LANCASTER — A high-tech program unveiled Monday will allow suspected victims of child abuse in the Antelope Valley to be examined by medical experts working in Los Angeles, saving the children a time-consuming, often unsettling 150-mile round trip.
In a Lancaster hospital room decorated with Disney characters, children will be examined with a magnification device that can send video images over a telephone line to Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Specialists there will help determine whether abuse has occurred.
County officials, who installed the equipment at High Desert Hospital, said the program is the first of its kind nationwide. They also plan to expand it to Olive View Medical Center in Sylmar and other locations in the near future.
"What we foresee is that we'll have enough centers in the county to make sure that every child gets expert examinations," said Dr. Astrid Heger, director of the Center for the Vulnerable Child at County-USC.
The video system was launched in the Antelope Valley because of its remote location and the unusually high number of child-abuse cases in the area.
Peter Digre, director of the county Department of Children's Services, said the prevalence of child-abuse cases may be related to the area's isolation and to drug use by residents. He also said people who work with children in the Antelope Valley tend to be diligent about reporting suspected child abuse to the authorities.
The medical linkup between High Desert and County-USC is a key component of the new Antelope Valley Abuse Network Team, a multi-agency program. It also includes representatives of the district attorney's office, Sheriff's Department, Children's Services and the Children's Center of the Antelope Valley.
Sheriff Sherman R. Block, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti and County Supervisor Mike Antonovich, whose district includes the Antelope Valley, were among those who took part in the program's kickoff Monday.
They emphasized that the video link and the team approach to child-abuse cases can easily be duplicated. "We hope the Antelope Valley (program) will be the model we can use throughout the county of Los Angeles," Garcetti said.
Heger, a widely recognized child-abuse expert, said she learned how long it takes to reach the Antelope Valley 10 years ago, when a sheriff's deputy urged her to testify at a local trial. "Nothing against the Antelope Valley," she said, "but the drive, as those of you who commute know, is a real killer."
She said local physicians have largely "bowed out" of child-abuse examinations because of the costs and time-consuming court obligations. Under the new program, children at High Desert will be examined instead by nurses with specialized training.
These nurses will look for signs of abuse, and video images will be transmitted to Heger or her associates at County-USC, who can direct the nurse through a headset during an examination.
If evidence of abuse is found, the images can be printed out or stored on film or videotape for use during a court hearing. If the allegations appear to be unfounded, the child can be returned promptly to his or her family--without the delays associated with a trip to and from Los Angeles.
The equipment for the video program costs $18,000. But Heger said the county will save money through reduced costs for foster care and investigations. She hopes to place a similar system at Olive View within six months.
Esther Gillies, executive director of the Children's Center, a nonprofit organization that provides counseling to victims of sexual abuse, hailed the video system and plans for better cooperation among medical experts, investigators and prosecutors.
"We make much better decisions when we make them as a team," she said, "and get all the pieces of the puzzle together as quickly as possible."