GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A local nonprofit dedicated to fighting child sexual abuse is honoring today its founder and the long-time chief of the Grand Rapids Police Department, William Hegarty, who died on Saturday at 81.
The Children's Advocacy Center of Kent County, founded in 1993, remembers Hegarty, who led the GRPD from 1981-1998, in an email to its supporters, which is signed by Executive Director Melissa Werkman.
Hegarty died from complications tied to a fall earlier in the week, according to the center.
"William Hegarty will leave a legacy of hope, and thanks in large part to his vision and leadership, thousands of children in Kent County are able to begin their journey of healing," Werkman says.
"We wish to extend our love and support to his family in their grieving his loss and celebrating the man he was to our community and, more importantly, to their lives."
Werkman describes Hegarty as the leader of a GRPD "committed to working tirelessly to seek justice for children in Kent County who experienced sexual abuse."
The vision for the Children's Advocacy Center was born out of Hegarty's encounter with "a young girl in a yellow dress" in 1991.
She came into the police station lobby in "great distress."
Hegarty realized then the system that required a child to "repeatedly tell their story of abuse" to multiple legal and social service professionals re-traumatized them.
He pictured a place where children would feel welcomed and valued and professionals could help them heal from sexual abuse, according to the center's website.
Afterward, he gathered a group of people who worked for two years to "make his vision a reality."
The Children's Advocacy Center has since served nearly 20,000 suspected victims of child sexual abuse in Kent County.
The center provides several services: forensic interviews; therapy; family advocacy; and case management. It also runs its Kids Have Rights prevention program at elementary schools in the area.
"As I got to know Chief Hegarty in my tenure, he frequently commented on how proud he was to see what the CAC has grown into today," Werkman says.
"It gave him great peace to see the many staff, law enforcement, CPS investigators and volunteers who subscribed to his vision and have committed to carrying it forward."
Sytsema Funeral Home in Norton Shores is handling Hegarty's funeral arrangements.
The funeral home says that due to COVID-19, there will be a private service with military and police honors, with interment taking place at Rosedale Memorial Park.
More details on Hegarty's life are in his obituary online.