Legacy launches clinic for child abuse victims

Assessment team leader calls demand for its services shocking

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

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When people learn about the type of work Dr. Kim Copeland does, they always have the same question: How do you do it?

They ask because Copeland’s job requires her to examine children who have been the victims of unimaginable acts of sexual and physical abuse.

They ask because the job also requires her to talk to children about arguably the most horrific experiences of their lives and delve into the details of the abuse.

Copeland leads Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center’s new Child Abuse Assessment Team.

“I don’t have the hard part, the kids do,” she said.

Copeland didn’t set out to be in her line of work, but after 18 months of training in child abuse treatment, she realized she was exactly where she was supposed to be.

“It really spoke to me. It was something I wanted to do,” she said. “I still ask myself, ‘Why am I doing this?’ Every single day I do it, I can’t get over how it was just the right thing to do.”

Legacy first started doing sexual assault exams of young victims in 2008 when a local physician who had performed most of those exams moved out of the state.

The hospital set up contracts with local nurses and a physician who performed the interviews and exams on their off days. Usually, they offered clinic hours two to four times a month and saw a few patients each day.

But as time passed, hospital staff realized the community had a bigger need than the infrequent clinic could meet.

“It became clear there was not only a need for sexual assault exams, unfortunately, there was a big need for physical exams as well,” Copeland said.

Copeland, who has spent much of her career working in and directing pediatric emergency departments, received grants to attend child abuse conferences and other training sessions.

In October of this year, the medical center deployed its new Child Abuse Assessment Team headed by Copeland. The clinic sees children — from infants to 18-year-olds — who are, or are suspected to be, victims of physical or sexual abuse or neglect.

Most of the kids are referred to the clinic through hospital emergency departments, the foster care system or the Arthur D. Curtis Children’s Justice Center.

Copeland also has a contract with the state to provide medical consultations for the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). She reviews medical reports, photos and summaries of Child Protective Services’ suspected abuse cases and issues opinions as to whether abuse occurred.

The demand for Copeland’s services has been shocking, she said.

From the end of October to early December, Copeland saw 25 patients at the hospital and provided 11 consultations for state child abuse cases.

From September 2010 to September 2011, hospital physicians examined 45 young patients who were the victims of abuse.

“I look at these kids, and what they’ve been through is unimaginable,” Copeland said.

Many come into the office timid, scared and hesitant to talk about the abuse. She gets to know them, asks them about school, what they like to do for fun. Even though they have to talk about the abuse, by the end of the visit most kids open up and return to being happy, playful children, she said.

“They are so resilient,” Copeland said. “It’s inspiring.”

Despite the difficulty of her job, Copeland said seeing kids rebound reassures her that she’s in the right place.

“I didn’t expect to be this passionate, and I didn’t expect to feel this spoken to by each kid,” she said. “Each case is different, but the core isn’t different. At the core, they’re still kids.”

Marissa Harshman: http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com; 360-735-4546.