Protecting the most vulnerable among us
March 22, 2021
By Kevin Dowling
I’ve never liked bullies. My grandfather was a minister, and I think he instilled in me a deep sense of gratitude for the blessings in my life. To me, a bully is a person who uses power or strength to push others down and to make them feel “less than.” I felt a responsibility to use the privileges and traits I was born with to help others—to protect the most vulnerable among us.
I have a special folder I started keeping not long after I began my job as a Child Abuse Forensic Interviewer at CARES Northwest in 1994. It’s about four inches thick now and holds notes and mementos that, over the years, has buoyed my spirits when my heart has felt heavy and low. The contents represent reasons I cherish this work—reminders of the resilience of the children and families we serve, memories of the wonderful people drawn to help them, and the empowering sense of hope revealed through the act of helping a child.
A recurring theme in that folder is the idea that helping children find their voice, and making sure that their voice is heard, is at the heart of the work we do at CARES Northwest.
"Sometimes it is neighbors, teachers, bus drivers, nurses, and grandparents who step in to protect a child. It starts with listening to children and their parents, taking time to connect with others, and if needed, having the courage to speak up on their behalf and to assure their safety."
- Kevin Dowling
Early in my career I interviewed a young 5th grade girl with long brown hair who was referred to us because of allegations of sexual abuse by her mother’s fiancé. I remember the intense emotion in the room as she described hiding behind her dresser, him finding her, and the abuse that followed.
What we have learned over the years at CARES Northwest—after helping more than 42,000 children since 1987—is when children feel safe and supported, they have the capacity to share the details of the trauma they’ve experienced. In that process opportunities for healing and hope emerge.
The 5th grader’s powerful bravery shook me, but when I told her mother about her child’s disclosure, the mother didn’t believe her. Fortunately, we were able to work with the child’s grandmother who believed, protected, and loved the young girl. Others protected her too—the caseworker, the detective, the medical provider, the mental health therapist, and many other caring adults at CARES Northwest.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned after 26 years, it’s the importance of those connections—grandmother and granddaughter, caseworker and medical provider, volunteer and forensic interviewer, donor and CARES Northwest. These connections with one another creates an environment where children can heal from the trauma they’ve experienced.
It’s important to remember how connections are also essential to preventing trauma in the first place. We know the pandemic has taken an immeasurable toll on children and their families, whether it’s the loss of a job and economic security that comes with it, or the loss of time with friends, family, and other support systems. As more people in Oregon get vaccinated, it’s important not to forget children as we gather again, and the role we play in protecting the children in our neighborhoods, churches, schools and communities.
Just as I learned from that brave 5th grade girl, sometimes it is neighbors, teachers, bus drivers, nurses, and grandparents who step in to protect a child. It starts with listening to children and their parents, taking time to connect with others, and if needed, having the courage to speak up on their behalf and to assure their safety. As we honor Child Abuse Prevention month this April, please remember that every one of us can be that brave light in the darkness for a child, that gentle hand of hope to lift up and protect the most vulnerable among us.
This is the welcoming waiting room at CARES Northwest, a collaborative, community-based medical program for the assessment, treatment and prevention of child abuse.
Hallways at CARES Northwest provide a warm and welcoming environment for children and families.