Editor's note: This is the first in a four-part series on child sex abuse. On Sunday, the Aiken Standard looks at protecting child abuse victims and prosecuting the abusers.

SUNDAY— Protecting child abuse victims and prosecuting the abusers

MONDAY— Child sex abuse education in the public schools and at home

TUESDAY — A child abuse victim tells her story

Child sexual abuse is much more common than most people realize. One in four girls and one in six boys will be molested before the age of 18, according to Darkness to Light, an organization dedicated to ending the problem.

Occasionally, a case will generate headlines. Last month in Aiken, Harold B. Cartwright III of Trenton was sentenced to 40 years in prison after being found guilty of routinely raping three girls from 1989 until 2011.

But child sexual abuse is an issue that usually remains under the general public's radar because “it's not something that people talk about very often,” said Gayle Lofgren, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Aiken County.

Many young sexual abuse victims remain silent. Statistics show that 73 percent of the children who are sexually abused don't tell anyone for at least a year. Forty-five percent don't talk about it for at least five years, and some never disclose that it happened.

Fortunately, Aiken County's leaders recognized the issue's importance. The Advocacy Center, established in the mid-2000s as a nonprofit organization, was the result of a collaborative community effort after it became clear that there were deficiencies in the local system for dealing with victims of child abuse.

Barbara Morgan was the solicitor for South Carolina's Second Judicial District when the process to create the Advocacy Center started around 2001.

“One of my assistants who handled child abuse cases, Brenda Brisbin, brought the problem to my attention,” Morgan remembered. “She told me that we had a crisis because the resources we needed weren't here and kids weren't getting taken care of appropriately.”

Traumatized youngsters had to tell their stories multiple times. They had to wait hours in emergency rooms to be examined. They were questioned in law enforcement interrogation rooms and the back of patrol cars.

“We've got to fix this,” Morgan concluded.

A series of meetings followed between representatives of the Solicitor's Office, school system, law enforcement, social services and various health and children's organizations. During discussions, the concept of a child advocacy center emerged.

“We determined that we needed a building that was really child-friendly, a place where children would feel safe,” said Robert Alexander, who was the Center's first board chairman.

Temporary arrangements were made so the Advocacy Center could be launched. Meanwhile, efforts began to seek grants and tax funds along with donations of money, services and land.

“We were able to raise nearly $1 million,” Morgan said.

The construction of the Center's permanent home on Trolley Line Road started in 2007 and was completed the following year. By design, the finished building looked more like a home than an office. Inside, there were rooms filled with comfortable furniture and toys.

Today, the Advocacy Center has a staff of six and an annual budget of approximately $400,000.

“I think it's been a splendid success,” Alexander said, “and the reason that it's been so successful is because people are not willing – thank God – to tolerate children being treated the way they are in some instances.”

The Department of Social Services and law enforcement personnel refer children and teenagers to the Advocacy Center. Its clients generally range in age from 3 to 17, but sometimes cases involve vulnerable adults who are mentally and/or physically challenged. In 2012, the Center's staff conducted 330 forensic interviews, 87 medical examinations and 514 therapy sessions.

The collaborative community spirit that brought the Advocacy Center into existence continues. While assisting youthful victims, the Center's staff regularly consults and cooperates with a variety of organizations. Many of them are the same ones that helped found the Center.

“We have a team of people from the community that we work with, and we meet every two weeks,” Lofgren said. “This has two purposes. One is to assist with investigations and possible prosecutions. The other is to do treatment planning for the children and their families by determining what needs they might have and how the community can best help them.”

The Advocacy Center also offers stewards of children training.

“It's a three-hour course that is adult-focused,” Lofgren said. “People learn about the signs of child sexual abuse and the things they can do to prevent it.”

To Morgan, the Advocacy Center has turned out to be something more than its developers envisioned.

“It has exceeded our expectations,” she said.

• Dede Biles is a general assignment reporter for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since January 2013. A native of Concord, N.C., she graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.