Navarro County Child Advocacy Center Executive Director Jenny Bratton didn’t set out to help children who are victims of abuse and neglect.
She was originally going to be a ballerina.
Not in the way many little girls believe they will be a ballerina when they “grow up,” but was actually on track to being part of a ballet troupe from an early age.
“I grew up in St. Petersburg, Florida,” she said. “I started ballet at age 8, joined the Tampa Ballet at age 13 as an apprentice, then at 16 became a company member. The plan was to be a ballerina.”
Jenny went to audition for the San Francisco Ballet, which was holding auditions in 12 cities. When she arrived, there were 500 people there to audition. Half of those were sent home based on size alone.
“I made it into the top 20,” she said. “Mom was so excited. When I realized that was the peak (of where I would go as a ballerina) I figured I’d better do something else.”
Bratton earned a bachelors degree in history at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, and loved it. With that degree, she could either teach, earn her Ph.D., or get a law degree. She tried the teaching route first, at a school for gifted and talented children. The children learned faster than she did, and it was impossible to stay ahead of them, so she enrolled at Stetson Law School, also in St. Petersburg.
“I joined a trial team, clerked for a Federal Court judge, was a maritime law term clerk, then interned with the State Attorney’s office, and started prosecuting,” Bratton said.
Once she graduated law school, she was offered a job at the State Attorney’s Office, the equivalent of the District Attorney’s office in Texas. She spent seven years as a prosecutor, specializing in juvenile and sex offenses, in a time before Children’s Advocacy Centers existed.
“I interviewed kids who had been sexually abused, after they had been interviewed by police, investigators, etc.,” she said. “I saw how ugly the process was for child victims before CACs existed. It gave me the opportunity to deal with what we now call CPS cases, and I quickly discovered how much I appreciated CACs.”
Jenny had married Randy Bratton, a career policeman, and they had their first son, Jim. She just assumed all along she would return to work — until she fell in love with her new little man. Bratton became a stay-at-home mom, and two years and one day later, son Jack joined Jim and their family was complete.
The family lived in Paducah, Kentucky for seven to eight years, where Randy served as chief of police, before relocating to Corsicana, where he also served as chief. It seemed like the perfect fit, with Jenny having family in Houston, Oklahoma City and at the time, Shreveport — and Corsicana was centrally located to all.
“By the time we came to Texas, the kids were in elementary school, so I took the Texas bar exam to be licensed in Texas,” she said. “I did mediation training, to become a certified mediator, with every intention of being a practicing attorney.”
In volunteering on the boards of the Navarro County Boys & Girls Club and United Way, Bratton met a very special lady named Jane Biltz, who called her and said she should apply for the position as Executive Director of the Child Advocacy Center.
Bratton accepted that position in 2011.
Since her predecessor was not there when she arrived, she was not sure what her role was on a daily basis. She knew grant management and reporting were part of her job, but with her interest in trials, she began attending every court hearing.
“I don’t think that’s typical, but with my attorney background, it was natural,” she said. “Working with advocates, etc. It has greatly improved our relationships with our CASA partners.”
Lydia Bailey at CAC is the contact person with the partners on the CAC side.
“Ten years ago, the CAC only did forensic interviews,” Bratton said. “Now we have three counselors (one full-time and two part-time), a bilingual family advocate, because adults often need someone who speaks Spanish to help.”
The forensic interviewer at CAC in 2008 had done about 20 interviews total. Bailey has done about 800 forensic interviews, so the quality level of the interviews has improved vastly with more experience.
“The CAC serves children and adults who operate at a child capacity intellectually,” she said. “We provide a forensic interview, with a person specially trained in how to ask questions that allow the child to tell his/her actual truth.”
Bratton said while that is going on with the child, the family mediator is meeting with the family to meet their needs, because often the abuser is someone in the family. Counseling is offered to the children and to the non-offending parent, as well as the child’s siblings, for as long as needed.
“We stay with the family until the case concludes if desired,” she said. “Nobody is forced to have their child in counseling, but our partner agencies refer them to us sometimes. If a Corsicana ISD police officer knows of a child who is suicidal, they can be referred to us.”
Even children who are not the direct “victim” of a crime, but whose lives are affected by it, may receive counseling.
“I am pleased we have been able to help kids outside the realm of normal sexual abuse,” Bratton said.
Every child in Navarro County who needs a Court Appointed Special Advocate has one, and that’s a rate very few agencies in Texas can claim. The CASA walks with the child through the sometimes very lengthy court process of whatever takes place. For example, if a child is removed from an abusive family situation and is placed with a family who decides to adopt them, the CASA is there with the child all the way to explain what’s happening, check in on them, and let them know someone cares.
“People have no idea what positive effects can come from having a great CASA,” she said.