A new Clatsop County Child Abuse Assessment Center was unveiled in downtown Astoria Friday, opening doors for law enforcement and others to do their jobs better and for victims of child abuse to receive the services they need.

Representatives of law enforcement, child welfare and other agencies attended a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the new Lighthouse for Kids. The nonprofit organization has specialized in the treatment and medical diagnosis of abuse victims since 1999.

"It's a shame we have to have facilities like this," state Sen. Betsy Johnson said at the ceremony. "But this one is beautifully done. And it's an important facility to have in a community."

At medical assessment centers, young victims of crimes ranging from physical and sexual abuse to neglect are seen by "objective, trained professionals doing the absolute minimum number of interviews and documenting them on video and audio, coupled with a medical exam," said District Attorney Josh Marquis.

"It determines what really did happen," he said. "And most importantly, it reduces stress on the child."

High-quality, recorded interviews are often used in lieu of testimony in court. They help attorneys make their cases. Marquis said the county's conviction rate of child abuse cases climbed from 50 or 60 percent to 80 or 90 percent when the Lighthouse was created in 1999.

"It brings a higher level of justice in social services to the county," he said.

While the facilities are typical in larger counties, they're possible in smaller ones like Clatsop when there is enough local support, he said.

"It's remarkable a county our size has been able to sustain it," he said. "And it's only because of the support we've gotten in the community, and particularly the medical community."

Soon after its launch, the program began to outgrow its facility on the east side of town, said Diana Smith, the center's executive director. She said Norm Stutznegger, who owns Pacific Coast Medical Supply, offered to construct some upper-floor space of his 2005-renovated building to meet the Lighthouse's needs.

"We have unique requirements," Smith said. "This is the first real office we've had that's built just for us."

The project doubled the agency's space. It allowed for improved recording with state-of-the-art equipment.

Each room is soundproof - thanks to special absorption materials on walls that sandwich sheetrock. In addition, the rooms are outfitted with moving cameras and microphones "so sensitive they'll pick up whispering," Smith said.

The new equipment transmits discussions between children and forensic interviewers into a space with two large, flat-screen monitors. There, law enforcement and human services employees can watch the interviews unfold.

But legal issues aren't the only concern at the Lighthouse, Smith pointed out.

Separate interview areas are designed for children according to their ages; another room offers a couch, books and toys.

A smattering of glow-in-the-dark stars beam from the floor of the doctor's office. Lights attached to faucets turn water bright blue as it streams into sinks.

People enter the agency through two doors - one for law enforcement and other officials, one for families - which will likely make children more comfortable, Smith said.

And the overall space expansion means possible child abuse victims won't have to wait as long to be examined, she added.

Ninety-two Clatsop County children were victims of abuse or neglect in 2005, according to a report by Children First for Oregon, a nonprofit advocacy group. More than half those victims were younger than 6 years old, according to the report, and 205 local children have been in foster care at least once over last year.

Those children, typically referred by schools, counselors, police, health services or physicians, visit the medical assessment center on a priority basis, depending on how safe they are, Smith said.

Before, some children waited as long as six weeks to two months to be examined - which was too long, she said.

"Even kids who are safe need to be interviewed sooner," she said. "We anticipate doubling the number of kids we see this year," which will bring the number served to 100, "and we're hoping to cut the length of time kids have to wait."

Interviews and examinations will start in the next week or two, she said.

Forensic interviewer Judy Ronis said she looks forward to starting at the new building. A retired middle school principal from the Roseburg area, she said that referring a child to services like those at the Lighthouse has often presented a complex process with many channels.

"I'm really excited about doing this," Ronis said. "Now I have an opportunity to do something I felt was missing."

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