Luncheon feeds team helping children in crisis

Event will benefit growing need for abuse assessment

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

If you go

• What: Salmon Creek Cares Luncheon.

When: 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sept. 12.

Where: Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St.

Why: Fundraiser for Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center’s Child Abuse Assessment Team.

Tickets: Available online, legacyhealth.org/events, or by calling Shirley Gross at 360-487-3457 through Friday. Tickets are $40 each; table of 10 for $400.

For decades, Dr. John Stirling did a job everybody wished didn't exist.

The Vancouver pediatrician was the county's unofficial medical evaluator of children who were suspected to be victims of physical or sexual abuse or neglect. In that role, he interviewed children, worked with law enforcement officers and the prosecutor's office, and took the witness stand to testify during court cases.

Stirling didn't receive any payment for performing the child assault investigations and wasn't working under any official contract with the county's children's advocacy center.

Instead, he performed the lengthy exams -- typically lasting two to three hours each -- from his practice at The Vancouver Clinic. He cleared his schedule on Thursday mornings to perform the exams. When children went to the hospital with acute injuries, Stirling would see them at lunch or after his day at the practice was over.

When Stirling took a job in San Jose, Calif., in 2007, the community struggled to find a successor.

Then in 2008, Legacy Salmon Creek Medical Center stepped in.

The hospital set up contracts with local nurses and a physician who performed the interviews and exams on their off days, typically two to four times per month. But in 2011, as Clark County was seeing a 33 percent increase in the number of reported child abuse cases, the hospital realized the community's need was much bigger.

So, in October 2011, Legacy launched the Child Abuse Assessment Team. Now Dr. Kim Copeland does the job everybody wished didn't exist.

In its first 12 months, Copeland and her team had 261 referrals. In the first six months of this year, the number of referrals is on track to show a 25 percent annual increase, said Brian Willoughby, Legacy spokesman.

To ensure the program continues to help Clark County children, the Salmon Creek Hospital Foundation created an endowment. Last year, the foundation held a luncheon to benefit the CAAT program. The benefit raised $99,000 after covering its expenses.

Next month, the foundation is hosting its second luncheon. Organizers hope to bring in $120,000.

Dr. Stirling will return to Vancouver and give the keynote speech at this year's event.

"Our best hope for these kids is to pull together as a community and recognize and serve them with our best services," he said.

Dedicated children's advocacy centers offer that kind of care, he said. In Clark County, Stirling was part of the movement to create such a center.

In about 1988, Stirling and other community leaders, including former Clark County Prosecutor Art Curtis, attended a week-long conference focused on establishing local child abuse centers.

After that conference, the county established its Child Abuse Intervention Center -- renamed the Arthur D. Curtis Children's Justice Center in October 2007 -- launching a multi-jurisdiction effort involving police agencies, county prosecutors and Child Protective Services. Stirling was the go-to consultant for medical evaluations.

The center and team of professionals resulted in better abuse detection, more efficient prosecution and better service to children, Stirling said.

Before the center, if a child disclosed abuse to an adult, the police would be called, Stirling said. That call would typically be followed by a series of separate interviews, perhaps by a patrol officer, then a detective, a social worker, a physician, and if the case went to court, a prosecutor, investigators and attorneys, Stirling said.

"There would be six or eight times when the kid would have to tell the story," Stirling said. "With the teamwork approach, there are fewer people interrogating the kid."

"It's a good system," he said.

Stirling hopes to see the community he called home for 30 years continue to support that system.

"What impressed me in Vancouver, when I was there, it was a city full of talent," Stirling said. "There are a lot of people there motivated to do the right thing and the talent to do it.

"… I think Vancouver has the right attitude and the right people," he added. "Bringing people together around an issue is key."


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