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Jessie's Place nudges forward

Plans to build the first child advocacy center in Citrus have moved one step closer to reality.

On Tuesday, the School Board agreed to consider a request by the Sheriff's Office to build the center on 15 acres just north of Rock Crusher Elementary School. The center would provide services and counseling for children when there is an allegation of physical abuse, neglect or sexual abuse. It would be named Jessie's Place, in memory of Jessica Lunsford.

"The advocacy center would serve to prevent further victimization of children who are already victims," Veronica Tallent, a representative of the state Department of Children and Families, told the School Board.

Board Chairman Lou Miele said he would support the project.

"This is one of the most exciting projects that has come across our desks in a very long time," Miele said.

Right now, children must go to as far as Ocala or Gainesville for medical examinations. The children are often interviewed in buildings that are sterile and can make already traumatized children more uncomfortable, Tallent said. The board agreed to tour an existing child advocacy center in Marion County next month.

The project, which has been championed by Sheriff Jeff Dawsy, also would include Safety Town, a place with child-sized buildings where students in grades K-3 are taught water safety and traffic rules; and the Enterprise Village, a facility where students in Grade 5 through middle school would learn business skills.

Safety Town would cost $1.4-million.

Sheriff's Lt. Doug Dodd told the board that the sheriff wants to fund the project using limited taxpayers' money.

The Sheriff's Office has already secured a $50,000 state grant to design Safety Town. In the coming months, the sheriff will approach local businesses to participate in the project.

Safety Town would feature a bank, an insurance company and a fast food restaurant that would be modeled after those businesses that donate money.

Dawsy had previously asked county commissioners to donate 15 acres to the project. Chuck Dixon, the county's director of community development, suggested Rock Crusher Elementary as an ideal site because it is centrally located.

School officials must run the plan by School Board attorney Richard "Spike" Fitzpatrick before the board can agree to lease the land.

"It will send a message to parents that their children are important to us," Dodd said.

Eddy Ramirez can be reached at (352) 860-7305 or eramirez@sptimes.com.

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