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THE PUBLIC’S HEALTH

Karen Sullivan's column: Child Evaluation Center fulfills vital function

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A sad truth of our community and region is that some children are sexually, physically and emotionally abused. Most would be hard-pressed to find a silver lining related to this issue, but there is one — it is how we respond, through an entity called the Child Evaluation Center.

Housed at Southwest Montana Community Health Center on Centennial Avenue, the CEC is a space where abused children are interviewed and sometimes examined medically. According to a recent presentation by CEC officials to the Butte-Silver Bow Community Action Team, the CEC provides “a sensitive, safe and child-friendly environment that decreases victim trauma and intimidation.”

Two people integrally involved with the CEC are Molly Molloy, who serves as Southwest Montana Community Health Center’s director of Behavioral Health and the CEC, and Jolie Pate-Terry, who coordinates the CEC’s operations. In their recent presentation, Molloy and Pate-Terry talked about the tremendous coalition of public and private agencies working with the CEC, all dedicated to serving children who’ve been abused. The CEC’s mission statement: “To establish and maintain a center that promotes dignity and respect while minimizing trauma, maximizes criminal prosecution, and ensures continued follow-through in treatment for the best possible outcome.”

Though the CEC is housed at Southwest Montana Community Health Center, satellite operations are located in Anaconda and Dillon, and all of southwest Montana is served — in addition to Silver Bow, Deer Lodge and Beaverhead counties, the CEC also serves children and families in Powell, Madison and Jefferson counties. In 2015, the CEC conducted forensic interviews with 139 children; 19 children, or 13 percent of those interviewed, received medical exams.

Referrals to the CEC must come from law enforcement or the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services’ Division of Child & Family Services (referrals made elsewhere are fed to the CEC through these agencies). Referrals relate to several areas: sexual abuse, physical abuse, neglect, a child being witness to violence, a child being endangered by drugs, or a child who is victimized by crimes related to the Internet.

The CEC uses the vast research associated with Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) to categorize the events abused children are facing. According to the ACEs Web site, “childhood experiences, both positive and negative, have a tremendous impact on future violence victimization and perpetration, and lifelong health and opportunity. As such, early experiences are an important public health issue.”

Adverse childhood experiences include abuse — emotional, physical or sexual — household challenges — a mother being treated violently, household substance abuse, household mental illness, parental separation or divorce, or an incarcerated household member — and neglect — emotional or physical.

ACEs influence health and well-being throughout a lifespan. The more ACEs a child experiences, the higher the risk of disrupted neurodevelopment; social, emotional and cognitive impairment; adoption of behaviors that are a risk to health; disease, disability and social problems; and early death.

In answer to children facing these issues and referred to the CEC, Molloy and Pate-Terry said their model uses teamwork and collaboration to provide a sensitive, safe and child-friendly environment that decreases victim trauma and intimidation.

A multi-disciplinary team goes into action — law enforcement, Child & Family Services, prosecutors, medical providers, mental health providers, forensic interviewers, victim advocates and child advocates. At times, officials from youth probation or staff from the emergency room are called in.

Molloy and Pate-Terry said agencies cooperate and coordinate to conduct investigations related to criminal behavior or dependency. Forensic interviews with the child are conducted by specially trained staff. Crisis intervention and referrals are provided for victims, whether the victim is a child, an adult or an entire family. There is a prevention component — the CEC’s intent, according to Molloy and Pate-Terry, is to “lower the incidence of child abuse and sexual assault through effective intervention and prosecution.”

In their recent presentation, Molly and Pate-Terry underscored that our community and region need to be proud that we have an entity such as the CEC. The abuse of a child is horrific, but how we respond as a community — through the CEC and its multi-disciplinary team — is incredibly proactive. Having a CEC allows the community to educate, and brings together a multi-disciplinary team for best response. It also allows for early intervention, and provides evidence-based counseling so that children in these situations can learn how to cope.

“ACEs are not a sentence,” Molloy and Pate-Terry said in their presentation. “When we intervene, we can help limit the long-term consequences.”

In other words, children who’ve experienced trauma have a decent shot at lifelong health and opportunity.

Karen Sullivan is Butte-Silver Bow Health Officer and Director of the Health Department. Her column, The Public's Health, appears weekly on The Montana Standard's health page.

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