When Rachael Cowan applied to be director of the Tooele County Children’s Justice Center, she never expected to be seriously considered, let alone that she’d get the job.
But on Sept. 9, Cowan, 35, who holds a degree in family and human development, started as the second director of the county facility. And she hit the ground running.
In her first two weeks, the center conducted 17 interviews. The caseload was unusually high, and was especially tasking for someone not accustomed to the interviews’ emotional drain.
“It was hard,” said Cowan. “I had to take a couple of weeks off of interviews.”
The South Rim woman has since learned the tricky system of witnessing and cataloguing pain for the children who come to the center. The center serves as a safe place for children who may be abused, and as a facility for police to get the accounts of that abuse from the children themselves.
A native to the area, Cowan was familiar with the center’s mission and had previously worked there with Carolyn Jensen, who served as director for 17 years before retiring last June. But the day-to-day reality was not something Cowan could have imagined.
“You can kind of think of what goes on here but until you see it, it’s different,” she said. “You can only think of how you’ll react when you hear a child telling their story, but until you see that child telling about what happened to them, it’s different.”
Cowan said the cases that are the hardest for her are those that happened to youngsters the same ages as her three children, between 5 and 10.
“You think of where they are in their development and you think, ‘I can’t imagine my kid going through that,’” she said.
The cases are confidential, meaning that Cowan cannot go home and discuss them with her husband or family even if she wanted to. Instead, she said, on frustrating days, she tells about the little frustrations not related to cases.
“I’d have to go home and shed off what I could,” she said.
The cases themselves can, however, be discussed with police officers and child protective service agents who are also working on them, she said. Working in her present capacity, she has come to appreciate the people in those fields more as well.
“Because we can all talk to each other, we do. We stand in the kitchen and talk about it,” she said. “To watch how much they care and the work they do is amazing.”
Cowan said she has also been struck by the generosity of members of the community. In the weeks that she has worked at the center, she has seen several people come in with donations to the facility, either a sum of money or material contributions, like toys or blankets or coats—and some of the donors are only children themselves.
“I didn’t know that so many people know about the CJC and want to help,” she said.
While working with Valley Mental Health and the Tooele County School District gave her a lot of familiarity with the CJC, Cowan said she has found that some people don’t know much about the facility. Cowan said she hopes community members can recognize the mission and capabilities of the center, even if there is no crime to report.
“We don’t want to be a secret,” she said. “We want people to know we’re here and we’re a neutral, safe place to be.”