Jennifer Johnson of the Canopy Child Advocacy Center speaks to City Council.
Jennifer Johnson, execitive director of the Canopy Child Advocacy Center speaks to City Council. Credit: YouTube

A “forensic interview” or “medical exam” may sound scary to a child, especially one who has been a recent victim of abuse. But at Canopy Child Advocacy Center, a team of therapists and family advocates led by Executive Director Jennifer Johnson aims to make those pieces of a child abuse investigation less traumatic. 

Johnson recently made a public comment at a Cleveland City Council meeting to raise awareness and gain council’s support for agencies providing wraparound services for children and families, saying, “A lot of times people talk about intervention or prevention but not both.” 

Johnson invited Signal Cleveland to Canopy, where we saw a medical exam room with cartoons on the walls, dry-erase board tables in the interview rooms kids can write or draw on, and hidden cameras in the rooms to record and stream interviews, so children don’t have to retell their story to multiple investigators and prosecutors.

We also met Mike Bokmiller, the center’s director of Community Partnerships.  

About Beyond the Comment

Cleveland City Council devotes up to 30 minutes at its Monday night meetings to hear from residents. Some residents give public comments about issues that directly affect them and their communities, while others come as part of an organization or for their job. In Beyond the Comment, we catch up with some of the people who stepped up to the microphone.

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Can you explain what ‘wraparound services’ means?

Johnson: I think what we’ve learned over the years as social workers…is that to be able to provide everything in one place immediately takes away some of those barriers about having transportation from one place to another, having to schedule additional appointments. It also takes away the challenge around communication with each other for different providers. It makes the process and approach more integrated.  

Unfortunately, because of how our social service system is built, there’s lots of resources, but there’s applications, there’s red tape and processes that have to be followed that are really cumbersome. 

What actions would you like to see City Council take?

Johnson: Prioritizing the populations that we serve. Those kids that are at risk of abuse or are being abused, and supporting organizations that do that, including Canopy, and really utilizing their influence to recognize that these kids exist and really chip away at the level of abuse that’s happening with the mechanisms, support and ability that [council has.] 

If you want to believe in wraparound [services], we have to believe that we can actually wrap around together and provide services.… There’s so much more that we could do, and it makes me sad to think about how many times, you know, I see great initiatives that people put their efforts into that I’m like, “Oh… there’s like five other organizations that you could have included in that that, you know, have this awesome relationship with the community.”

Jennifer Johnson with fellow Canopy staff member, Alexa Toth.
Jennifer Johnson with fellow Canopy staff member, Alexa Toth. Credit: Jennifer Johnson / Canopy Child Advocacy Center

Do you feel that giving public comment was useful? Do you feel you were heard by City Council?

Johnson: I do feel like I was heard. When I was giving a public comment, I could see various council people listening to me and nodding their heads or acknowledging me. I think it was useful.

I don’t think that it is the sole way, though, to have a conversation with them, just because there’s so many people making public comment. So I think that you really want to capitalize on an opportunity you could have with City Council, that there’s a combination of public comment and in pursuing them one on one to inform them about things that are important to you as a constituent.

In your public comment, you mentioned wraparound services that  facilitate ‘healing and thriving.’ What does ‘healing and thriving’ look like to you?   

Johnson: I think we all have resiliency. We’re born with resiliency, it’s genetic. And then things happen to us that sort of force our ability to pull upon that resiliency.

Survivors that are able to overcome the negative effects of what happens when you’ve been abused have a lot of ability to navigate challenging experiences, because they didn’t have a choice but to navigate challenging experiences. They are assets in their communities, they’re able to help other people see the signs of child abuse, and recognize those, and understand and relate to people in a way that even [some] people who do this work [can’t] understand.

They are skilled normally at figuring out how to balance different things that are happening in their life because they, unfortunately, had to as a result of things that didn’t happen to them within their control. 

And generally, this is not always, but they generally are able to manage change in a different way in comparison to people who don’t happen to suddenly have a lot of change, because they, unfortunately, had to build coping skills quickly, and at a time that they shouldn’t have had to at all.

But that then manifests itself as survivors being able to be more adaptable and flexible and less rigid in certain situations. 

Bokmiller: The most important thing is always support, more than anything. Once [a child] recognizes that they have any one human – doesn’t have to be a ton, just one person – to support them, then they’re able to start feeling safe, and then that just slowly starts to change and undo a lot of everything that’s already happened to them. It gives them the ability to start making better decisions, safer decisions. 

Johnson: [Healed child abuse survivors] also tend to view the world differently. They’re less judgmental, they have different perspectives given their own experience. I think that is a good thing. It’s terrible what happened to them, but when they’re able to work through it and access that safety, experience that healing, it helps us have different perspectives in society. 

Being able to develop or understand and learn about what a healthy relationship is, and then being able to have healthier, intimate relationships in the future.

We do a lot of work around that with teenagers when we do engage with them. They have questions about, when they’ve been violated, what is it going to look like when they try to engage in a way that is healthy…should they? Will they? How does that work? And it’s a topic that’s so taboo that we don’t want to talk about it, but we have to, because they’re thinking about it.

To learn more about services provided by Canopy, call 216-574-HEAL (4325). If you or a child you know may be experiencing abuse, call 216-696-KIDS (5437).

Jennifer Johnson is a supporter of Signal Cleveland. We pride ourselves in transparency, see all our donors here.

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Gennifer Harding-Gosnell, Freelance Audio Producer(she/her)
Gennifer is a news writer returning to her first love, radio. She holds a MA in Journalism from Kingston University in the UK, and has spent the last couple years as a Cleveland Documenter.