ESCONDIDO— On the brink of closure last December, Palomar Health’s Forensic Health Services has been saved by private donations.
But the one-time funding does not secure the child abuse and sexual assault center’s long-term survival.
Forensic Health Services is home to the Child Abuse Program, which opened in 1984, and the Sexual Assault Response Team, which was incorporated in 1991. Experts there conduct forensic interviews and physical examinations of child and adult victims of sexual and/or physical abuse to collect evidence that can be used for criminal prosecutions.
The department has provided services for more than 15,000 victims over its 29-year history.
The District Attorney, legislators, county supervisors, and numerous law enforcement officials have praised Forensic Health Services’ contributions to criminal cases and putting child molesters and rapists behind bars.
Oceanside Mayor Jim Wood said the department was immensely helpful with the child abuse cases he investigated during his 31-year career as an officer for the Oceanside Police Department.
He said it was often difficult for child victims to talk to him because he is an adult male. When Forensic Health Services opened, trained interviewers were able to obtain more thorough statements from the victims.
“You can’t make these cases without the evidence,” he said at an open house for the department on Tuesday.
Forensic Health Services was almost shut down last year when Palomar Health was no longer able to financially support it.
The department’s operations add up to approximately $550,000 annually. Service fees paid by law enforcement and grants manage to cover about half of that cost.
Previously, Palomar Health contributed the remaining $200,000 per year in addition to paying for the department’s facilities and staff. Last year, Palomar Health decided to withdraw the department’s funding due to financial strains, including changes in medical reimbursements and rising medical costs.
“There’s never been a question of the value of the program,” explained Palomar Health President and CEO Michael Covert at Tuesday’s event. But there was no way Palomar Health could financially continue its donations.
Operating out of Palomar Medical Center in Escondido, Forensic Health Services is the only program in North County that offers such services. Without it, child victims in North County have to travel to Rady Children’s Hospital and adult victims must go to a center in El Cajon.
Christina Shultz, a social worker for Forensic Health Services, said the department’s location and setting are a benefit for young victims in particular.
The kid-friendly space filled with stuffed animals, Dr. Suess books, and walls covered in rainbow-colored paint offers a stark contrast to the endless white halls of a hospital.
Shultz said that children are given a toy after their interview and exam and often leave with a smile on their faces.
Private donations from the community rescued the department just weeks before last year’s Dec. 31 funding deadline.
Yet these one-time donations provide only a temporary fix, and support the department just through the current year. The department needs to find long-term financial resources to sustain its future.
“We are going to have to take this a year at a time,” Covert said.
The program directors said they’re hopeful that they will be able to obtain some kind of substantial endowment to support the department. Forensic Health Services will also need building improvements or a new building in the next several years to meet federal standards.
Cathy Prante, Palomar Health’s director of emergency services, said she hopes that the department will one day have enough funding not only to survive but also to reduce its service fees.
With lower fees, law enforcement could afford to send more victims to the department.