GULFPORT, MS (WLOX) - It is a move that could affect more than 450 families who rely on services at the Child Abuse Prevention Center in Gulfport. WLOX News has learned that the center is closing next Monday. The announcement came as a shock to the employees who are scrambling to refer their clients to other agencies.
"To hear we are closing effective June 30, that's like, 'Wow, really? No, we can't. The children need us," said Tiffany Lizana.
Lizana is worried about what will happen to her young clients at the Child Abuse Prevention Center in Gulfport. As a forensic interviewer, she has interviewed more than 500 children involved in abuse or neglect cases.
"Oh goodness, it was heartbreaking. I don't know what this means for the children. I know that they won't be able to have the services that we provide here. I won't be able to do the interviews that are necessary in criminal cases," said Lizana.
The non-profit organization also offers prevention programs, like parenting classes, as well as child advocacy services.
"That's one of the reasons why we're here, to help them out, to help out the courts, to help out the DA's office, to help out where we could to insert ourselves into an area that was desperately needed," said Board President Jim Allen.
Allen said the decision to close was based solely on finances. He said the center needs about $400,000 a year to operate. Half of that amount comes from fund raisers and donations, but he says community contributions have dropped significantly.
"Basically since Katrina, we've had a desperate time trying to find the funds that we need to operate," said Allen. "It's about the children of South Mississippi, and yet we have to have finances in order to operate. I can't pay a staff if I don't have a budget, and so it was a very difficult decision."
News of the center's closing comes at a time when Harrison County has the highest number of reported child abuse cases in the state.
"Somebody down here has to be here to pick up the load, but yet, we don't know who's going to do that. It breaks our hearts to know we're turning off a service that's badly needed," said Allen. "I'm praying for a miracle. I'm praying that somebody would step up and give us enough money and support."
Unless contributions pour in over the next few days, the 26-year-old center is still set to close next Monday. That gives the six staff members just days to refer their clients elsewhere and find other jobs.
"I would love to continue to do interviews. Otherwise, I would have to get in there with the unemployment line," said Lizana.
Allen met with the center's executive director late Monday afternoon to discuss the issue. They plan to continue to seek donations from businesses, in hopes of keeping the center open.