Child abuse detectors

LINCOLN – Dr. Jaci Fitzgerald and Kellie Sefernick have a way of making you feel right at home the moment you meet them. The two moms smile gently. They look you in the eye and extend a hand. They are pleasant, warm and gently professional. They also are cool and calm when it comes to examining children who have been physically and sexually abused.

At the Alcona Health Center in Lincoln, they have a special examination room that is gaily decorated with colorful images on the walls. They have a cupboard stuffed with cuddly handmade blankets, cute hand-knit hats, even cloth dolls that provide instant comfort. But their best tool is a $30,000 colposcope camera and recorder made by Olympus. Its microscope and lenses magnify almost invisible injuries 40 times, without being invasive.

“We don’t do any internal exams. We are looking for bruises and lacerations,” Sefernick said.

The information is then stored on a flash drive.

“It should provide enough evidence so that the child doesn’t have to be reexamined by the defense,” she said.

The camera was purchased two years ago through a grant provided by NEMCSA, and the Lincoln facility has been the only location in lower Northeast Michigan where children and teens can be examined.

The two, along with another assistant, handle cases from an area that stretches from Tawas to Mackinaw City. However, in about two months, another camera will be installed at the Child Advocacy Center of Northeast Michigan. A new facility, it is located in the Alcona Health Center of Alpena.

Fitzgerald said she has been a part of the county child protection team for 20 years and became the local medical consultant five years ago. She picked Sefernick as her assistant and recently added another professional, Jennifer Schultz, to the team.

On an average month, the women handle three to four cases of suspected abuse.

“It goes in waves,” Fitzgerald said. “When we have one, we’ll have a few more the next week.”

Abuse also seems to be on the rise, but the two said they believe it could be due to greater public awareness.

“There is a growing desire to stamp out child abuse and a lot of professionals are coming forward,” she said. “We aren’t alone, although we were for a while.”

Another important tool is a comfortable examination table that can be lowered to 18 inches off the floor, so a small child can climb on. The $4,600 unit was purchased with funds raised by the Spruce Eagles Auxiliary.

A network of services are employed when a family, teacher, doctor or other person reports suspected abuse, Fitzgerald said. Her role is to provide an exam and document conditions, then turn it over to investigators.

Children who are severely injured are first treated in an emergency room, and when stable, they arrive in Lincoln to see her.

“Any severely injured child also has to be evaluated for sexual abuse, and that’s the way it is,” she said.

“You have to be able to suppress your own reactions,” Fitzgerald said.

“It’s hard to know a child has been abused,” Sefernick said. “On the other hand we have a chance to get the child out of that situation. Resolving the abuse makes it worth it.”

“And you have to keep your mouth shut later,” Fitzgerald said. “The staff doesn’t need to know what happened. It’s too personal.”

To unwind from a case, Fitzgerald, Sefernick and Schultz talk to each other or to other abuse examiners at peer review sessions. They also get support and technical help from the DeVos Children’s Hospital Child Protection Center in Grand Rapids.

Although the women say there are times they just want to wrap their arms around a child, they lock down their emotions and assume a friendly approach.

“What I try to do is be comforting,” Fitzgerald said. “I don’t do anything they don’t want to do. But it is appropriate for a child to put a gown on to be examined.”

Children from the age of a toddler to five or six often are intrigued with Fitzgerald’s camera device and are willing to help. Older children, however, can be embarrassed and reluctant.

“It’s not traumatic,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s all external, and we work carefully and gently. We have a few tricks of the trade.”

Children can be afraid for a number of reasons. Many fear they will get in trouble or they worry they won’t recover from their injuries, Fitzgerald said. Some fear retaliation, while older children and their parents are concerned about ideas of virtue.

It is crucial that the person who assaulted the child be removed from their lives, even if it means a family is disrupted, she said.

“A child who doesn’t feel safe will not tell what has happened,” Fitzgerald said. “A child will recover best if their future safety is assured. For most, a part of their recovery is knowing they will never have to be exposed or victimized by the perpetrator again.”

Betsy Lehndorff can be reached via email at or by phone at 358-5693. Follow Betsy on Twitter @bl_alpenanews.