Center works to ease the hurt for abused children

Ryan Ori

Dr. Kay Saving has been medical director of the Pediatric Resource Center since she helped establish the facility in 1993.

Even after 15 years, Saving sometimes inadequately braces herself to see an abused child.

"Just going in and seeing the degree of injury that can be done to the child, you don't always expect the impact of going into the room,' Saving said. 'It can really affect you."

Located in Peoria, the PRC examined children from 36 counties who were suspected of being neglected or physically or sexually abused during the fiscal year ending June 30.

During that time, PRC staff evaluated 251 children — 56 percent for allegations of sexual abuse, 36 percent for physical abuse and 8 percent for neglect. From that total, 57 percent were under the age of 5.

Since opening 15 years ago, the PRC has provided examinations or phone consultations for more than 4,000 children.

During the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria's annual Community Health Award Luncheon on Oct. 22, the PRC was presented with a Dr. Joseph S. Solovy Award for outstanding commitment to community health.

"We are fortunate to have them in our area," said Barb Strand, director of the Tazewell County Children's Advocacy Center.

The TCCAC, which actually has offices in Pekin, Eureka and Havana, refers 40 to 60 children to the PRC each year.

"Many areas of the state do not have access to people who are qualified to perform these kinds of exams," Strand said. "They have the equipment, the setup there, and the people who are trained to do this work. That's critical for the child's well-being, that they're treated as a child would want to be treated.

"They write reports that can be used in court when charges are filed against perpetrators. Their expertise in these medical exams, and their findings and reports, is critical in making sure that cases are sound and that people are held accountable for their actions."

The Pediatric Resource Center is a community service project of UICOMP, run as a joint program with the Children's Hospital of Illinois at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center.

In addition to serving as PRC's medical director, Saving also is medical director of the Children's Hospital. She also practices pediatric hematology and oncology.

Saving, on the UICOMP faculty, began the process to establish the PRC in 1990. While giving a lecture to UICOMP residents, one young doctor mentioned feeling unprepared to deal with child abuse.

"In the community assessment, it was agreed that there wasn't really a place for those kids to go," Saving said. "They'd go to the (emergency department) at 2 or 3 in the morning if it was a sex-abuse exam. That's really not a good place, with just a curtain around you and no support. We felt we needed to have a place."

The PRC model includes four physicians, plus access to all Children's Hospital sub-specialists. The staff also includes three caseworkers, executive director Linda Simpkins and four clerical workers.

The center, located within a UICOMP multi-specialty pediatric clinic, has a $500,000 annual budget. Sources of income include Department of Children and Family Services grants worth more than $300,000.

"I think it's still an excellent design, and one of our grants with DCFS is to help replicate this around the state," Simpkins said. "In southern Illinois, we helped them establish a program to have some of the good components that we have. We've also recently helped establish a program in Rockford.

"We feel that ours is a really good design because we help in terms of advocating for the parents and educating the parents about safety for their kids, which is a huge prevention component. We advocate for the system so that the medical evidence that is found goes a long way to assist the other people who are working on the child's safety. And we help the child through referrals, and we develop a health and safety plan. All the kids who leave here get that."

PRC patients often are referred from DCFS cases, or from area emergency rooms. The staff sometimes is called to the hospital, but many young patients are seen in a child-friendly exam room at the PRC.

The room is designed to soothe traumatized children. Walls are painted with clouds, butterflies hang from fishing line, and toys and stuffed animals are plentiful.

Each child receives a full medical exam. Sometimes, unrelated conditions such as ear and eye problems, are uncovered during an exam.

In cases of sexual abuse, a colposcope — also used in obstetrics and gynecology — records video or photos of abuse for future reference. For physical abuse, the PRC can call in a hospital photographer.

PRC doctors and caseworkers talk with family and the children to ascertain medical history and the extent of injuries. Because many allegations are unfounded, they are trained to avoid making accusations or becoming emotional.

When abuse is confirmed, PRC caseworkers coordinate with other parties such as the state's attorney's office, DCFS and police. When injury or death occurs, medical findings are cited in court.

"Physicians are trained to be advocates and educators," Saving said. "Court is confrontational and rather adversarial. It goes against how you're trained as a physician. You have a small pool of people who are willing to do it, and it's always hard to get medical people.

"I just explain things to the jury and the judge. I don't say who did it, or innocent or guilty. I'm just explaining what I found. But, of course, the defense attorney is going to question my findings."

Caseworkers follow up to create a safer atmosphere.

"We have a goal for every child when they leave the clinic that they're going to be going into a safe environment," Simpkins said. "We achieve that at 95 percent. That's what makes us happy. If you're frustrated or upset, you have to put that energy to good use and keep advocating until the outcome is achieved."

Ryan Ori can be reached at (309) 686-3264

How to report

To report suspected neglect or abuse, call the Illinois DCFS line (1-800-252-2873). For more information on the Pediatric Resource Center, call (309) 624-9595.