“THEY KEEP ME GOING BACK EVERY DAY”
Those were Jana Zuelzke’s words as she explained how courageous children keep her devoted to the difficult yet rewarding work of child advocacy. She shared, “These kids are pretty amazing. We get to witness it every day. Kids going through things I could never imagine. It is amazing to see how they can overcome it.”
Jana serves as the Executive Director of the Butterfly Bridge Child Advocacy Center in Chilton County, Alabama. The CAC offers a safe, child-friendly environment to children victimized by abuse or neglect to provide restoration and justice in their lives. For 10 years, she has led Butterfly Bridge to provide services to children and families impacted by abuse. These services include forensic interviews, family advocacy, and therapy, all within the confines of a caring, comfortable atmosphere.
AN ACCIDENT, BUT NOT REALLY
Jana got into child advocacy work “almost on accident” in 2004 when she heard about an internship at Child Protect, a child advocacy center in Montgomery, Alabama. But the legacy of her grandparents suggests that this was not completely accidental. Jana’s grandmother had been very involved in advocating for victim rights and services; she was a part of an organization called VOCAL and would travel to Montgomery to support victims. This activism had been prompted by a tragedy in the family when Jana was a young child. As a result, Jana didn’t grow up with a romanticized view of the world; she was in tune with the fact that bad things happen to people.
So having completed a master’s degree in psychology and taken criminal justice courses, a role at Child Protect ended up being a “perfect mix” for her interests and gifts. She “fell in love” with the mission of child advocacy centers and the focus on helping children heal from traumatic experiences. As time went on, the need for more services in the rural regions of Central Alabama became more glaring. Chilton County children were struggling with the long drive to Montgomery and were severely underserved in terms of therapy. The distance was also putting a strain on the Chilton County law enforcement, who had to drive all the way to Montgomery and sacrifice time for other cases. To meet this need, Jana helped start a satellite office in Chilton County – the furthest county from Child Protect – in 2009.
THE BUTTERFLY HOUSE IS BORN
By 2012, the office transitioned into an independent CAC under the name, Butterfly Bridge. And since Autauga and Elmore Counties were in the same judicial circuit as Chilton, it only made sense that Butterfly Bridge expanded to two satellite offices in those counties. Jana’s former mentee at Child Protect, Emily Hutcheson, joined the effort to help start these two offices in 2017.
Many CACs are simply named by their county or judicial district, but Jana’s is different. Instead of Chilton County CAC, they are named Butterfly Bridge, a name derived from a girl who kept calling the center “the Butterfly House” whenever she returned to the facility. Jana thought the butterfly image was so fitting given that butterflies start out ugly, but eventually transform into beautiful creatures. As an analogy to the CAC, the butterfly symbolizes how abused children can also transform after an ugly incident and embrace a hopeful future. Needless to say, Butterfly Bridge’s mission is not only to assist investigative partners in solving cases and helping to bring justice; they also aim to bring healing, restoration, and victory for the victims.
“EVERY COUNTY IS DIFFERENT”
Each county has its own unique hurdles in the fight against child abuse. In Chilton County, the most rural of the three Butterfly offices, a constant challenge is the limited law enforcement resources. The local agencies only have a few detectives available to investigate and they already have heavy caseloads outside of child cases.
The residents also need consistent reminders that child abuse is not a far-away issue, but something that exists in their own community. Jana understands the discomfort of acknowledging the dark elements but knows its importance: “You don’t want to think about the bad things that happen in your wonderful county, but this is happening right here in Central Alabama.”
There can also be challenges with parents or guardians, who struggle to understand the complex emotions a child endures during and after the abuse. Jana has seen families neglect the CAC therapy services after the forensic interview was completed. In such instances, Jana advises the adults to eventually bring the child to therapy because the child will likely start to express the pain in negative ways.
And even in rural Alabama, the dangers of social media lie in wait. Jana easily recalled an incident where a child in Chilton County was targeted through Instagram by a predator who lived on the West Coast.
With all these emotionally heavy situations, one may wonder how a CAC director and her staff can “leave work behind” and decompress. Jana doesn’t pretend like it is easy: “You have to be intentional to interact with family, take a walk, or be part of a church because it is easy to just go into your shell after a hard day.” Jana’s awareness of the emotional burden on her staff has affected how she structures the work schedule. She encourages her staff to take a walk after a difficult case or go to the coffee shop before the next family comes in.
THE WORK IS NOT DONE
What has tremendously helped the emotional nature of CAC work is moving into a renovated house in early 2022. The previous location didn’t have enough space and lacked a calming effect as it was in the middle of the town. After working with the City of Clanton, Butterfly Bridge now has a stand-alone “forever home” in a quiet neighborhood that provides a more comfortable environment for both children and staff.
But there is more to be done. The new campus will go into “Phase Two” of its development with a second facility that will house a medical exam room, conference room, and therapy spaces. Jana was greatly motivated by kids who must travel to a big city like Birmingham or Montgomery for a forensic medical exam. The additional building will help eliminate that travel and allow children to get the exam done in a more private, comfortable space.
When asked how she has accomplished so much and why she can be ambitious for more, Jana gave credit to those around her: “Wonderful communities, boards and advisory groups that believe in the work.” Surely, the residents, boards, and advisory groups would give the credit right back to Jana. With this support system and Jana as their leader, Butterfly Bridge is set up to be a safe haven for many years to come.
The ribbon cutting ceremony in 2022: