HANCOCK COUNTY — When they opened the front door and walked into the empty house, Bridget Foy asked for someone to pinch her, because she still couldn’t believe they’d found a place. Brent Eaton, on the other hand, remained stoic but allowed that he was still a bit overwhelmed by their good fortune.
“This is totally the vision,” Foy said, waving her arms to encompass the moment. “I can’t believe this is ours.”
Walking into the home at 953 West North St., the two county law enforcement officials were thrilled after looking for over a year-and-a-half for a structure where they could create Zoey’s Place — the Hancock County Child Advocacy Center.
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Foy, who specializes in sex-crimes cases for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, has been spearheading the idea to make a safe haven for county children who are victims of abuse, neglect and other crimes, a place where they can talk about their ordeals. The home will give investigators a friendlier place for children instead of having them recall terrifying moments in an uncomfortable environment such as a police station or a hospital.
“This will be the most major step forward for the protection of children in Hancock County for a generation,” said Eaton, the county prosecutor.
The Zoey’s Place board is renting the house for $877 a month. The home, which will be decorated to suit children and their families, has a nice-sized living room that will be transformed into a family waiting room. A front room will become an office for an executive director. A room in the back of the house is where the hard work will be done. It will be an interview area complete with recording devices where abused children can talk with a trained professional.
“We’ll decorate it in here and make it comfortable for children,” Foy said.
The house also has a kitchen, basement and an upstairs area where county officials with the program can hold conferences. Upstairs is also where officials plan to observe interviews with children from a remote, safe distance while at the same time offering feedback to the person talking to an abused child.
The house also has two entrances, a front door for families and a back door for investigators.
“It’s absolutely perfect,” Eaton said. “It couldn’t be better, the way it’s going to be set up.”
Officials found the house through a local Realtor who also happens to be on the Zoey’s Place board. They also found out the people who built the home included a woman who taught schoolchildren for years who was thrilled to learn the house is being put to good use, Foy said.
The house became the official site for Zoey’s Place late last week when the Greenfield Board of Zoning Appeals unanimously approved the project. The advocacy center needed a conditional use approval, since the house is in a residential area.
Jenna Wertman, Greenfield associate city planner, recommended approval of the conditional use at the board meeting, describing the property’s proposed use as low-impact. The advocacy center’s plans would retain the look of the house, and other than an addition of a sign, would come with very few changes to the property, she said.
Zoey’s Place board members are still waiting to learn if a federal grant will be approved in order for them to hire an executive director this year. If not, they’ll still do work at the facility, which they hope to open by the end of the year.
In the meantime, the county council granted $20,000 to Zoey’s Place for 2019 using revenue from the county food-and-beverage tax. Officials also plan to get a property committee together to help take care of the inside and outside of the home.
Eaton credited the program’s board, local law enforcement agencies and community members for stepping up and supporting the project by donating time and money to get an advocacy established.
“There are just so many ways where people who don’t have any direct connection to the program have come through for the kids in this county,” Eaton said.
Zoey’s Place is named after 1-year-old Zoey Wagoner of Greenfield, who died four years ago after suffering repeated physical abuse, an autopsy revealed. Authorities documented at least 50 injuries to Zoey’s body before her death in a house on Wood Street in May 2015.
Zoey’s parents, Matthew Wagoner and Jessica Merriman, are both serving lengthy prison sentences for their role in her death.
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“It’s absolutely perfect. It couldn’t be better, the way it’s going to be set up.”
Brent Eaton, county prosecutor