Of the Baker City Herald

After months of planning and training, along with some shifting and remodeling at St. Elizabeth Health Services, the Baker County Child Abuse Center is ready to begin operation.

The center will be used to conduct interviews and exams of child abuse victims, according to District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff. In the past, child abuse victims, especially victims of child sexual abuse, have been taken to La Grande or Boise for the type of exam needed to successfully prosecute such cases, he said.

Now, through the commitment of the hospital administrators, including Janet Hanna, Jeff Daniels and Bob Borders, and Dr. John Schott, a family practice physician at the Baker Clinic, the center is ready to provide care and comfort for some of the communitys most vulnerable victims.

The center will help Shirtcliff and the multidisciplinary team continue to address the countys high rate of child abuse and neglect. According to a recent report from Children First for Oregon, 106 children were abused and neglected in Baker County during 2000. That computes to a rate of 26.2 per 1,000 children the third highest rate in the state.

Only Coos County at 30, and Klamath County at 26.6, reported higher rates of abuse and neglect for the year, the report said.

I think part of the explanation for the statistics being up is that were doing our job and getting cases reported, Shirtcliff said. The child is better off because the abuse stops.

In the last four to six years, weve really improved our investigative techniques and education in the community and schools about reporting, he said. The fact that (statistics) are up some now is partly an indicator that these things are being reported more.

Thats good news for children. In the past, although county statistics might have been lower, abuse was not as widely reported, Shirtcliff maintains. Instead, the abuse remained a secret and the harm to the child was allowed to continue, he said.

Id rather have a high statistic than a statistic that shows 10 years later the kid suffered more because we didnt intervene in his life, he said.

Part of that intervention will begin at the child abuse center. A video camera will be used in the specially equipped room to record interviews and a detective will tape record the interviews in a small adjoining room. An adjoining medical room includes an exam table and other special equipment Schott will use to ensure the victims physical well-being.

Were really thankful to the hospital, Shirtcliff said. They provided the room, renovated it and have been really helpful.

Theyve done their part to provide what we think is an important service to the community, he said.

The center also will receive advice and consultant services from the Kid Center in Bend, which operates a CARES (Children At Risk Evaluation Services) Unit.

Methamphetamine a problem

Shirtcliff agrees with Jerry Buzzard, the child welfare program manager for the Department of Human Services in Baker, Union and Wallowa counties, who believes that methamphetamine use contributes to the high rate of child abuse in Baker County.

The aggressive action of the narcotics enforcement team has led to an increase in child dependency cases in which children are placed in foster care, according to the district attorney.

Thats the tragedy of meth the consequences it has for families and children, he said.

Shirtcliff says task force arrests have nearly doubled in recent years.

I think we had a period of time in which meth was on the rise, Shirtcliff said. The task force was not funded and we werent making arrests.

Baker became a place drug people could come and feel real safe, he said. That is no longer the case.

The word is out that the task force is active and using informants to make drug buys, he said.

Thats why its so important we have funding for the narcotics enforcement team, Shirtcliff said. Were decreasing the amount of kids exposed (to meth) and the number of parents affected by it.

Shirtcliff believes establishing the child abuse will help lower the statistics. He also advocates continuing the work already begun in the community. That includes ongoing training for people required by law to report child abuse like teachers, doctors and even Lunch Buddy program volunteers, and continuing funding for the drug task force

If a kid who is abused goes through the court system and the case comes out right, the kid can grow into a healthy adult, he said. Hopefully, over time, we will make a difference.