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Saturday, May 26, 2018
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Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Tampa’s children are thriving under Mary Lee’s tree

You might think that, even in our imperfect world, children would be up there near the top in our list of priorities. And I think, when we become more aware of their circumstances, we do step up and act.

Maybe the keyword is “awareness.’’ Terrible things happen to children, and especially young girls in our community, but we don’t like to talk about them. We leave it to agencies and law enforcement to go in and straighten out our domestic tragedies.

I stopped by Mary Lee’s House last week at the urging of my old friend John Germany (think former judge, WWII tank commander, USF founder and John Germany Library), who said more people needed to know what is happening there.

Mary Lee’s House is a child abuse assessment center on North Armenia. It is named for Mary Lee Farrior. A couple of weeks ago Farrior was honored at the Governor’s Luncheon at the Florida State Fair by the Tampa Metro Civitan Club as its Citizen of the Year in front of nearly 900 people. It is a huge honor.

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I was particularly interested because I remember writing about Hillsborough County’s assessment center 30 years ago when it was in a trailer out on Henry Street next to the Suicide and Crisis Center.

Imagine being a 6- or 7-year-old child who has been beaten or tortured and finds himself after midnight in a police car being taken to a double-wide trailer in the middle of nowhere to be questioned and then shipped off to whatever his fate was going to be. That’s the way it was done. There was no real coordination, and child welfare agencies and services were all over the county.

The bad news is that as a society we still abuse children ... in record numbers.

Mary Lee’s House will have been open for five years in April. In that time it will have served some 13,000 clients, mostly children, who still find themselves often in the dead of night being carried off to some unknown place.

The difference is that Mary Lee’s House is designed to be a welcoming place for children.

You come inside the lobby, and it is comfortable and spread out under an oak tree that appears so real you wonder where the ants are.

Five agencies are headquartered in the building to coordinate programs to prevent shipping kids around the county.

The Healthy Start Coalition, the Crisis Center, the Children’s Advocacy Center, the Child Protection Team and Success for Kids and Families all have areas.

There are medical facilities and representatives from court and law enforcement in this 24-hour facility.

There are ample interview rooms, including rooms that have video recording and the ability to connect and talk with judges over live cameras so the children won’t have to go to the courthouse downtown.

The facility owes its existence to Farrior, who has spent years working with kids. About 90 percent of the expenses are paid for by donations. Its location near I-275 and local hospitals is away from the downtown courts and intimidating buildings.

I mean it is what it is. It is an assessment center and the children who come here are hurting emotionally if not physically.

But it is also an example of the way we should be working to protect our children, and we owe a debt of gratitude to Mary Lee Farrior for showing us the way. I wish we had a similar facility for dealing with elder abuse in Hillsborough County.

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