REGION — Palomar Health’s Forensic Health Services Department is the only place in North County where police can take children who have been abused, women who have been raped and other victims of violent crime to be interviewed and examined.
But the department may be shut down in a matter of weeks if the center is unable to raise $95,000 by Dec. 31, and be able to keep raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for years to come.
Operating out of Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, the department started as the Child Abuse Program in 1984 and expanded in 1991 to incorporate the Sexual Assault Response Team. Over the past 29 years, Forensic Health Services has provided services for more than 15,000 children and adults.
“The Child Abuse Program at Palomar Health is directly related to our ability to convict child molesters and rapists,” said District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis in a statement. “Without the program, some of San Diego’s most serious criminals may not be effectively held accountable.”
The information and evidence collected by the department’s staff of forensic interviewers, medical doctors and sexual assault nurses, who are available 24-hours a day, can be used in court for criminal prosecutions.
Among numerous other cases, the department performed forensic interviews of 50 children who witnessed the 2010 shooting at Carlsbad’s Kelley Elementary School. The evidence collected from these interviews helped convict Brendan O’Rourke, who was sentenced to 189 years in jail for the shooting.
Today, the department’s operations cost approximately $550,000 annually. About half of these costs are covered by the service fees paid by law enforcement and some grants. Since the department opened, Palomar Health has paid for the other half, about $200,000 per year, in addition to paying for the department’s facilities and staff’s salaries and benefits.
But during the most recent fiscal year, Palomar Health experienced the “perfect storm” of sequestration, changes in medical reimbursements, and rising medical costs, said Palomar Health spokesperson Bobette Brown.
Palomar Health determined that it could no longer cover the department’s operational expenses.
Palomar Health administrators are requiring Forensic Health Services to raise $200,000 by Dec. 31 to cover operations or it would close the department.
If it meets its funding deadline, the department will be required to continue to raise funds to cover the operational costs not recovered from service fees long-term.
So far, the department and the Palomar Health Foundation have raised $105,000.
Cathy McLennan, who supervises the department’s child abuse program, said that the department has applied for a few grants to cover the rest, but is uncertain if those grants will be awarded to them.
“We are really hoping to come up with more private donors. And we realize that it’s getting late, but we are working very diligently towards that,” she said.
McLennan explained that with the trained staff and services that Forensic Health Services provides, victims only need to go to one place to be interviewed and examined. The department’s services collect information for law enforcement, district attorneys and child welfare advocates all at once so victims do not need to travel back and forth between multiple offices and undergo repeat interviews.
“It’s much less traumatic for the children,” she said.
The department provides services for 550 victims per year from all over North San Diego County.
If the department is shut down, child victims will have to go to Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego and adolescent and adult sexual assault victims will need to go to a center in El Cajon.
“We really want a long-term solution,” said County Supervisor Dave Roberts. “We need to make sure that people are aware of the value of this program.”
While Forensic Health Services missed the deadline to apply for funding under the supervisors’ control, Roberts and Supervisor Bill Horn are working together to form a coalition to raise funds to keep the department running for years to come if it survives its December funding deadline.
To donate to Forensic Health Services, visit PalomarHealthFoundation.org or contact Kimberly Cardoso at (760) 739-2961 or Kimberly.Cardoso@PalomarHealth.org.
To learn more about the Supervisors’ coalition, contact Supervisor Dave Robert’s office at (619) 531-5533.