On May 24, 1996, the Eappen family of Boston, Massachusetts welcomed their new baby boy Matthew “Matty” Eappen into the world. Eight months later, investigators would discover his 19-year-old nanny shook him so violently it fractured his skull causing severe brain bleeding. He died five days later despite intense treatment in the hospital. After his death Matty’s parents Sunil and Deborah started the Matty Eappen Foundation to bring awareness to Shaken Baby Syndrome and other forms of child abuse.
Eight years later in 2005, a committee consisting of Winona County prosecutors, police, social services, and the National Child Protection Training Center convened to address a growing caseload of child abuse and neglect cases in the area. Regionally, 700 reports were filed in surrounding Minnesota and Wisconsin counties. About a third of those cases originated from Winona County.
The committee moved forward with procuring donations and established funding with the help of the Matty Eappen Foundation to develop what is today Matty’s Place. Since June 2011 Matty’s Place has been a safe place for children and families to receive help and healing after an allegation of abuse.
Emily Merian started working at Matty’s Place in May 2017. As the CAC Specialist, she provides Family Advocacy, Forensic Interviewing, Multidisciplinary Team coordination for the County, as well as Family Group Decision Making meetings –a sort of mediation process between families and social services. Merian explains, “Matty’s Place is a satellite location of our partner Child Advocacy Center (CAC), Stepping Stones, in La Crosse, Wisconsin.”
Operating under the umbrella of Family & Children’s Center Matty’s Place is the only CAC in southeast Minnesota, serving Winona county, located about two hours southeast of Saint Paul. Stepping Stones, located in La Crosse just across the Mississippi River in Wisconsin and forty minutes down the highway, has a larger caseload, staff, and programming. Regionally, the two centers’ combined work allows staff, advocates, and multidisciplinary team members to serve more families with more consistency and stability.
“What I’m most proud of is the community support we’ve experienced. Our partnering agencies have done a phenomenal job reaching out to families, bringing cases in, and coordinating forensic interviews and follow-up on cases. We’re doing a good job of holistically serving families now,” says Merian.
Matty’s Place is capitalizing on a decade of work by submitting a request for satellite accreditation to the National Children’s Alliance later this year. That accreditation will mark a milestone for Matty’s Place and reaffirm the Winona County community’s commitment to abused and neglected children.
Merian recalls one family that serves as a reminder of the work Matty’s Place is doing. “We had a family come in that were not native English speakers. They were in an incredibly difficult situation. Everyone here was quick to get them everything they needed to feel comfortable and safe,” she says. Those services include translators, forensic interviews, victim advocacy, and therapy. “Based on the allegations made, the family had to be able to communicate exactly what was happening. We went a long way to making sure they were heard and understood. I saw this family go from timid to very open and in tears,” says Merian.
“What I’m noticing,” says Merian, “is once families come in and are willing to talk about what’s going on, the biggest issue is getting them in the door. But it can be hard to get them in the door when they’re worried about what their children might experience. We explain we’re not there to tell them they’re doing something wrong. They’re not judged for what’s happened to them or how they live. That lets them feel like they’re taken off the pedestal and realize we’re a team working toward a greater good.”
According to the wishes of the Matty Eappen Foundation, and with support from training materials provided by Darkness 2 Light, Matty’s Place also offers free training to anyone interested in learning the signs of child abuse and neglect. “We offer this frequently to students at Winona State University because it’s great for college students working part-time as babysitters or daycare workers,” says Merian. “But we’re increasing our training to professionals, like daycare workers and after-school program coordinators. They’re seeing how prevalent abuse and maltreatment is. They recognize they are often the first people to notice the signs but only if they know what to look for,” she says.
Family & Children’s Center also operates multiple other programs like Supervised Visitation, a program utilized by parents who are rebuilding relationships with children in the foster care system, and families affected by domestic violence. To learn more about programming at Family & Children’s Center and Matty’s Place, visit https://www.fcconline.org/seeking-help/for-children/mattys-place/.