A playroom is pictured in CUSI’s downtown Burlington space. (Michaela Halnon/Milton Independent)

Vickie Rathgeb emptied a container of colorful clay on a table, sitting in a kid-sized wooden chair no more than a foot above the floor.

“Play-doh is an intricate part of working with little people,” said Rathgeb, director of the Children’s Advocacy Center in downtown Burlington.

From Rathgeb’s viewpoint, the small space shared by the CAC and the Chittenden Unit for Special Investigations looks like a typical playroom. A basket of skinny markers rests on a knee-high table next to an easel with clean, white sheets of paper.

A closer look identifies some obscure features. In the corner of the ceiling there’s a fisheye security camera, operated in a control room on the other side of the pale yellow wall. Small microphones run along a one-way mirror. A hanging poster reads, “Always tell the truth. We can talk about anything, so long as it’s true.”

Eight detectives from police departments across the county use the space to interview victims of abuse and sexual assault.

Rathgeb and CUSI director Sgt. Chris Nadeau of Burlington PD lead the team, which also includes a victims’ advocate, dedicated prosecutor and Vt. Department for Children and Families investigator. Staff often float between the office and the criminal courthouse, located right next door.

Together, they launch full-blown investigations into nearly 300 cases per year and take on another hundred shorter-term projects, usually referred from local police departments, DCF and the Internet Crimes Against Children taskforce.

More than 62 percent of the incidents involve minors.

After paying just $1,000 a year to rent the 3,907-square foot, basement level office on Cherry Street from 1999 to 2016, state officials are asking CUSI to start paying $50,000 a year by July 1, 2019.

“We’ve had tremendous support from Chittenden County,” Rathgeb said. “We love our space. I just think we’re looking for some support.”

Fair market value

Colchester town manager Dawn Francis is also chairwoman of the CUSI board. In a letter to Gov. Phil Scott last month, she said the nonprofit provides a “critical multi-agency service for victims” and survives on grants, donations of police officers and monetary contributions from municipalities.

Francis detailed CUSI’s increasing state mandates, noting the Rutland County special investigation unit received close to $106,000 more in state funding than Chittenden County in fiscal year 18, despite the two having similar caseloads.

Chris Cole, the state’s buildings and general services commissioner who started the position just weeks ago, said he’ll consider these factors when developing a recommendation for the legislature, which approves the lease terms.

Milton resident Sgt. Chris Nadeau of Burlington PD serves as CUSI’s director. (Michaela Halnon/Milton Independent)

Cole said he’s still studying the lease’s history and the talks that have now spanned gubernatorial administrations.

A letter submitted to the Joint Fiscal Committee by Cole’s department in 2015 says then-Commissioner Michael Obuchowski learned in 2014 that the $1,000 CUSI lease rate was illegal because it discounts a non-state entity’s rent for a state-owned building below fair market value.

Using a fee for space formula, the state estimated CUSI paid the state more than half a million dollars less than fair market value from 2004 through 2015.

According to the letter, the legislature and CUSI soon agreed on a lease that gradually increased yearly rates to meet fair market value over the next three years, falling in compliance with state statute.

But CUSI quickly appealed to the state after it couldn’t afford the agreed-upon increase in FY16, the letter said. The group successfully negotiated another $1,000 lease for one year and developed a new timeline.

Last July, CUSI paid the first half of a $17,581.50 total for FY17, the first payment exceeding $1,000 since 1999. Now, with both a new CUSI director and buildings commissioner at the helm, Francis said the nonprofit is seeking an escalator of just 1 percent per year on that rate.

A safer feeling

Sgt. Nadeau, a Milton resident, said he never planned to work for CUSI. When the director position opened up, the Burlington officer put his name in cautiously, knowing the casework was intense and often detailed horrific crimes.

Now, he’s forever glad he made the move.

“The amount of difference you can make in this versus anything else we do in law enforcement … it’s phenomenal,” Nadeau said. “You just can’t really say that you have affected or saved someone’s life in the same way.”

In his short time at the post, Nadeau has made a mark on the CUSI office. Despite a lack of windows, the basement office is stunningly cheerful. Artwork, painted by former victims at art camps facilitated by Nadeau, invites visitors down the hallway.

There are murals, mobiles and couches accented with pillows at almost every turn. Rathgeb said nearly every design element serves a purpose from a child advocacy lens, forming an environment that is cozy, not sterile.

“We are not a police station,” she said. “It’s a safer feeling.”

Nadeau said detectives use different techniques when interviewing child victims. They don’t sport suits, ties, uniforms or a holstered gun so as not to intimidate their subjects.

Before CUSI was founded in 1992, Nadeau said individual departments handled these complex cases.

“You would get people that maybe did not want to do this and would not understand the intricacies,” he said. “This changes you from a patrol officer mentality.”

Detectives and support staff meet frequently to discuss and debrief their cases and can see a licensed therapist to process the often-traumatic case material as needed. Plus, Nadeau said, CUSI employees eat lunch together – every day.

The eight communities that don’t send an officer, including Milton, are asked to contribute based on their share of cases that year. Budget documents show Milton contributed $15,987 to CUSI in FY17.

In 2016, 29 of CUSI’s 280 total cases came from Milton – the second highest total in the county.

The numbers game

Commissioner Cole said he knows CUSI provides a vital service while receiving far less funding than other area agencies. He said the lease deal might serve as a substitute for additional grant money the state says it doesn’t have. Still, he noted, lawmakers must approve any final deviation from fair market value.

Additionally, Cole said his evaluation of fair market value actually puts the Cherry St. office at $70,722 – a figure over $20,000 higher than what Francis said CUSI was asked to pay by 2019.

In an interview last week, Francis said she’s confident the parties will reach a compromise before the lease is up on July 1 of this year.

“This is just really difficult for us to pay,” Francis said. “I don’t think you can replicate CUSI’s services.”