Warning: This article contains content related to child abuse, sexual assault and neglect.
COLORADO SPRINGS —The carpet leading down the hall toward a row of interview rooms looks like green grass, and outside the forensic medical exam room, friendly owls and stuffed bears line the walls.
The entire building, the first of its kind in Colorado, was created to make children feel safe — even as they are describing the worst thing that’s ever happened to them.
Safe Passage, which opened in October, is where children in El Paso County go after they’ve been sexually abused or have witnessed a crime that harmed one of their parents or siblings. The building houses the Colorado Springs Police Department’s crimes against children unit, child protection caseworkers from El Paso County, forensic nurses from UCHealth, mental health therapists and a nonprofit that teaches abuse prevention workshops.
Here, a child has to tell their story only once.
Reducing trauma, errors
In a room decorated in calming shades of blue and gray, with waves and drops of water painted on the wall and a camera in the corner of the ceiling, children are questioned by a trained interviewer from Safe Passage, the nonprofit that created the children’s center. In another room, law enforcement detectives and caseworkers deciding whether the child needs to go to a foster home can watch the interview on a television screen.
The setup is dramatically different from the days when a child who revealed abuse had to explain what happened first to a parent or teacher or whomever they decided to tell. Then to the patrol officer. Then at the police station. Then at the hospital. Then to the caseworker.
“We’re all coming together so that the child is only telling what happened to them one time. Reducing trauma. Reducing the risk of errors,” said Maureen “Mo” Basenberg, executive director of Safe Passage, which is the Children’s Advocacy Center for the 4th Judicial District, based in Colorado Springs. Every judicial district in Colorado has a children’s advocacy center, part of a national nonprofit focused on protecting children who have been abused.
“You could have a great detective. Super good at catching the bad guy. Super good at investigating. But can he sit across from a 7-year-old girl and ask about her stepdad touching her? Probably not,” Basenberg said. “Nor did he sign up for that.”
Now, children who are abuse victims or potential witnesses to another crime, come to Safe Passage for an interview, medical exam and therapy consultation, avoiding the police station and the hospital emergency department. They can return to the same place for ongoing therapy or to attend workshops about how to regain their sense of control over their bodies.
The police department’s child crimes unit now brings almost all of its child witnesses and victims to Safe Passage, save for occasional interviews at schools or the police station. Not all children are interviewed, especially those younger than 4. And some don’t come to the center because they are hospitalized due to their injuries.
The $2.7 million, 13,000-square-foot center, modeled after one in Phoenix where Basenberg previously worked, was funded by donations and grants to the nonprofit, Safe Passage. Tenants, including the police department, lease the space for their staff. About 35 workers are stationed in the building, all focused on solving crimes involving children or helping child victims recover.
On a recent day, a teenage boy waited in a lobby decorated with wooden trees, a glass wall painted with green leaves and a reception desk sided with bark. A small, curly-haired girl walked down a hallway to an interview room. And a few children sat on pebble-inspired carpeting in a whimsical playroom filled with nature-themed toys, including a soft log, water-filled tiles and a tipi with a campfire.
No more hospital visits
The majority of cases involve sexual abuse or sex trafficking. The center does not have the technology to X-ray broken bones or otherwise investigate physical abuse, so those children still must go to the hospital.
And even though it’s often too late to gather evidence of sexual abuse, each child gets a forensic medical exam, or at least a conversation with a forensic nurse from UCHealth, which has its own suite of offices and an exam room. No one is forced to have an exam, regardless of the need to collect evidence.
“It’s their body and they get to decide what happens,” said Sarah Hagedorn, manager of the forensic nurses. “Our interest is never to retraumatize. We want it to be a reaffirming experience. To say, ‘Hey, you’re healthy and your body is OK.’ It’s also a really great opportunity to teach people about their bodies. Kids, especially girls, they don’t get a lot of instruction on ‘This is what your body looks like and this is normal.’”
The exam room has a stuffed animal and a culdoscope, which magnifies what the nurse is seeing by 15 times and reflects it so the child or teen can see. Hagedorn said nurses answer questions that teens sometimes won’t ask their parents, including about gender identity and sexuality, and debunk myths about virginity.
Kids and teens often will wonder whether something is wrong with their bodies or if future partners will know that they were abused, Hagedorn said.
“There is a value in a medical forensic exam regardless of the timeline,” she said. “People should have control of their bodies and we want that to be something that kids learn at a very young age.”
Before the new center, child abuse victims sometimes had to sit for five or more hours in an emergency department waiting for an exam. Now, they don’t have to go to a hospital at all.
Abuse calls returning to pre-pandemic levels
Prior to the center’s opening in the fall, Safe Passage operated out of a 2,000-square-foot Victorian home in Colorado Springs. The nonprofit sold the house for about $650,000 and used the money to buy the new building. Children were interviewed at that location, but the center could not work with as many children because it had only two interview rooms.
More children are receiving services since the center opened. In February, 83 children and teens came to Safe Passage, up from 66 in August at the old location.
Also, nearly all kids who come to Safe Passage at least talk to a forensic nurse and, more likely, get a medical exam. That compares with less than 10% of children who went to the hospital for a medical visit before coming to the former location, which had no medical office. The new center counted 72 children and parents who attended medical visits in February, up from 47 in January.
Visits are up in part because of the new location, but also because calls to the statewide child abuse and neglect hotline are beginning to approach pre-pandemic levels.
Calls increased 8% in 2021, to nearly 209,000, after tallying about 193,000 in 2020, according to the Colorado Department of Human Services. Last year’s number is still 10,000 short compared with 2019, however.
The rise in calls is because more teachers, doctors and other “mandatory reporters,” who are required by law to report suspected abuse, are seeing children in person. Calls from teachers and other school staff were up 20% in 2021 compared to 2020.
Children who are victims of physical abuse, and on rare occasion, neglect, typically aren’t initially interviewed or examined at Safe Passage but sometimes come to the center for mental health therapy, offered through a local clinic called The Family Center, or abuse-prevention workshops put on by another nonprofit, Kidpower. Children are also brought to the center if they witnessed abuse of siblings or domestic violence involving their parents and law enforcement wants to hear their story.
“They’re trying to establish what happened,” Basenberg said. “It’s also a way to get them help, though.”
Neglect cases are rare at Safe Passage because neglect rarely rises to the level of prosecution, Basenberg said.
In the coming months, Safe Passage plans to create a tiered garden to replace the dirt backyard at the new center, a place where therapists could talk to children and advocates could sit with parents.
Basenberg hopes other judicial jurisdictions across the state will copy the model, providing mental health therapy down the hall instead of handing parents a referral card, and keeping kids out of chaotic emergency rooms and police stations.
“In the early days, kiddos were sitting in the same room that suspects were talked to,” Basenberg said. “We didn’t know what we were doing then. Our role is to keep the needs of the kids and family first and foremost. It’s focused on them.”