On Wasco Street in Hood River, just up from the 13th Street intersection, there lies an unassuming, beige, quad-plex that from the outside, looks mostly like any other apartment building you might find in America.
On the inside, however, the walls of this apartment have born witness to hundreds of stories regarding some of the darkest, most heinous acts that occur in Hood River County. Here, approximately once a week, on average, a harrowing story of abuse is told to forensic interviewers, sometimes of physical abuse, sometimes of sexual abuse, but always involving children.
It can also, however, be a place where the healing process begins.
The building in question is the Columbia Gorge Children’s Advocacy Center — a nonprofit responsible for collecting evidence of child abuse for the courts by directly interviewing and examining the victims. The site, which serves Gilliam and Wheeler counties in addition to Hood River, also provides coordinated support services for child abuse victims.
April is Child Abuse Awareness Month and CGCAC has worked to highlight the issue by holding an open house at its Wasco Street site as well as through its Blue Ribbon Campaign, which asks businesses and individuals to wear or display blue ribbons to show support for victims of child abuse.
CGCAC is the smallest of Oregon’s 21 children advocacy centers, but the center has seen nearly 250 children in its four and a half years of operation — treating, on average, a child per week, the vast majority of which live in Hood River County. And as of late, those numbers have been increasing.
Carrie Rasmussen, deputy district attorney for Hood River County, is responsible for prosecuting the county’s child abusers. She recently gave a report to the Hood River County Board of Commissioners about the county’s “ever-increasing” number of child abuse cases, noting that the actual number of child abuse cases rose by 50 percent last year. Many of these cases involve children who witness domestic violence, which is classified as abuse due to the emotional trauma it inflicts on a child. It also changes a misdemeanor assault charge to a felony.
Perhaps most troubling is the fact that those numbers Rasmussen keeps are, by her own words, “conservative” for a crime that is already underreported.
“These numbers are by offender, so they don’t represent actual numbers of cases,” she told the board, “but what I am seeing, however, though, is a dramatic increase in child abuse.”
Rasmussen, who has been the county’s DDA for the past nine years, spearheaded the launch of CGCAC, which opened its doors in September 2009. Rasmussen says she was motivated to start the center after she lost a “very difficult” child sexual abuse case due to issues with evidence collection.
“There were so many things that went wrong with that case that I knew we needed a children’s advocacy center,” she says.
Prior to CGCAC, child abuse victims were interviewed at police stations, the Department of Health and Human Services, or had to be taken to Portland. Rasmussen envisioned a more homey, nurturing environment where these interviews could take place.
Rasmussen says CGCAC got off the ground thanks to all the many people, businesses, and organizations in the community who offered to help with either their time, money, or donations of materials. Currently, a third of the center’s funding comes from the Oregon Department of Justice through its Child Abuse Multidisciplinary Intervention (CAMI) program, while the rest comes from donations, grants, and fundraising events.
Debi Baskins, CGCAC’s executive director, is the only paid employee at the center. The center’s two forensic interviewers, Beatriz Lynch and Michelle Tremblay, as well as its pediatrician, Dr. Michele Beaman, all have day jobs, but volunteer at the center on an on-call basis.
“We are able to operate on a pretty slim budget because these women are willing to do this,” notes Baskins, adding, “They do the really hard work.”
The staffers of CGCAC work in conjunction with DHS and local law enforcement during the abuse cases and the outside agencies often come into CGCAC to provide backstory. They are often present during the interview process, which is conducted in a room in the back of the center.
Baskins says the main goal of CGCAC, in addition to evidence collection and support services, is to make the child feel as comfortable as possible while at the center.
“It’s like walking into a home,” she says of the center. “There’s a living rooms area with toys and stuffed animals. Our goal is to make them feel safe and comfortable when they go into an interview. Our hope is that they don’t leave here traumatized.”
Indeed, the main room of the center does look like a living room, furnished with couches, a coffee table, a television that has children’s movies besides it, and a veritable F.A.O. Schwartz-sized collection of fuzzy stuffed animals for the children to play with.
After the children have had some time to play, they are taken down the hall to Dr. Beaman’s, whose workspace resembles a typical pediatrician’s examination room, complete with a patient table, supply cabinets, colorful mobiles hanging from the ceiling, and a chart adorned with animals frolicking around the letters of the alphabet. Also in the room is a device called a colposcope, which Dr. Beaman explains is used to take close up images of wounds sustained during a sexual assault.
An infant weight scale sits on a counter in the room. When asked the age of the youngest patient she’s seen here, Beaman answers, “6 months old.”
The work can be difficult for Dr. Beaman, who is a pediatrician at Legacy Emanuel’s Randall Children’s Hospital in Portland. As a pediatrician, she says she “wants to fix things” that are hurting children, but in this case, it’s not so easy to do.
“Sometimes you’re just heartbroken, but it’s good to have a team to share that with,” Dr. Beaman says of her fellow volunteers at CGCAC.
Tremblay, whose task at CGCAC is to interview the children, agrees that it’s emotionally demanding work.
“They talk about some pretty harsh things here,” Tremblay notes, who works as a family therapist at Child Protective services as well as the juvenile departments of Klickitat and Skamania counties. “Things you wouldn’t even ask your mate, I have to ask a 4-year-old.”
The interview room consists of two chairs that face a two-way mirror, where a camera on the other side of the glass records the conversation. Baskins says every interview begins by asking the child for permission to be recorded, explaining how the two-way mirror works, and establishing the difference between a truth and a lie. She adds that interviewers are trained to ask non-leading questions about the abuse incident that are geared toward the age of the child so the answers will hold up in court.
The entire process takes approximately 2-3 hours, depending on the situation. Afterwards, the guardian of the child is directed to support services used to help victims of abuse.
Although the kids that comes through CGCAC’s doors have suffered through some traumatic incidents, Baskins notes that sometimes, there are happy endings.
“A lot of times kids will come in, clinging to their mother’s arms, and very apprehensive, and oftentimes, they are smiling as they are leaving,” she says. “It’s amazing.”
How to help: Like many nonprofits, CGCAC operates on a very limited budget and CGCAC will be holding a fundraiser called, “Spring for Kids” to help raise money for the center. The event will be held Saturday, April 19 at Springhouse Cellar in Hood River. Food, live music by the Groove Project, a no-host wine and beer bar as well as a silent and live auction will be featured. The event is sponsored by A Kidz Dental Zone and DelCarpine Automotive. The charge for adult admission is $10 and all proceeds go to benefit CGCAC. For more information about this event and the Blue Ribbon Campaign, please call CGCAC at 541-436-2960.