The Western Kansas Child Advocacy Center’s newest mobile unit is a large RV altered to offer medical examinations for young victims of physical and sexual abuse, and it’s making an impact, staff says.
Last year, the WKCAC, which currently operates six locations, including one in Finney County, and six RV mobile units, facilitated 10 forensic exams. Since the mobile exam unit hit the road on April 1, it’s completed 42, Garcia said.
“We’re just trying to get our services out there and let other counties know that we have this program,” Garcia said about the newest mobile unit.
The WKCAC currently has three mobile units for mental health evaluations and two for forensic interviews, when representatives from the WKCAC, local law enforcement and the court and legal system listen as a child recounts their abuse to an interviewer in a separate room. The new bus is funded by a federal grant from the Office of Violence Against Women and allows for a full-time nurse.
The unit, like the other RVs, not only expands the WKCAC’s capabilities but helps them better serve rural areas, where access to sexual assault exams and mental health treatment may be limited, said Kelly Robbins, WKCAC founder and director. Even if victims are half an hour away from a WKCAC location, they are less likely to seek out the services, she said.
The mobile unit program, styled after a similar system in Flagstaff, Ariz., and put in place in 2007, has become a model nationwide, with similar organizations from other states seeking out the method to better reach rural areas, Robbins said. And, more importantly, it’s been effective.
“In that first year, we had a 157% increase in the requests for our services because we were coming to them,” Robbins said.
The units’ services are free and open to anyone, Garcia said. A concerned adult can reach out to local law enforcement, the Department for Children and Families or the WKCAC itself and staff will organize a forensic interview. Once that is completed, the medical exam unit may come to the child for a head to toe exam, Garcia said.
The medical exam bus, like all WKCAC offices, are designed to be child-friendly, with popping colors and soft surfaces. The exam table in the back of the bus is painted like a school bus and the back wall buffered with pillows and stuffed animals. When a child comes on the bus, nurses and an accompanying advocate put the child at ease by coloring or getting to know one another, Garcia said.
“We’ve had children from (ages) 2 to 17. It can happen at any age. I feel like a lot of people don't understand that it happens to anybody,” Garcia said.
Eventually, they’ll move to the exam room, where nurses will go “head to toe,” looking for evidence of physical or sexual abuse. If the child is ever uncomfortable, they stop, Garcia said. Any findings are carefully charted in case the examiners are subpoenaed to explain their findings in court. Both Garcia and fellow exam nurse Nataly Ortiz are trained to examine victims of sexual assault and receive feedback on their work from Dr. Jill Linville and Dr. Ellen Abell at Kearny County Hospital, Garcia said.
Like the other units, staff of the medical examination unit partners with regional county attorneys, law enforcement agencies, DCF representatives and WKCAC child advocates, who work together to determine the safest path forward for the child. Generally, the county attorney decides whether the child should return home, while the WKCAC follows up regularly for therapy sessions with its mental health mobile units, Garcia said.
Since hitting the road in April, the new exam unit has traveled a total of 3,093 miles, once hitting 430 in one trip, Garcia said. And the increased accessibility makes an impact, Robbins said. Child abuse can be damaging for decades and most victims don’t find the help they need at a young age. The units are one tool the center uses towards its goal, Robbins said: connecting children, including children in rural areas with limited resources, with well-trained people ready to help, and getting it to them quickly.
To learn more about the WKCAC and its services, call their main office at 620-872-3706.
Contact Amber Friend at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported Dr. Abell's first name. Her name is Ellen Abell.