Back in the late 1990s, child abuse wasn’t really talked about. It was something that happened to other people in other places: a “not me,” “not here” type situation in Onondaga County, New York.
Dr. Ann Botash and Martha Ryan knew that was not the case.
As a pediatrician at Upstate Medical Center in Syracuse and co-creator of the Child Abuse Referral and Evaluation (CARE) program there, Botash wanted to start the conversation that would lead to better care for victims, public awareness and ultimately prevention. As a community advocate, Martha Ryan wanted to help and had the skills to facilitate such a project.
Martha Ryan also happened to have a building. Purchased by her husband’s family mid-century, 509 W. Onondaga St. had sat empty for several years as it fell into disrepair.
Day after day, Martha drove by. Finally, she decided to do something, though she wasn’t sure what at the time. The McMahon and Ryan families agreed that if she found a cause, they would support it.
She set out to find that cause, spending a half year or more approaching community organizations and charities. Martha Ryan eventually came upon the child advocacy model and took an interest. A mutual friend pointed her to Dr. Botash.
“I was seeing kids in the clinic who had been sexually abused and I was really struggling with what happened to them after we saw them and what happened to them before we saw them … what happened as far as the case of child abuse,” Dr. Botash said. “What I learned was that [child advocacy centers] were able to do this by getting all the information up front and then they would be able to follow them beyond just the medical exam.”
That became the idea: to put all the legal, medical, psychological and social services in one place. This would be in contrast to a system that saw a victim of child abuse go from place to place and tell their traumatic story over and over again.
“It’s traumatizing for families to have so much stress from the various things being asked of them,” Dr. Botash explained. “If they have to go to one place for one part of the investigation and another place for another part, it’s overwhelming and families are already overwhelmed by what’s happened.”
The more information she collected and statistics she uncovered, the more critical it became for Martha Ryan to raise public awareness that this was happening.
“Most individuals couldn’t even imagine an adult abusing a child sexually or physically,” Ryan said. “Most adults want to protect. So, when you start showing real examples of what happened, they’re appalled. And if I’m appalled, I want to do something about it.”
So, she did and encouraged others to join her, starting with her own family. The building project would not be easy, requiring total renovation. Thankfully, Ryan had a knack for making connections and the backing of dozens of family members.
“We live in a very, very giving community. The support that we got from community members, organizations – everybody that was approached stepped up in some way, shape or form,” Ryan said. “It was all the connections and the network of the individuals.”
“When there’s a crisis or something’s been brought forward, the support is unbelievable,” she added.
The renovation project was all-volunteer, with everyone from cousins to contractors joining the cause. It took over two years to complete.
In the meantime, Ryan was getting the logistical pieces in place. The house would need to accommodate the work of as many as 10 agencies that had not previously worked within the new model proposed by Ryan and Dr. Botash.
They found a key supporter in longtime Onondaga County District Attorney William Fitzpatrick, who had previously developed the Child Abuse Response Team. With that unit on board and Executive Director Judge Julie Cecile working to get all the disciplines to co-locate, plans began to take shape.
The building opened in 2002, but Ryan had rallied support from the likes of WSYR-TV around the awareness piece of the nonprofit organization’s mission.
McMahon Ryan has added numerous events and fundraisers over the years, including the Go Blue 4 Kids Breakfast, Pinwheel Ball, Step Up 4 Kids 5K and Fun Run, 100 Holes 4 Kids, Over the Edge, the Stand Against Child Abuse Conference and Kickoff 4 Kids.
“We’re seeing the awareness grow so that people aren’t so shocked and astonished by it, but they actually are doing something about it. I think that’s a result of the efforts of the advocacy center,” Dr. Botash said. “The fundraisers that we’ve done are not just about the fundraising, they’re about raising awareness. And the awareness isn’t just about taking care of these children – these children need the awareness so we can prevent abuse.”
The center itself was outgrown and with public support and grants, the current facility opened in 2011 at the former Reid Hall, 601 E. Genesee St., Syracuse. More than 60 professionals use the 30,000-square-foot, child-friendly space today.
As the organization observed its 20th anniversary in 2019, some 7,000 children had walked through the doors of the McMahon Ryan Child Advocacy Center.
“The number of lives we’ve touched is remarkable,” Ryan said. “If we were not here, those children would not be able to experience the healing. McMahon Ryan is here to help them do that.
“I think we have a unique community and we have the success of bringing everyone together. I would like McMahon Ryan to be the best practice organization so that we can help other communities do what we’ve been able to do,” Ryan said. “I would like to see our community be the showcase to prevent and treat child abuse and let other communities follow or learn from everything we’ve done.”