Dr. Carole Campbell Swiecicki has no doubt that victims of child abuse can get better, provided they get the right kind of help.

As proof, she recalls a 4-year-old girl whose foster mother was skeptical that treatment could ease the child's trauma of having been sexually abused.

The girl had severe symptoms, including nightmares and talking about her abuse with strangers, but her foster mother brought her to treatments only because she was required.

The mother's attitude changed, however, shortly after she was pulled over for speeding by a police officer.

"The little girl in the back, as the police officer was coming up, said, 'Mommy, do your breathing!' " Swiecicki says. "The foster mom later came in and said, 'You know what? I'm going to eat my words because this works. This works because I was getting upset.' "

That belief - that the sad stories of abused children can take on better chapters after appropriate therapy - has led Swiecicki on a career that took a new turn this year as she became the new executive director of the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center.

The nonprofit center, whose offices are at 1061 King St., educates parents, teachers and other professionals who work with children on how to reduce the risk of child abuse. It also interviews potential victims of child abuse and provides appropriate treatments, when necessary.

"I think people aren't entirely sure the scope of what we do," she says. "Some people think we have some people live here, but we're not a shelter. We're an outpatient facility."

Second time around

While Swiecicki grew up in Florida, previously studied in Missouri and worked in New York and Norfolk, Va., she is no stranger to Charleston.

About nine years ago, she spent a year as a psychology intern at the National Crime Victim Center with the Medical University of South Carolina's psychiatry department.

"I did rotations, seeing children and families in their outpatient clinic, and I also did outreach with families and schools and churches."

One of her fondest memories, other than meeting her husband Scott in a sports bar watching a Florida Gators football game, was the way that Charleston's team rallied around to help a fourth-grade girl who had severe dental problems that hampered her ability to talk.

"She was having trouble talking (and participating in therapy) because of her dental problems," Swiecicki says, adding that the girl had not been signed up for Medicaid. But instead of waiting on bureaucracy, someone from MUSC arranged for the work to be done pro bono.

"Her dental needs were met within a week," she says. "I have kept a drawing from that client because it sort of stuck with me."

"What makes Charleston unique and the Dee Norton Lowcountry Children's Center unique is the way we think outside the box to put the child's needs first," Swiecicki says. "We're innovative in terms of collaborations to put the child's needs first."

Tracking the center's progress

Most of the children who come to the Children's Center are referred by police or the Department of Social Services, though parents and schools and pediatricians also can refer children.

The child is then interviewed at the center in a way that's videotaped and admissible in court, should that be necessary. The center coordinates with more than 30 partner agencies in the Lowcountry.

"We try to coordinate it so a child isn't interviewed by DSS and law enforcement and potentially a therapist, but rather they come here and can have the interview at one time," she says.

The center has done about 1,350 such interviews each of the past two years and currently is seeking a therapist to try to increase that number and reduce the wait, which can be about three weeks.

"One of our biggest challenges right now is capacity," she says.

Swiecicki, who oversees a staff of about 28 people, says she loves statistics and is eager to put more concrete numbers to the work being done by the Children's Center.

"The metrics that we're really looking at improving right now are looking at different types of mental health symptoms, things like depression and anxiety and trauma symptoms, what percentage of children we see have those problems here at our clinic and what percentage of those kids get better when they have treatment here."

She says child abuse can be a gray area because it's not just what is done to a child but how the child reacts. About 50 to 60 percent of the children who disclose they are victims of child abuse likely will need some treatment.

"One of the biggest predictors about whether they will have symptoms is what they think about what happened. It's not the actual severity of what happened, but it's what they think about it," she said. "Having a supportive caregiver is another really strong predictor of how kids will respond."

Still, only one of every 10 children discloses their abuse in childhood, so the need could be far greater than what the center currently can meet.

"The biggest challenge is reaching the children who haven't disclosed their abuse yet," she says.

"In an ideal world, there would be broader knowledge about child abuse and what it is and the fact that we're here as a resource. Then children would disclose and parents would know exactly where to bring them."

Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.