Center Cares for Abused Children

“We’re the best-kept secret in Culpeper County,” said
Brian Cook, director of community resources at the Alice
C. Tyler Village of Childhelp East in Lignum. The village
is a treatment center for some of the most seriously
abused and neglected children in Virginia.

Then-First Lady Barbara Bush cut a ribbon on the
property at its opening in 1991. The first 12 children
arrived in 1993. Now 52 kids, between 2 and 12 years
old, live at Tyler Village at any one time, for an average
stay of nine to 14 months.
Childhelp USA is the private nonprofit organization
that runs the village. Childhelp is familiar to many in
Culpeper as the organization that administers the Head
Start program here.
The group, which was founded in 1959, is better
known around the country for its around-the-clock
child-abuse-prevention hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD or
TDD: 1-800-2-A-CHILD). This line is staffed by
counselors and psychologists and is available to anyone
who is a victim of or witness to abuse. “We’re dedicated
to the prevention, treatment and eventual eradication of
child abuse,” said Cook.
Childhelp runs public-education and abuse-prevention
programs, foster homes and placement services, in-home
counseling services, training programs and volunteer
chapters. Childhelp’s office in Falls Church can be
reached at (703) 241-9100 or on the web at
childhelpva.org.
The group purchased The Rapidan River Farm in
Lignum in 1991. The 270-acre property had earlier been a
Morgan horse farm and belonged to the family of John
Hagan. The Hagans’ house and guest house have been
converted into buildings that meet the needs of the
village, and a number of other buildings have been erected
nearby, forming a central square containing playground
equipment.
Most but not all of the children, Cook said, come from
poor families with little economic or educational
opportunity, and from families with a history of child
abuse in previous generations.
“Many [of the children] have been physically,
emotionally and sexually abused. Many are victims of
neglect or have been homeless for years at a time . . . All
are severely emotionally disturbed. Their socialization
skills are not good. They’re not functioning at grade
level. Many have not been in school regularly. It piles up:
the signs of physical abuse, the emotional trauma, the
lack of school.”
Some of the kids, Cook said, are victims of fetal
alcohol syndrome or became addicted to cocaine in utero.

*****
Cook has been on the job in Lignum for four years,
but he has 20 years’ experience in human services, toiling
at everything from hospital work to eight years of service
with the Sisters of Mother Theresa at a hospice in
Washington, D.C. He has also worked at group homes for
people with Alzheimer’s.
For its 52 kids, Tyler Village has a staff of 130 with
one counselor for every four children. The staff includes
psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers, occupational
and physical therapists and a school faculty for five
classrooms, plus administrative and food-services
personnel. Some of the kids are able to attend Culpeper
County schools, but most go to school on the grounds of
the village, where they also receive therapeutic help.
“The greatest percentage of the staff,” Cook said, “are
child-care counselors. They have bachelor’s degrees in
social science, most in psychology. These are people who
have a desire to make a difference. It’s got to virtually be
a calling to work here. You have to bring your head and
your heart to the job every day.” Heidi Lynch, a social
worker, said the work is very hard, but “I do it for the
kids.”
When they leave the village, Cook said, 65 percent of
the kids go into some form of foster care. “We recruit
parents, train them and compensate them.”
Childhelp staff visit foster homes every week after a
child is placed, as well as working with the parents before
placement. Similar help is given to the families of those
kids who are able to return to their previous homes (about
30 percent). Five percent of the kids go to another facility
with “a significant amount of structure.”
In some cases, Childhelp pays for children to be able
to visit their parents during their treatment. And in some
cases parents stay at the village briefly in order to
participate in the process.
According to Cook, there were 52,000 cases of child
abuse reported in Virginia last year. That’s 1,000 times
the capacity of Tyler Village. Some of the reports may
have been false, and many cases of child abuse can be
handled by a social worker without removing a child from
home.
Cook said he could not be sure how many more kids
would benefit from coming to the village. “I’d guess if we
had 20 more beds we’d fill them.” Cook said there are
similar, but not identical, facilities elsewhere in the state.
Tyler Village is licensed for 52 beds by the Virginia
Department of Mental Health, Retardation and
Substance-Abuse Services. The 52 beds are always full.
In February the village was accredited by the Joint
Commission on the Accreditation of Health Care
Organizations. Cook said the state pays for kids’ stays at
the village, but that the buildings have been constructed
with money from foundations, corporations and local
businesses and individuals.

*****
“This is a place where children can heal, learn to trust
appropriately and experience success,” said the director.
The school on grounds is taught with a teacher and an
aide for every 10 students. Cook said an attempt is made
to use the grounds in the education process, taking
advantage of the ponds, woods, wetlands and river.
“Our children cannot always learn in a traditional
way.” Working outside, they are able to “apply lessons.”
They are also taught concern for the environment. This
focus is indicated on the signs at the entrance to the
village, which read “Serving children and the
environment.”
“Part of the joy here is the setting,” said Cook. On the
grounds are three fish ponds kept stocked for the kids to
fish from, 23 horses for a year-round therapeutic riding
program, a summer swimming pool for Red Cross
swimming instruction, a gymnasium with a staff and
numerous programs, a ropes confidence course, horse and
biking trails (every child is given a new bicycle and
helmet) and a go-cart track.
“We want the kids to work hard and learn to
experience success, but we also want them to experience
the joy of being a child.”
The kids live in group homes where they are helped in
learning social skills. Staff members do not sleep on
grounds, but work in shifts so someone is always present
and awake. Several of the homes have four bedrooms with
four beds each, plus a kitchen and living area.
Other programs offered include art therapy and a new
charitable effort. “We have developed a program,” Cook
said, “to help them develop an awareness of the need to
reach out to others.”
He said the kids visit a food bank in Fredericksburg
where they sort and put together packages for the needy.
They also visit Carriage Hill Nursing Home, where they
play checkers with the residents and help with therapeutic
activities. Cook said both the children and the residents of
the nursing home have experienced loss, and that they
seem to do very well together.

*****
Childhelp USA Lake of the Woods Auxiliary is a
volunteer group that assists at Tyler Village. To become
involved, call (540) 972-0572.
Many members of this group have become “special
friends” of individual children at the village, visiting them
occasionally. “It’s a real boost to a child’s treatment,”
Cook said.
One day last month a woman brought her dog to play
with her special friend. She said she was able to come
only about once a month, but sent postcards when she
was traveling.
Cook said that only about a quarter of the kids have
special friends, and that many more are needed. But it can
be tough, he warned. “The kids can be confrontational.
They have reason not to trust people.”

*****
Walking around the village, one does not notice any
signs of abuse or emotional difficulties. Someone who
hadn’t been informed might assume the place was an
especially nice summer camp where they bought all the
kids clothes and bicycles.
But many of these youths have never had bicycles
before, and some arrived with clothes they could not use.
One girl, Cook said, arrived with all her possessions in a
garbage bag. The clothes smelled of urine, so the staff
threw them away and went shopping for new ones.
For four years, from 1994 to 1997, there was a
summer camp at the village for kids from the community.
Cook said it took too much effort away from the village’s
main focus and was discontinued.
After seven years in operation, Cook said, they are
beginning to see signs of success in the growing children
who have been through the Tyler Village program.
Tyler Village will break ground this summer on a new
learning center with four classrooms and an art-therapy
center. To an untrained eye the place already appears to
have enough facilities to serve many more than 52
children. “Believe me,” said Cook. “With the services
they need, 52 kids keeps us hopping.”