The Ellis County Child Advocacy Center is under new leadership and headed in a fresh direction.

Leslie Deen started in May as new executive director of the Gingerbread House and has a plan to advance programs and expand the staff to raise the standard. With deeps routes in Waxahachie, Deen plans for the center to continue to thrive in the community and grow to suit the needs of children who suffer from abuse.

Deen is a 1992 Waxahachie High School graduate, and her grandmother is Margret Felty, who Felty Elementary School is named after. Following in Felty's footsteps, Deen has remained heavily involved with Waxahachie ISD, contributing over 300 volunteer hours this past school year. She also serves on the high school theatre department board, and her son is involved in the theatre program.

“That’s what is the most fun to me is that I grew up in this community and these are my people,” Deen expressed. “People that I’ve known all of my life. And there are new people coming into Waxahachie. So it’s a great mix.”

Dean attended Howard Payne University, where she obtained a degree in social work and is scheduled to graduate with a master of business administration from Westen Governers University in December. She started her career at New Horizons, a residential treatment center, where she worked with profoundly disturbed children. Dean has an extensive background in the diverse programs New Horizon offered.

She worked with children who disclosed horror stories and through her experience, she is knowledgeable about how to create a supportive atmosphere at uncomfortable times.

After Deen moved from Goldthwaite back to Waxahachie, she worked for A World for Children as the regional director. Geographically, the program reached from Ellis County to Texarkana and Fort Worth.

She then developed her own consulting firm.

“My hope was to go in and help small child placing agencies to raise the bar,” Deen elaborated. “We started doing that and then this job fell in my lap.”

Deen has a passion for helping others and said her gift of collaboration and creative problem solving is ideal as the executive director.

“I love helping people and developing programs that help people,” Deen shared.

Deen is all about growth, which is a trending topic in Ellis County. The growth foreshadows more victims of abuse who will need to be served through the Gingerbread House. So far, Gingerbread House forensic interviewers have conducted over 300 interviews in the 2017—18 fiscal year.

The Gingerbread House has provided family advocacy through family intervention for 189 families, family education for 116 families, and assisted 116 families to apply for crime victim's compensation. Deen hopes is to increase the number of families served through family intervention, education, groups, parental support and therapeutic services in the next year.

“We need to be prepared for that and should have been prepared for growth five to 10 years ago,” Deen disclosed. “But we are here now and there has been some wonderful work that has been done here in that past and I want to honor that but also now that we are, let’s have the opportunity to grow and provide more services to people.”

ADDRESSING EMPLOYEE TURNOVER

One aspect Deen addressed to be imperative is staff turnover. She is focused on supervising her team, so they get support when needed. Deen wants to have a pulse of what is going on with her staff.

Her thought is that the administration, forensic interviewers and the counseling team need to consistently collaborate.

“Some of those interviews can be very difficult for interviewers to listen to and they cannot work in a bubble,” Deen shared. “They need people too — either peer groups or a supervisor to be able to handle being able to vent to, and share that they need a mental health time.”

She added, “If I don’t have a clue as to what's going on over there, then how am I able to support them because this is my responsibility — the success of the whole program.”

Deen will also cross train the family advocates and forensic interviewers, so they do not become burnt out. With two people understanding the jobs, the team can lean on each other and have more of an understanding of what the other is going through.

Another critical ideal for Deen is that each team member has ownership of her responsibilities. When Deen arrived, everyone on staff completed a survey to explain what they would like to see change and how they can fulfill their position and maintain their passion. Deen acknowledged her team’s expertise and how each team member is instrumental in developing each aspect of the Gingerbread House.

“It is as much as their program as it is mine,” Deen explained. “It brings a sense of ownership and pride and purpose — thinking about the future.”

A LOT OF FIRSTS

When Deen started in May, one of the first purchases she made was to advance the technology. The board of directors was quick to purchase laptops and new computers for the staff, as the previous equipment was outdated and slow.

Deen also contacted the Child Advocacy Centers of Texas, which is where the grant money funnels. The organization also oversees the Gingerbread House operations and provides support.

When Deen called CACTX, “One of the first things she said was that Patrick Wilson is a champion for kids. I think that’s something the district attorney's office doesn’t hear often about how good they are doing. It is a very important part — we could have perfect forensic interviews but if we don’t have qualified, on top of it DA’s office, those cases won’t be tried correctly and people won’t be prosecuted.”

Ellis County District Attorney Patrick Wilson voiced how the previous leadership, communication was not transparent or consistent. For Deen, she said communication is an “easy fix.”

One of the first meetings Deen called was with the multidisciplinary team, which is comprised of police officers, the members of the sheriff’s office, the DA’s office, child protective services and the Gingerbread House team. Together they build cases and making sure the children and families have all their needs met. The multidisciplinary team meets on a monthly basis.

“It is one of the core principles of the child advocacy centers is that we are working together to work these child abuse cases,” Deen emphasized.

“It’s not just about getting the prosecution piece done, but it’s all about helping the whole family and the child heal from what has happened,” Deen elaborated.

EXPANDING STAFF AND SERVICES

Deen and the board are currently brainstorming ways to expand the staff. She admitted that the Gingerbread House is a bit behind in some aspects and hopes to bring the Ellis County services to be equal to or above compared to other counties.

“I think in program development, there are things that we should do,” Deen informed. “There’s a program called the enhancement program and most of the child advocacy centers in Texas are part of that. We are not.”

In the past, adding a second play therapy room was a priority. Deen is analyzing the counseling program as a whole. She thinks the addition of a second therapist and including more group therapy is just as valuable as the second play therapy room.

“A second play therapy room is one of many things we need to add," Deen advocated.

The Gingerbread House also offers free counseling to those who have gone through them. The center also conducts parent groups, parenting classes and therapeutic groups for kids to help them heal.

In 2016, the CACTX recognized the Gingerbread House for continually doing an exceptional job of receiving donations and sustaining a connection with the community. Deen plans on maintaining her relationships with folks in the city and to honor the work that was done in the past and honor those who gave in the past.

“People want to give in Ellis County and do good things, and it’s our job to define what that need is,” Deen said.

Deen also wants to build volunteer opportunities into the website, whether that be donating time or money. She would like to create a wish list of items the center needs and people can purchase those items for the advocacy center.

There are also volunteer and non-paid internship opportunities at the Gingerbread House.

PASSION ON THE WALLS

Deen also expressed how the arts are dear to her and her family. She mentioned her mother spearheaded the ex-students Fine Arts Hall of Fame for Waxahachie. Community theatre has always been important to her, and she has served on the Waxahachie Education Foundation.

Deen pointed to a collage of amateur artwork hanging on her office wall and said, “Kids are my heart.”

She explained that the children behind the paintings were extremely disturbed emotionally. Deen identified the drawing of a sailboat and how the painter was one of the most disturbed kids she had ever worked with.

“You see how troubled the waters are and how stormy it is and darkness all around you. But he has hope with the yellow corners.” Her voice cracked, “That’s my heart right there. It’s being able to help kids when they are in trouble. I get really passionate about it, but I’m also a very administrative thinking type person so if I can take my creativity and my leadership and build a program that helps those kinds of kids, then yes.”

Ashley Ford | @aford_news | 469-517-1450