Cooley Works to Keep Children Safe From Abuse

By Aisling Maki

Keita Cooley and just about everyone who knows her always had an inkling she’d end up devoting her own life to bettering the lives of children.


(Photo: Trey Clark)

So when she relocated to Memphis from her native Dallas 10 years ago for her husband’s job, it was no surprise she ended up working at the Memphis Child Advocacy Center, which provides comprehensive services for Shelby County children who are victims of sexual and severe physical abuse.

Cooley, who studied psychology at Southern Methodist University, started out as assistant to the nonprofit’s executive director, a position she held for a year before becoming an education specialist at the center.

“I always knew that I’d be helping children in some way,” Cooley said. “I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do, but when the opening came up in the education department, I jumped at it.”

Cooley this month celebrates a decade of service at MCAC, working to prevent child abuse by educating the public – mostly adults – about how to recognize and respond to child abuse and prevent possibly dangerous situations.

Cooley regularly speaks to parents, teachers, company employees, and community, faith-based and professional groups that serve children. She also trains Memphis City Schools counselors to speak to teachers and students about abuse.

“Just this year, we changed our focus,” Cooley said. “We used to talk to children, as well, but the research has shown that what really prevents child sexual abuse is talking to adults. It was a tough decision because we’d been talking to kids for so long, but we made a decision to do what’s best for the children in our community, and really happy with it. It’s different talking to adults versus kids, but I think it’s really making a difference because we’re talking to people we never had an opportunity to go to.”

Cooley said one of her biggest challenges is getting parents to understand that talking to their children about sexual abuse is not the same as talking to their children about sex.

“They also say that they don’t talk about it because they don’t have the words, so we give them the right words and teach them how to talk to their children at different ages,” she said. “This is not a one-time conversation; it’s one you have to have over and over.”

One of the defining moments in Cooley’s career came recently after she addressed a roomful of teen moms. One of the young ladies, the teenage mother of a 2-year-old child, came to Cooley asking for help, confessing for the first time that she’d become pregnant after she was raped.

“It was a relief to her to know it wasn’t her fault,” Cooley said. “One of the things I always tell parents to stress to their kids is it’s never too late to tell.”

And one of the biggest surprises in her career came when Cooley’s own mother began to open up to her daughter about her own abuse.

“I didn’t know a lot about my mom’s history until I started working here and she finally told me,” Cooley said. “I didn’t understand why she was so protective of us growing up until she told me and it all made sense.”

Cooley said that despite everything her mother’s been through, she’s been her daughter’s greatest role model.

“When I think about the life so many people have after they’d been abused … you’d think my childhood would have been horrible, but she was a great mother,” she said. “She always told me I could be anything I wanted to be. She’s so nurturing and I think she’s the reason I want to take care of people.”

Always wanting to do more, Cooley and her husband recently became foster parents to two siblings, a 1-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl, through the Department of Children’s Services.

“We wanted to parent, and we have the resources,” she said. “It’s been a lot of fun. They are sweeties, and we’ve enjoyed every moment of it. If they go back home, it’s going to be hard, of course. But I just keep remembering it’s not about me, it’s about them. Whatever they need when they’re here, we’re going to make sure they have it.”

MCAC staff members recently celebrated Cooley’s 10th anniversary with a surprise breakfast where, in honor of Cooley, her colleagues wore her favorite color – pink.

MCAC associate director Virginia Stallworth said Cooley is an inspiration to everyone around her.

“I’m so impressed by Keita, by what she does at the Child Advocacy Center and what she does at home,” Stallworth said. “She is living out her values in raising these foster children, and she knows the reality for our kids in this community and communities all around – that they need our love, support and protection. We’re extremely luck to have her here.”