by: Stover E. Harger III ASSESSING ABUSE — Though they resemble toys to the untrained eye, these anatomically correct dolls are used by assessment specialists to determine whether children have been sexually abused.

April is sexual assault awareness month, and as such we believe it is fitting to draw attention to the abundance of sexual assault cases occurring right here, in our back yard, in Columbia County and the Portland- metropolitan region.

In an October article in the Spotlight called 'Child abuse epidemic' by Stover E. Harger III, we explored the rising occurrences of child abuse, including sexual abuse, in Columbia County and across the state.

Amani Center Director Lisa Galovich at the time said the center processes an estimated four child abuse cases daily, and that many are sexual in nature. The Amani Center serves as Columbia County's Child Abuse Assessment Program.

Columbia County might appear in all its facets to be a sleepy, rural community, but there are places of shadow.

In February 2009 we published a story about the federal break up of a forced prostitution ring in Portland, with the youngest of the seven girls rescued being only 12 years old. A Dan Rather report in 2010 names Portland as having the second-highest ranking in terms of rescued child prostitutes.

Speaking to the Spotlight in 2009, James Pond, founder of Hillsboro-based Transitions Global, said there are as many as three to five cases of juvenile prostitution in the Portland-metropolitan region daily, with many transactions being set up over websites such as Craigslist. Transitions Global is a nonprofit whose mission is to help victims of the sex-trade industry transition to self sufficiency.

Unquestionably the urban environment existing a mere 20 minutes south has a more visible set of dangers; there are established, organized crime rings and an underground economy as vibrant as exists in any other city in the nation. In many ways, however, that provides a level of awareness many living in rural communities do not possess. Believing too much in the ideal of the peaceful country town has its own risks in this day and age, as many are lulled into a false sense of security in the belief we are isolated from the social ills and criminal advances of the outside world.

Bottom line: The ways predators gain access to their victims are varied, and it's difficult, if not impossible, to build an impregnable wall around those you seek to protect.

The best defense is education. Educate yourself about the scope of the problem. Educate your children about warning signs, 'stranger danger' and, even more important though considerably more difficult to talk about, how to recognize when a friend, relative or acquaintance makes sexually predatory advances.

Sexual abuse, and child sexual abuse, is not a localized 'epidemic.' It's a global one that has infiltrated in to all aspects of modern society. Only through education and preparedness, which starts at the individual and family level, can the frequency of sexual assaults be reduced.

A small moment of time each and every day, and not just one month out of the year, should be spent in consideration of this growing problem.

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