Children who are physically abused suffer an unimaginable trauma. If a friend or family member is the abuser, the children feel betrayed by the people they trusted the most. If the abuser is a stranger, they feel frightened of anyone new.
When abuse is suspected, a child needs immediate, reliable medical attention. If the abuse is to stop, law enforcement agencies need solid evidence backed by the credible testimony of a physician so that abusers can be separated from victims.
Pasco County is on the brink of losing both the medical help and the testimony.
The one remaining physician willing to work with the Pasco County Child Protection Team is weary of carrying the burden alone. Overworked and in jeopardy of further damaging his relationship with his regular patients, who are often left sitting in the waiting room while he goes to testify in court, the doctor says unless something is done, he is going to be forced to stop his examinations _ and no reasonable person could blame him.
That would mean that Pasco children, already traumatized by abuse, will have to be transported over long distances to see a doctor who will verify their injuries, treat their wounds and stand up for them in court.
Pasco County residents cannot allow this to happen.
Annually, about 300 children who may have been the victims of abuse are referred to pediatricians. These children deserve better, and Pasco people are obligated to meet their needs.
The present sad situation has evolved over a period of years. The reports of child abuse have multiplied at a time when courts are overwhelmed by other crimes. This means that physicians may spend less than a hour identifying child abuse, then spend a week's worth of days waiting their turn at court hearings, depositions and trials.
It is unrealistic to expect doctors to give up that much time for the $50 to $65 fee paid by the state, and it is unfair to their patients for them to be out of the office that much.
It would be nice to have a full-time county physician at the beck and call of the courts, but the costs involved and the time wasted preclude such an arrangement.
A more practical alternative would be for the county to provide $40,000 to hire a nurse practitioner trained to detect child abuse. The nurse could screen the children to determine which cases merit the full attention of a pediatrician. The nurse's remaining time could be used to help with the multiplying duties of Pasco Child Protection Team.
As for the physicians who would treat the children, the most fair and workable solution would be for all the county's pediatricians to share the burden of examinations and testimony that is now borne by one physician.
At least 18 pediatricians have their home base in this county and make their living from Pasco patients. If each one would provide services on a rotating basis, the problem could be resolved. The job is obviously too much for one person, but divided among many, it could be done.
Just as important, the courts must do whatever necessary to make testifying by physicians as easy and as quick as possible, including video and audio testimony. This would save valuable time.
For their part, Pasco residents must be willing to pay taxes to provide a reasonable amount of money to physicians who perform such work. Most doctors can make $65 in a matter of minutes. They can treat dozens of patients in the time it takes to get to the courthouse, wait, testify and get back to the office.
Doctors should not be expected to donate their valuable time sitting around the courthouse waiting to testify. It is an untenable loss to them, their employees and the patients who need them.
Pasco physicians must share the responsibility for seeing that children who have been hurt by a cruel abuser receive the medical attention that they need. And Pasco residents must share the costs for seeing that physicians are treated fairly so they can supply court testimony that will keep the abusers away from their victims.