A few months after reporting the state's most child abuse cases for 2013, South Mississippi is about to lose one of its front lines of defense.
Gulfport's Child Abuse Prevention Center serves primarily Harrison and Jackson counties along with 11 others. It has already shed all but two employees and may have to close for good at the end of the month.
A combination of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the recession and decreasing federal grants with increasing matched-funds requirements have left the organization in dire straits. Its closure would mean fewer options for many families that are reeling from abuse.
Joel Smith, Harrison County district attorney, said the center's most crucial program is forensic interviewing of abused children. He said the interviews are "a tremendous asset for us in providing jurors with a deeper insight into the mind of a child victim.
Other agencies with employees trained in forensic interviewing would be able to step in for the short term, but he said the area needs a full-time interviewer.
The center also connects families suddenly cut off from housing and funding with resources and provides prevention services and parenting classes.
"A lot of families here, they just don't know where to start," said former program director Keiana Lock, who has been forced to look for another job.
She said the need for the center's services is great -- greater than even she expected when she started working there two years ago.
"Before I worked here I was like, not that many children on the Coast get abused," she said. "I thought it was like four or five a week but it's way more than that."
Jim Allen, who serves on the board of directors, said the center would need at least $100,000 to make it to the end of the year with two employees and an executive director, and more than $200,000 with a full staff.
He said the center is continuing to accept donations from people and businesses, but also has been looking at joining forces with another area nonprofit.