Physical, Sexual Abuse Exams for Sac-Area Children at Risk

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(Sacramento, CA)
Wednesday, December 16, 2009
Sacramento-area prosecutors could soon have a much harder time building a case against child abusers.  That’s because the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento is canceling a decades-old program that conducts forensic examinations of children who have been physically or sexually abused.  County officials are scrambling to find a replacement provider.

In court, in cases of the physical or sexual abuse of a minor, it’s often the child’s word against the adult’s.  And that, says Yolo County’s Cameron Handley, is where these medical exams come in.
Handley: “Say you have a three- or four-year-old, or even a seven-year-old, and they’re describing being abused. So if you have medical evidence that this child was injured and somewhere violated or there is evidence that they have been sexually abused, that’s just huge.”
Handley supervises the county’s Child Advocacy Center, which works with law enforcement to investigate and prosecute offenders.  She says the evidentiary exams collect DNA – and photos – to help corroborate a child’s statement.
Handley: “It’s basically using special equipment to take magnified photos, and a team of experts reviews those photos. They make a ruling about what they’re looking at, and whether there are findings or evidence of sexual abuse.”

Sacramento, Yolo and El Dorado counties currently rely on a single program at a single hospital for those exams.  The UC Davis Medical Center’s CAARE Center conducts between 40 and 70 exams a month.  But the Med Center is canceling its contracts with the counties by March 1st.  Dr. Anthony Philipps with the UC Davis Children’s Hospital blames Sacramento County’s budget mess:
Philipps: “Because the county terminated a number of the other programs that we had.”
Like the medical clearance exams for incoming foster kids we reported on last month.  Philipps says the contracts for those programs also helped fund the evidentiary exams.
Philipps: “And without those larger contracts, we simply couldn’t afford to keep the other one open.”
Local officials say losing the exams could put the prosecution of child abusers at serious risk.  And after March 1st, county officials don’t know where they’ll take kids for the exams.  Yolo County’s Cameron Handley says losing the CAARE Center is tragic.
Handley: “It’s an end of an era.  Most of us are stunned and can’t believe it’s happening.  They have been the leaders of this industry.  They train everybody.  Kids get flown in from all over California just to come to the Med Center.”
In a letter to the dean of the UC Davis School of Medicine obtained by Capital Public Radio, Sacramento County District Attorney Jan Scully says it would be “impossible” to identify, train and approve a contract with a new provider by March 1st.  And over at El Dorado County, a spokesman says they didn’t know anything about the cancellation of the exams until we called and asked.
So far, officials are aware of just one other potential program in the region.  It’s at the Sutter Health System.  Dr. Angela Rosas is the program’s medical director.
Rosas: “We can provide evidentiary exams for children and adolescents and adults for the four-county region. We won’t be able to provide services, though, until the earliest of April 1st.”
Rosas says that’s because it takes time to hire and train new staff.
District Attorney Scully has already asked UC Davis to extend the exams through the end of June to transition without a gap in care.   The hospital declined.  So the DA’s office will now ask for an April 1st extension, until the Sutter program can take over.  But officials say there’s simply no money available.  That means there could be a gap of at least a month when kids who get physically or sexually abused don’t get the exams.