee. Dr. Geer works very hard to make sure our center has the sustainability to continue to provide services for many years to come.

Heather Stroh and Jessica Mann are trained SANEs (Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners) who conduct sexual assault examinations at The Treehouse. Both Heather and Jessica have completed the Basic Adult/Adolescent SANE Training as well as the Pediatric SANE Training offered by the Georgia Network to End Sexual Assault (GNESA). Heather is now nationally certified in both Adult/Adolescent Examinations as well as Pediatric Examinations. Heather and Jessica are contract medical providers for The Treehouse. Our nurses conduct examinations, provide reports to law enforcement, provide follow-up information post-exam, testify in court, and maintain current continuing education hours.

CACGA: What would the Southern Judicial Circuit be without the center?

Photo; Jackla Lawson

Jackla Lawson, Executive Director of The Treehouse CAC in Thomasville, GA

Jackla Lawson: Prior to the establishment of The Treehouse, alleged victims of child abuse and sexual assault in Thomas County were forced to commute one hour to Valdosta or Albany to receive a forensic interview or sexual assault examination. We simply did not have the trained staff to provide these services within our county. This setup was not at all ideal and added stress to children and families already going through terrible situations. Several professionals from different agencies in our community saw the increasing need for these services and took action to establish a way to provide them in Thomas County.

The Treehouse has been fully operational since October 2011. We provide forensic interviews, sexual assault examinations, victim advocacy, service referrals, and many other services on site at our facility. Since that time, our staff has provided 262 forensic interviews and 108 sexual assault examinations to alleged victims of child abuse and sexual assault in Thomas County.

The community has been so wonderful to The Treehouse. Local foundations, businesses, civic clubs, church groups, schools, and individuals have shown their support of our cause and continue to do so. The startup funds for our center literally came from the people in Thomasville and Thomas County. We had to have money in the bank in order to work through the reimbursement grant we were awarded initially and the community made that happen. Without The Treehouse, children and families would have the long commute to receive services as well as the added stress and trauma associated with it. Think about how stressful and uncomfortable it would be to have an abuse incident or sexual assault happen and then sit in a car for an hour to and from the center providing the service. We are so thankful and proud of the community we serve for eliminating this problem in Thomas County.

CACGA: How can people in your community become involved?

Jackla Lawson: There are so many ways to get plugged in with The Treehouse and involved in our cause. We would all love to see an end to child abuse and sexual assault. Period. Yes, I along with many others would be without a job, but it would be for the best reason! Everyone can educate themselves about the signs of child abuse and sexual assault. If you would like help from our staff in explaining some of the signs we would be happy to coordinate a training presentation to you or a group. Knowing some of the most common signs can help you save a child from whatever is being done to them. Anyone can call law enforcement and your local DFCS office to report any known act or suspicion of child abuse. You can even call the state-wide hotline (1-855-GACHILD) if you feel uncomfortable calling your local offices. In addition to education, there are always things to be done at our center and we coordinate several special projects throughout the year. Give us a call to see how you can help if you would like to volunteer your time. Just like many other CACs we want EVERYONE to know about our center, but spreading the word is sometimes difficult with such a small staff. So since The Treehouse is still relatively new, yet another way to get involved would be to tell others about our center and the services we offer.

CACGA: Why do you do what you do professionally?

Jackla Lawson: I can’t begin to count how many times I have heard, “I don’t see how you do what you do.” or “There’s no way I could do that. I cannot believe that anyone would do that to a child!” I have no idea why I am able to do my job, but I feel my job is what I am meant to do. It is an amazing feeling to know that someone – a child – trusts you enough to tell you horrific things they may have experienced. Many adults can’t and won’t do that. The bravery children possess never ceases to amaze me. What I do is only a piece of the big puzzle that is put together each time a case arises. Each professional involved holds a piece to the puzzle, but I am the one that gets to talk to some truly awesome kids. This is what makes my job so amazing. Another great part of my job is working with a fabulous team of professionals who dedicate so much of their time and energy to keeping kids safe. They work long hours and have a tremendous amount of stress, but are willing to do it because it is such important work. They are there to take a stand and will do whatever it takes to keep kids safe and hold offenders accountable. I do what I do because I can’t think of any other work more important than keeping kids safe.