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Mary Lee's House will centralize services to help abuse victims in a $6-million building on Armenia.

The nightmare can start almost anywhere.

A teacher notices a child has bruises or seems too withdrawn, afraid of adults. A child comes home from a relative's and says someone touched her.

But the nightmare doesn't always end with the report of the crime.

After the state's abuse hotline gets a report, the appointments begin - lots of them, with investigators and doctors and, sometimes, lawyers.

Appointments with specially trained investigators and interviewers at the Children's Justice Center in downtown Tampa.

With the Child Protection Team on Davis Islands for a medical examination.

At a psychologist's office - if the family can afford it.

At Healthy Start Coalition of Hillsborough County, where caregivers can get parenting advice.

For families struggling with the repercussions of abuse, the schedule can get overwhelming.

Other cities and counties in Florida have simplified this tangled network of service providers by relocating them all into one child advocacy center, based on a model developed in the 1980s in Huntsville, Ala. Ocala has done that, as have Miami and Orlando.

And, soon, so will Hillsborough.

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Hillsborough's current system of social services for abused children can be compared to an incomplete puzzle. The pieces are there, but they're scattered.

So says Peg Reese, executive director of Mary Lee's House, a project that will pull social services together in one building. The new one-stop facility should open its doors by the middle of 2008.

Mary Lee Farrior, a local philanthropist, seeded the project with a $1-million donation. Funding from the state was vetoed by Gov. Charlie Crist this year, but the project has raised more than half the $6-million needed for construction through private donations and a grant from the city government. Service providers have long wanted a one-stop facility for Hillsborough, but the project took off only four years ago, when the state gave the court system a grant to hire a consultant.

Now, Mary Lee's House Inc., a nonprofit, has bought land at 2806 N Armenia Ave., designed the building, and is counting down to the groundbreaking later this summer.

As director, Reese will be charged with simplifying a system to cater to the needs of stressed families who often don't have much money.

"If you expect families who are under a lot of stress and struggle and don't have a lot of resources to go to multiple places under long periods of time, they're not going to be able to do that," she says. "It's not that they don't want to or don't love their children, it's just that it's hard for families to do all that sometimes."

Maj. Craig Latimer, who works with investigators at the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office, says he often deals with families that struggle with transportation - either their car's broken down, or their spouse needs the car for work, or the driver has an expired license and doesn't want to get a ticket.

"There's been times when we'd send detectives out to give people a ride," he said.

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At Mary Lee's House, the goal is to make parents and children as comfortable as possible. The front desk, for instance, will be short, built to the eye-level of a child.

"The children are the focus of the system," Reese says. "It's not going to look like a big, scary institution."

That strategy is already at play at the Children's Justice Center in downtown Tampa - the walls are fluorescent orange and Day-Glo purple. The wall near the front door is painted with a giant clown, and Dora the Explorer plays on the waiting room's TV.

Trained investigators at the center interview children about incidents of abuse. The wall in front of the interview room is covered with little paper handprints. The center's interviewers encourage the children to put their hands over the small prints.

"They know other children have been here of the same size, who have come and talked about scary stuff," says Trish Waterman, director of the Children's Justice Center.

The investigating team - from the Sheriff's Office, the Child Protection Team, a guardian ad litem, and sometimes others - can watch the interviewer at work through closed-circuit cameras.

The Justice Center will take that technology with it when it moves, and, Waterman said, officials have applied for an American Bar Association grant to fund part of that camera system.

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Jennifer Hock, a program administrator with the Sheriff's Office, said Mary Lee's House could help improve the outcome of abuse cases by improving communication between investigating agencies.

Just as parents now have to bring their children across town for appointments, the team that works on each case needs to shuttle around town too. That can be an obstacle to communicating the needs of the child and the family from one agency to the next.

The new facility will make it easier to relay information, as well as to collect and share evidence between agencies. Streamlining evidence collection could help prosecutors build stronger cases and put more abusers behind bars, Reese said.

Funding problems may block a mental health provider from relocating to the new building, but other than that, says Reese, the center is on track for its groundbreaking.

In the meantime, Reese repeats a mantra for Mary Lee's House: "More effective, more efficient, less traumatizing."

Sarah Mishkin can be reached at or (813) 225 3110.