New local anti-child abuse program coordinator finds ‘community’ awareness

Audrey Caro

Sarah Helgeson started just after Thanksgiving as program coordinator for Linn County Child Abuse Network.

Linn CAN, a Linn County United Way program, was formed in 2013 with a mission to promote the safety and well-being of children by raising awareness of child abuse and neglect and their impacts, according to its website.

It has a steering committee of about 20 people and Helgeson is the only paid staff member. She’s been busy, getting to know the terrain.

“I spent my first few months going to community meetings with different nonprofits and coalitions who work with child abuse or work with children to get a feel for the community and what resources already existed,” Helgeson said. “I’m still actively trying to meet more people but now that I’ve sort of gotten my bearings here, we’re starting to implement our education portion of our work.”

The county-wide child abuse awareness events in the month of April were part of that education piece.

Helgeson studied communication and political science at the State University of New York in Albany.

“I’ve always wanted to make a difference in the world and I viewed nonprofits and community outreach as my avenue to making a difference,” Helgeson said.

She grew up in the small town of Ladysmith, Wis.

“There’s one stoplight in the entire county, which we got when I was in high school,” Helgeson said. “People did not like it. We got it when we got a Walmart. The Walmart was right next to our county hospital.”

After college, she spent a year in Racine, Wis. serving with AmeriCorps.

“Community outreach was a big focus of my job,” Helgeson said.

She worked to build community relationships for a nonprofit focused on high school graduation rates.

“I found, oftentimes when I was talking to people, if their kid didn’t struggle academically, they just sort of shut down,” Helgeson said.

“(They) didn’t hear what I was saying and even though I was trying to frame the issue in a way where they viewed it as a community concern that kids weren’t graduating high school on time or at all, they just didn’t see it as their problem so they didn’t care.”

That hasn’t been the case in Linn County, she said.

“Here, whenever I talk about child abuse awareness and prevention, even if someone has experienced it first-hand, knows someone who has experienced it or doesn’t know anyone who has experienced it, everyone views it as a community problem,” Helgeson said. “Which, I think, is the ultimate key when you’re looking at reducing an issue.”

Helgeson has a list of child abuse awareness-related trainings that will be offered to organizations and individuals, but she is particularly excited about one – mandatory reporting.

By Oregon law, mandatory reporters must report suspected abuse or neglect of a child regardless of whether or not the knowledge of the abuse was gained in the reporter’s official capacity. In other words, the mandatory reporting of abuse or neglect of children is a 24-hour obligation.

“When you have a mandatory reporter, they’re required to take a training on what it means to be a mandatory reporter,” Helgeson said. “But oftentimes it’s online because that’s the most cost-effective thing for an agency.

“You get some information, but if you have questions you don’t necessarily have an opportunity to ask. If you have a specific situation in mind that you kind of want to talk out and figure out what your role is, you don’t get that with an online training.”

Though she has never had to make a call about suspected child abuse, she understands it can be a scary situation.

“People feel like, ‘I don’t know if it’s really what I think it is,’ But it’s not your job to investigate. That child is relying on an adult to make that call. If it’s not what you think it is, the proper investigative forces will figure that out.”

If the suspicions turn out to be founded, then that child can get help and begin the healing process, she said.

“At the end of the day, you’re looking out for the child,” Helgeson said.