The Mt. Emily Safe Center is tucked away in a residential neighborhood in La Grande. It is situated in a home and is furnished like one. The intent is to make it as comfortable as possible because the conversations that take place within its walls are anything but.
Kim McDonald, executive director, Tiffany Burns, forensic interviewer, and Amy Morgan, child and family advocate, sit in the living room area. The office is quiet, except for the occasional ringtone going off, as the three talk to one another.
The Mt. Emily Safe Center is the second step in the process of a child sexual abuse investigation. Burns especially is the one whose job is to get a disclosure from the child regarding abuse allegations. Children come to the Safe Center for a number of reasons, but the vast majority of the cases involve sexual abuse.
The Department of Human Services or law enforcement will contact the center after a complaint has been filed or a disclosure has been made, McDonald said.
“The child will come here first, ideally,” she said.
Most times the grand jury has already decided there’s enough evidence to start an investigation, she said, but sometimes the Safe Center is notified of a new case when the Union County District Attorney is still with the family, since the allegations are serious enough to have an immediate conversation.
Burns said it is best for the child if she has as much information as possible going into the forensic interview, which she conducts, so that only one interview is necessary. While they are able to interview the child as much as they need to, rehashing the story over and over again can be traumatizing for the child.
By the time the child and his or her loved ones, whether that’s members of their family or not, get to the Mt. Emily Safe Center, there is generally a safety plan in place to protect the child from the alleged abuser. If that person is a relative living in the child’s home, getting the child away from the home is priority.
Law enforcement, DHS and the employees at the Safe Center figure out what the child needs at that moment. The center is equipped to provide a medical exam, a complete physical performed by a licensed physician approved to conduct these specific types of examinations, if the alleged abuse happened recently. If the incident occurred outside the window of obtaining forensic evidence, then the medical exam can wait, McDonald explained. The timing of the interview also depends on the situation.
Burns said what she does in the interview room is very methodical. She must build a rapport with the child quickly. Her questions must be asked in such a way that the child offers the information, and Burns must be careful not to lead the child in any way. A parent cannot be in the room with the child because many times, Burns said, children won’t say things if their parent is watching.
“(The interviews) are far scarier for the parents than for the kids,” McDonald said. “Kids can sense when their parent is scared. They don’t want to upset their parents either.”
Burns said she has to set the groundwork for the interview with the child. She must make sure the child knows only the truth can be said during that interview, and she’ll test the child with questions to make sure he or she understands that. Burns then will begin a conversation that will hopefully provide a disclosure of the abuse, and then Burns will end with talking about the child’s family or friends or a lighter topic.
One of the challenging things for Burns is she can’t show emotions during the interview no matter what is said. She said even if the child is crying, she isn’t allowed to give comfort or display anything other than a stoic pose.
And in many interviews, once the first disclosure is made, others follow.
“It’s not usually one little thing,” said McDonald, explaining that there are often multiple incidents, or one child’s disclosure leads to the discovery of more victims.
According to the Department of Human Services website, by age 18, one in four females and one in eight males will be sexually abused. In 2010, Oregon investigated more than 29,000 reports of child abuse or neglect, and 16 percent of those cases involved sexual abuse.
McDonald said the Mt. Emily Safe Center sees an average of 100 to 150 children every year. The center serves Baker, Wallowa, Umatilla, Morrow and Union counties.
See more in Friday's edition of The Observer.