On the night of Nov. 4, 2014, Susan Hutchinson was ironing her husband’s shirt in a room at Embassy Suites Hotel in west Little Rock while her then-2-year-old granddaughter, Isabella, watched a rented episode of Mickey Mouse Clubhouse on the television. As Donald Duck and Goofy danced across the screen to one of their trademark songs—Hot dog, hot dog, hot diggity dog!—the soon-to-be governor, Asa Hutchinson, burst through the door, fresh from a flight back from Northwest Arkansas.
“He told me we needed to turn the television to the news because the polls were closing,” Mrs. Hutchinson says with a laugh, thinking back to election night. “I thought we’d have at least a few more hours. So I said, ‘No! Don’t touch that television! I paid for that show—and you don’t mess with Isabella when she’s watching one of her programs!’”
Not two minutes later, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was calling to congratulate the Hutchinsons on their win: After losing three previous statewide elections, Asa was set to become the seventh Republican governor in the state’s 178-year history. So the newly elected head of state shimmied into his freshly ironed shirt, and the new first lady rushed to find her shoes, and with their four children and five grandchildren in tow, the couple hurried downstairs to greet the supporters who’d gathered to welcome them.
Mrs. Hutchinson might have been unprepared for how quickly it would all shake out on election night, but that doesn’t mean that she wasn’t ready for her new role. (“After all,” she says, “we did run for office in every decade.”) Much like her husband, who came into the state’s highest office guns blazing, Mrs. Hutchinson had long known what her cause would be if she were to become Arkansas’ first lady: advocating for children who are victims of abuse.
It’s work that she’s felt called to do since 2003, when she first became involved with the Children’s Advocacy Centers (CACs) of Arkansas—a nonprofit organization that operates safe, child-friendly places where abuse victims and their families can seek access to medical examiners, forensic interviewers, advocacy services and therapy. Currently, there are only 14 CACs across the state, “and they’re not very well scattered about,” says Mrs. Hutchinson, meaning that some children have to travel three hours or more to reach help. Her goal? To found a CAC in every corner of the state—in every county, actually.
It’s a lofty goal, but one that Mrs. Hutchinson is optimistic about reaching. As she prepares to be recognized as the organization’s inaugural Arkansas Woman of Inspiration this month, we sat down with the first lady in her office at the governor’s mansion to learn more about how she plans to do so.
You grew up in Georgia, the second oldest of seven children. What was that like?
Well, I kind of ended up being the oldest, actually. My oldest sister is older by six years, so when I was 12, I was junior bridesmaid in her wedding. I ended up being the leader at home, helping my mama. They just taught us that old adage of “A job worth doing is worth doing well.” And also there was the anchor of faith, that ultimately you’re always responsible to God, in what you’re thinking, in the choices that you make. That He’s always, like it or not, involved.
That anchor of faith is what led you to Bob Jones University, where you met Gov. Hutchinson. What was he like when you met?
I was looking for a man who would not only love me but who loved God, as well, and who also found that important. And someone I could look up to, someone I would want my children to grow up to be like. When I met Asa, I was just enthralled with him—enamored with him—but I checked him out. I asked around. What’s he like? What do other people think about him? Everyone had nothing but good things to say about him, he’d been elected twice to lead his men’s group. He was a hard worker—he was working his way through school, as well.
You had a job, too?
Oh, yes. I was cleaning toilets. And he was, too. He was on maintenance detail, and he was actually leader of the men’s squad for doing maintenance and cleanup after hours, and I was in charge of the hall bathrooms and scrubbing the floors on the weekends. If it helped pay the bills, you did it.
And he had big ideas, he was looking beyond career and making a living. He was thinking, Oh, we don’t have a Christian radio station back in Northwest Arkansas. We don’t have an independent school in Northwest Arkansas. He was thinking big thoughts. And that has impact. That’s service beyond your family.
Even back then, was there a glimmer of his future in politics?
Well, I was just excited that he was a farm boy—he’d grown up on a farm, and I knew what all that meant. He was reliable. A peacemaker. Calm, and assured, but very thoughtful of other people. It was never about him.
He never mentioned running for office—that was not in the fine print. That was kind of a big surprise, really. We didn’t come from political families. No one had ever run for office, registered for one party or another. But I believed in him, that his heart was right about it, that he had good ideas. And I knew he was running for all the right purposes.
In the course of it all, you do come across people from the same political persuasion who are not running for the right reasons. I’ve often told him, If you were like that one over there, I wouldn’t be doing this. Life’s too short, your family’s too precious. You must have a servant’s heart. And you have to keep that servant’s heart. You’re trying to serve the greater good for everyone. To use the authority, but to use it for the good, not for personal gains.
I get the sense, from both your past as a teacher and your present work with the CAC, that you understand what it means to have a servant’s heart. As for teaching—was that something you felt called to do?
I never expected the teaching part. My mom always thought I was a good, natural teacher. And I always enjoyed explaining things to people. And science. So I majored in biology, minored in chemistry, considering medicine. But I’m a single-minded person. When I found Asa, I said, Yes, this is it. I turned to teaching, which got me closer to him.
But even after I left the classroom full time, I substituted at the kids’ schools and then at the Fort Smith Public Schools, elementary, junior high, and high school. The whole gamut, since I’ve studied Latin, German, French, sciences, music and as far as I could get with math. Art was my weakness, but I would just say, I know art when I see it, and that’s not art. And then I would learn from them, as they explained their work to me. I did P.E. Archery. I mean, it’s powerful when you interact with a young person, and you’re helping them learn. It might be piano, learning to read better, understanding the difference between RNA and DNA, or understanding the scriptures better and applying them to life.
And that’s why it’s great, for me, to be able to connect with children again. Even if it’s a sad point in their lives. To give them hope, to give them protection, to redirect and get them back on a good, wholesome path for them to become everything they were designed to be, to grow and develop.
What exactly happens at a CAC?
They are specifically trained in child “first talk” to know how to approach the subject, to ask the appropriate questions the appropriate way. They videotape it, and the whole account is passed along to the authorities who do the investigative work. If it’s needed, they continue on with long-term counseling. Free of charge. It’s age-appropriate counseling—sometimes it’s play therapy or art therapy, and that can work with teenagers, too. It continues regardless of what has and has not happened in the legal process. That child has gone through what that child has gone through, and we’re there for them to give them the appropriate medical exam by specially trained nurse examiners, and trauma-focused therapy.
For a person of any age to be able to open up and talk through these nightmares, these horrible situations—for them to be able to open up and trust another individual to hear them and care about them and not come down on them, not blame them, not think less of them? That starts the healing of that soul. And if they’ll continue to come back—and most do, almost all do—they realize how much it starts to help them and those that are around them, and they get back to being that happy, carefree soul they were meant to be.
How’d you get involved with the organization?
I heard about [the CAC in Benton County] through an acquaintance, and Asa had been made aware of it, too, and he said, Oh yes, go check it out, you’ll love it—they work with kids. A couple of years later, they needed a board member, and I accepted.
It’s a blessing to have [a CAC], and yet it’s sad that it’s needed. But it’s sadder still that you’ve got one—and yet nobody knows it’s there. As we got people more aware in Benton County that we were there, and as law enforcement saw that we were there and how useful we were for the children, they came to work with us more and more. The prosecutors realized that with us doing the forensic interview, it not only saved them time, but they were far more accurate. All in one setting, no real disruption, the child is comfortable. The CACs have no authority. We can’t tell anyone what to do. We’re just there. There to facilitate their healing.
Without the help of a CAC, what happens? How is our traditional system failing these children?
The statistics are horrific [when it comes] to the incidents of sexual abuse and physical abuse of underage people. To think that there are children out there who are hurting, and no one’s able to offer help to them or hope to them. Parents don’t know where to turn; prosecutors will tell you the odds are against you in a court of law. Where’s this pain supposed to go? And that person who did it is still out there, able to hurt someone else. Most likely, that person looks like you and me. It’s rarely the stranger. Well over 90 percent of the time, it’s someone who is within the circle of trust.
Typically, you’d report it, and the prosecutor would sit down with the family and tell them how it would go [in court], and they might say, Well, I don’t want to put my child through that. We’ll just keep the bad person away. And so the bad person keeps doing what bad people do, and this kid’s left on their own without this kind of counseling—it goes far beyond typical family counseling. It goes much deeper than that.
Has there been an a-ha! moment these past 12 years you’ve been working with the organization, when you’ve really witnessed the effect it’s having on Arkansas children?
I don’t meet the children, all of that is confidential. It’s mostly that I’ve met grown women who didn’t have these services when they were children and heard what they went through to get whole. The struggle. We did have an occasion where one young lady came to sing at one of our events, and afterwards, it dawned on her. Oh my. My mother brought me to y’all when I was a little girl. And you helped me. That was y’all. And that’s what the folks at the CAC in Benton County are seeing because they’ve been operating for 13 years. Now, 13 years might not seem like much to you and me, but when you’re 6 or 7, 13 years is a lifetime. That’s what keeps you going. It is tremendous stuff. It would absolutely give you nightmares to hear what the children have to say. Knowing that there’s such a person out there who would do such unspeakable things. It’s unnerving, a force against nature.
What’s currently on your to-do list as the organization’s Woman of Inspiration?
We’ll have to have more people trained to work in the new CACs, and the government helps us out with some of that, but we’re going to need a lot of help. And the fundraising has been going tremendously well. And it’s very humbling. There’s a Mercy health clinic in Hot Springs that’s partnered with CAC; they share the building with us. And CASA and CAC in Faulkner County went in together. They were realizing that the child needed to talk to someone before they got in the legal system. Where we have clinics out there already, wouldn’t it be great to have some kind of partnership so kids would have access to at least the minimal to get them started?
Arkansas Children’s Hospital sees the big picture. They’ve been a big help to the Pulaski County CAC, and the housing that they are affording us, with the brand-new building that’s being constructed. They also help medically over there, and they also lend Dr. Karen Farst out to other CACs, so she can supervise and cooperate and consult with our local nurse examiners. They’re putting in $10 million. It’s going to be very kid-friendly, decorations on the outside, so when the child pulls up, they know it’s for them. They’ll have different entrances for people to come through, whether it’s police officers, victims, people coming in for counseling. They’ll also be offering counseling for underage perpetrators.
Seems like a good time for you to be doing this work in Pulaski County, then. I have to ask—has being in this role viewed how you view challenges in this state? Has having the kind of visibility that this role affords made solutions easier to come by?
I think so. I think it’s the right time in Arkansas for a person like Asa to be governor and for a person like me to be first lady. The way it’s been prepared, it wasn’t all about election night, winning. No, it was a gift, a trust that was bestowed upon us to lead. But then when we go around to do leadership things, we look around and all these other people are already on the same gear with us, wanting to have these things happen, doing these things already, and so we are connecting the dots.
At the end of these four years, what do you hope Arkansans remember about you?
That I rescued children. If I don’t get anything else done, I’ve got to get this done. Arkansas will be so much better for it, not just today, but for days and days and generations to come. You’re hurting more than a child when you hurt a child—you’re hurting their future, if not their life, their productivity. Arkansas will be even better for having rescued its children.
The inaugural Arkansas Woman of Inspiration luncheon honoring Mrs. Hutchinson will be held on Oct. 23 at the Marriott in Little Rock. For more information, visit cacarkansas.org.