As we approach the year-long opening of the state’s first – and still only – fully co-located child advocacy center with multiple services for sexually and physically abused children in one building, the rise in numbers proves the concept is working, according to executives.
“Colorado Springs came together to make sure this was open and ready when the pandemic ended,” said Maureen “Mo” Basenberg, executive director of Safe Passage, which since 1995 has coordinated the investigative, medical, therapy and advocacy to child victimization. in El Paso County.
The organization “wouldn’t be OK,” she said, if she was in her old 2,000-square-foot office as the company returned to a more normal state after the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We would be at breaking point,” Basenberg said.
As the organization had anticipated, when local schools started the new academic year in August in the most typical educational mode since spring 2020, they saw an influx of alleged cases of child sexual and physical abuse. 17 and under.
From January to September, Safe Passage served 1,176 primary and secondary victims of abuse, up from 918 in 2021, which Basenberg calls “a significant increase.”
From November 1, 2021 to this week, the total number of children served was 1,390, with the majority of cases related to sexual abuse.
“When the kids were in school and interacting with teachers and other staff, they started to come out, which is exactly what we predicted,” Basenberg said.
An increase is also reflected in reports to the El Paso County Department of Social Services’ Abuse and Neglect Hotline. In the first six months of this year, 218 additional calls were handled in 2021, for a total of 10,729 from January to June.
Safe Passage spent four years creating the new center, which opened Nov. 1, 2021, in a large, renovated building at 2335 Robinson St. on the west side of town.
Seven agencies have 40 employees working in the more than 13,000 square foot center: Safe Passage, Colorado Springs Police Department, El Paso County Sheriff’s Office, UCHealth, El Paso County Department of Human Services, Kidpower of Colorado, which provides education to safety, and The Family Center, which offers crisis counseling and ongoing mental health therapy.
Collocation makes the difficult task of determining whether a child has been injured by an adult, usually someone they know, easier, Basenberg said.
With forensic nurses, police and sheriff’s deputies, counselors, child protective services and empowerment coaches right next to each other, kids can talk about their experiences without judgment , be physically and mentally examined, ask questions of trained professionals, see a series of photos of potential perpetrators, and speak with trauma specialists, who can help them process what happened and work on healing.
Employees from different agencies can have a quick meeting at any time to talk about a specific case, said Sarah Hagedorn, forensic nurse examiner in charge at UCHealth, who leads the center’s nursing team.
“We can provide you with medical care, trauma care, connect you immediately to whatever you need,” she said. “Coordination is more complicated when everyone is not in the same room.”
The aligned agencies were also busy.
UCHealth, which does not charge clients for on-site services, recorded 492 nurse interactions at the center from January through September, Basenberg said.
Safe Passage had no interaction with nurses in previous years because the organization did not have forensic nurses on hand, she said.
The number of forensic examinations carried out rose from 10 in the first nine months of 2021 to 78 from January to September this year.
The exam space feels more like a salon than a medical procedure space, with kid-sized equipment and a youthful appeal for what can be an uncomfortable encounter.
“Just hearing from a medical professional with specialized training that their body is fine, that there is nothing wrong with them, no one can tell what happened by looking at them. and reassuring them, is beneficial,” Hagedorn said.
“I was overwhelmed by the value this has for patients,” she said. “It starts to facilitate that healing process.”
The new center has also conducted 591 forensic interviews since January, described as non-directing, non-therapeutic conversations between an alleged child victim and a trained investigator about what may or may not have happened to a child.
Children are encouraged to play with toys in a comfortable and warm environment before beginning the investigative process to determine if criminal charges are in order. Kid-friendly graphics and colors are meant to calm families and lighten moods, in stark contrast to an emergency department or police station.
Agencies continue to investigate abuse and support victims at their main sites; however, collocation is considered “best practice” by industry standards.
For example, experts recommend that if a child who is believed to have been abused is not in imminent danger, there is no benefit in going to the emergency room, Basenberg said.
“There is a trauma with this environment and the wait times,” she said. “That’s not where anyone wants to be.”
The majority of clients Safe Passage works with are between the ages of 7 and 17, Basenberg said.
“Unfortunately, pediatric sexual abuse is much more common than people realize,” Hagedorn said, adding that Memorial Hospital sees 10 to 20 victims of prepubescent and teenage sexual abuse each month.
Most perpetrators are known to the child or family, Basenberg said, possibly an uncle who needed housing and came to live at home, or a step-parent, an ex-boyfriend , a neighbor or a friend of the family.
The Safe Passage Children’s Advocacy Center is accredited by the National Children’s Alliance, which in 2020 reported 924 child advocacy centers in the United States.
The formation of a collaborative business model is a growing trend. Earlier this year, the Pikes Peak Community Foundation opened a mutual office in Colorado Springs for charitable funders.
Early childhood development programs and homeless-serving agencies visited the new Safe Passage facility, as well as a children’s advocacy center in Denver, Basenberg said.
“The trust and faith that the community and community leaders had in this model was born to show real impact for child victims in our community,” she said.