Know Your Madisonian: Jennifer Ginsburg

August 24, 2018

Jennifer Ginsburg is executive director of Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center, which collaborates with victim advocates, law enforcement and others to help child victims of violence and sexual assault tell their stories, and to help them begin to cope with their experiences.

For Jennifer Ginsburg, social work has been a calling, but it first took a little nudge.

The executive director of Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center in Madison said she couldn’t settle on a major during her first years at the University of Cincinnati, in her hometown, until fate intervened and steered her toward social work.

“I did have this seminal moment when I did just sort of randomly answer a call for a volunteer training for a women’s crisis center,” Ginsburg said. The center was across the Ohio River from Cincinnati in Covington, Kentucky.

“It was in that volunteer training where I knew, this is what I have to do,” she said.

Years later, after graduate school at Columbia University in New York City and jobs in Cincinnati, Dayton and Chicago, her husband’s job brought Ginsburg and her family to Madison in 2005, where she went to work for the Canopy Center, which specializes in child abuse treatment and prevention.

In 2011 Ginsburg began working at Safe Harbor, which shares a building on East Washington Avenue with Canopy, and became its executive director on May 1. Safe Harbor specializes in conducting forensic interviews of child abuse and child sexual assault victims, as well as of some adult victims who have intellectual disabilities. The program brings together Safe Harbor staff, law enforcement, victim advocates and others to conduct victim interviews in a child-friendly environment.

Video recordings of interviews are often used in court to supplement live testimony by child victims of abuse, as testifying can be difficult for the child.

At Canopy, Ginsburg had been a therapist for abuse victims, but her role changed when she joined Safe Harbor.

“Making the shift from therapy to forensics has been a really good move for me,” she said. “I’ve always been good at crisis intervention, hot lines. For some people, they need that ongoing contact, whereas I’m good at focusing on the situation at hand and dealing with that situation and moving on to the next. We’re not a first responder, but Safe Harbor is very early in the process, before therapists get engaged. I really like that, just in terms of personality, that works well for me.”

How is the financial health of Safe Harbor now?

Very good. I’d say in the past three years we’ve become really financially strong. We still have to fund-raise 30 percent of our budget to be in the black every year, but we have now built up our reserves so that we won’t find ourselves in a financial crisis again. The main sources are Dane County and the (state) Office of Crime Victim Services, through the Victims of Crime Act.

What do you like most about what Safe Harbor does?

I know that we are making a difference for every child and family that comes through our door. They come here when they’re in one of the most difficult times of their lives, so after abuse — it’s mostly sexual abuse that’s been disclosed — the family is in crisis. We have a terrific staff here. We really are a safe harbor for that family, because we know that what makes a difference for children is the response to their disclosure of abuse, and I feel like we are about to put them on a path for safety and healing.

The other thing that I like the most is that there’s an incredible team in this community of social workers, detectives, nurses, victim-witness advocates and our advocates here working so hard on behalf of children and families. That’s really inspiring to me as well.

You’ve had your own health concerns. How are you doing after battling breast cancer?

I’m doing great. I’m at a six-year anniversary date about now. I look back on that and I can’t believe I actually went through that. I’m 51. I felt really grateful when I turned 50. It was not a crisis for me. And now it’s the kind of thing where I don’t think about it all the time. It takes years to get to this place where it’s not kind of always kind of in the back of your mind. It’s definitely feeling more in the past.

What’s coming up for Safe Harbor?

Great things. We’re moving (to Darwin Road) Oct. 1. We’ll be in a new location, in a bigger space. It’ll be great for our clients and families. We’re moving with the Canopy Center so we’ll be able to continue to offer on-site mental health services and crisis intervention.

We are getting a facility dog. The dog will accompany children during the forensic interview. Of course, the child doesn’t have to have the dog if the child doesn’t like dogs. They’re bred from dogs of a certain temperament and are highly trained to provide quiet companionship with the child. The research is really clear that the presence of a trained facility dog reduces blood pressure, stress hormones, cortisol levels. The dog provides another level of safety and companionship.

— Interview by Ed Treleven

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