When Maureen Basenberg landed in Colorado Springs in 2016 to become executive director at Safe Passage, the nonprofit’s most pressing goal was to move to a larger building — one that could handle a multi-agency staff of health care employees, police, child welfare advocates and others dedicated to ending child abuse.
In all 50 states, the most effective children’s advocacy centers have been “co-located CACs” where multiple agencies can work together under one roof. Safe Passage had sought that role since its founding in the 1990s, but space was too limited in the Victorian house it occupied on Cascade Avenue. The road was long, but when a $2.7 million remodeling of the former Rocky Mountain Mental Health Network building on Robinson Street was completed last summer, Basenberg felt she finally had a center that could offer specialized services like forensic medical examinations. Today, tenants include UCHealth, Colorado Springs Police Department, Kid Power, El Paso County Department of Human Services and The Family Center.
Colocation is important, Basenberg said, because of what it means to the child who has suffered abuse and is in crisis.
“Compare it to an adult going to the dentist. Let’s say you had to make an appointment with a hygienist to get you cleaned up, then you had to drive somewhere else to get an X-ray, and another place to get a filling,” she said. “Here you have a situation where both a child’s body and their trust has been violated. They will have to tell their story to an adult, after their trust in adults in general may have collapsed — and then they’re going to have to say it again. And meanwhile you have to have personnel to remove the alleged perpetrator, make sure the child is safe. Isn’t it the least we can do to organize the process around the child, so that there is just one venue to tell their story, to feel heard, to feel supported, to be in a place that is absolutely denying that source of threat. Just in the space from the lobby to my office you can see how welcoming we are. And that resonates deep down with someone. The healing starts when the child realizes everyone is here for them.”
Basenberg has been involved in improving the investigation of sexual abuse of children since working in the Arizona governor’s office in the early 2000s. She has a degree in theater and psychology from Grand Canyon University and a master’s in public administration from Arizona State University, and an early role as a prevention coordinator in public schools steered her toward helping elementary students cope with trauma. The agency she worked for was linked to the Arizona Prevention Resource Center, which funded the training for community development facilitators. Basenberg’s work with the Arizona Governor’s Community Policy Office focused on programs for prevention of substance abuse, juvenile delinquency and domestic violence, and when she moved to the Office for Children, Youth and Families, she worked statewide with programs addressing child abuse and domestic violence, and in leadership for the Arizona Children’s Justice Task Force.
Basenberg spoke with the Business Journal about what Safe Passage’s new home can mean to abused children in crisis.
You were working inside the classroom until the Arizona Prevention Resource Center opportunity. Tell us about that.
The agency no longer exists, as far as I know, but the idea at the time for the mission of the agency was to support the training and deployment of people to become community development facilitators. You went to 40 hours of training on community organizing, group dynamics. … At the end of the training, you had to give back so many hours to serve your community. That was a career turning point, and I realized this was my passion. I stayed with that group and helped them organize their training. I briefly left for a time [to implement a tobacco prevention curriculum] when tobacco money came around, and that became a life object lesson about taking a job for more money that did not correspond to your passion. The governor’s office was linked to the resource center, and was in the process of establishing a policy office to support their grant-making divisions. They needed folks managing all grants the governor’s office held, under regional sections. The grants covered things like AmeriCorps and [prevention of] substance abuse, gun violence and child abuse. The managers would serve as intermediaries between the grant makers and the community. I started there in 1999, and stayed at the governor’s office for eight years, but in different positions.
And you were taking grad classes at the same time?
I was halfway through my master’s program when I left the governor’s office. I discovered through studying public administration — and probably with some reference back to my theatre degree — that I was a big-picture person who had more interest in planning and oversight. I actually got accepted to UPenn in Philadelphia in a special family and women program, but I deferred for a year, and decided that was not ultimately where I wanted to go. I was sort of tapped out with Arizona state government, but one of the grants I had administered was a Children’s Justice Act federal grant, and through that I got to know Children’s Advocacy Centers, a model used nationwide. It only took a few months of studying the model to make me a true believer in the advocacy center model. While still administering the grant for the state, I drove to every children’s advocacy center in the state of Arizona — 20,000 miles overall. … The main center in Phoenix needed a director, so I left the governor’s office in 2007.
Was it clear early on that you wanted to get out of Arizona, or that you were looking at CACs around the country and wanted to find a different model? How did you end up in Colorado?
I was at the Phoenix center for nine years, so that was a long run! But there were personal and professional reasons for expanding my view. My husband and I had fallen in love with Colorado, we had one daughter, we thought the cultural/political atmosphere and schools might be better in Colorado. When I applied for Safe Passage, the existence of this Western Regional CAC was important to me. They provided administration and training for all western continental states and Hawaii, and you got a place at the national table as well. Less than a month after taking this job, we learned we had lost the western region contract after holding it for more than a decade. And just at this point, I learned I was pregnant with our son. I was heartbroken for a very brief time, then realized that the travel necessary for a western regional director was not compatible with having a newborn. And later, I realized that the expanded CAC we envisioned would require a fully dedicated staff, and the western regional role would have been a distraction. I remember during the initial interview process that the board of directors made it very clear that we needed to move. The Cascade headquarters was nearing the end of its usefulness. The attitude was, ‘We’ve been too small for too long, and we can’t even meet our family confidentiality goals and serve the numbers of clients we really need to.’
So it was never a matter of whether the Cascade headquarters could be reconfigured?
People had looked at all kinds of ideas, adding on a third floor or an addition on the property. No model really worked. We looked at remote services and teleconference interviews, the kind of thing later used in COVID, but it could not work with the model of serving abused children. We were tapped out. I came to this post being steeped in the colocation model. Most centers in Arizona are colocation centers — it’s sort of the norm there, and in many other states as well. As soon as I got back from maternity leave, I began to sit down with mid-level officials in our partners with the line that ‘We need to move and we’d like you to move with us.’ We used some grant money to fly a group of leaders out to Arizona to see three colocated centers. The critical point came when law enforcement representatives from CSPD and El Paso County Sheriff’s Office got a chance to speak privately to law enforcement at the Arizona centers, and got a rundown on how well it worked. Ultimately, the Sheriff’s Office was not part of the center here, but that was for reasons of how the department is set up. The sheriff’s representatives really liked what they heard at the time. Also on the Arizona trip was an architect whose wife was a volunteer for us. He hadn’t even been retained yet, but he was passionate about the cause, and got some good ideas on how a center layout should work.
We started working on a dream floorplan when we got back. The board approved a feasibility study, and that study made it clear that the ideal dream center was out of our financial bandwidth, but it gave us other options to consider. We engaged a real estate representative who also cared deeply about the property, and this site emerged — shortly after the pandemic started. It all moved really quickly, we got input from partner agencies and modified our floorplan, everything fitting into the bucket of a capital campaign of less than $3 million, as we did not have deep pockets. We approached the bank for funding and received it not even a year ago, and put our Cascade property on the market.
Were many compromises made in the site compared to your dream center, or was there an abundance of riches as the remodeling progressed?
When the feasibility study results came back, I literally cried. But our architect hung around; it wasn’t a ‘no’ — it was just going to be different. We own the building and we lease it back to partners, which means all the partners have a say in what the layout could look like. There were obviously non-negotiable issues for client privacy, like how the lobby works, but our tenant-partners all had a say in how a colocated facility could work.
The tenant model allows partner agencies to maintain some autonomy, since certain offices might be CSPD, UCHealth, that kind of thing?
Absolutely, and we even have another entity at the table — we have Kid Power, which is a local nonprofit that provides prevention services. We are two 27-year-old agencies who grew up alongside each other. I am not the boss of them in any way. We hired a property management company to take me out of that landlord role. There were definitely concerns from the board and from funders that my time not be taken over by the needs of the center. Also, because we’re collaborative and need each other to function, we need to have goodwill at all times. I can’t go knocking on the door and say ‘The rent’s due!’
During the period of your site search and remodeling, we were hearing about what the pandemic and lockdowns were doing to the health of the family, increasing potential for abuse. Did you feel the center was emerging just in time to address a crisis, or was the crisis a little overblown?
Most of it is not overblown. I just came across a study of what kids have witnessed within their own families. We may not see increases in felony child abuse we can link directly to the pandemic, but as far as kids seeing parents turn heavily to substance abuse, not being able to sleep, blaming kids for the bills — those are really dysfunctional results of the pandemic.
Also, keep in mind that abuse reports from kids are often delayed. The conditions that allow for abuse, the perpetrator convincing the child that the abuse is not wrong, or the kid is scared to tell — all these dynamics make the child discouraged and delayed. Add to these existing dynamics the fact that a favorite teacher may now be in quarantine or may have COVID — just as the child is ready to tell someone, the person is not there for them. The window of time in which the child is ready to tell is ripped apart. …
You can still hear anecdotally from the start of real lockdown in 2020, that if you are locked in at home with someone who is sexually abusing you, you are physically stuck, and the perpetrator may be feeling more stress than usual, so you have a perfect storm. There is a lot of discussion about whether the center is ready, and if it is big enough, when the waves of delayed reports of abuse hit.
In your years at the Cascade office prior to this building opening, what was your feeling about the levels of social acknowledgment in El Paso and Teller counties of levels of child abuse, compared to the levels of support from stakeholder agencies working regionally to address the abuse?
Some conceptions and some components were trickier than others. I came here with a professional history of working with CACs, but I also came with preconceived notions of how things should work, many of which were proven wrong. Day in, day out, the folks who are here to serve families are amazingly dedicated. We would not have been able to build a center like this in less than five years had the team not been 100 percent dedicated. You can build four walls and make things super pretty, but if people can’t talk to each other with mutual respect, this doesn’t work. All the players come with different levels of skin in the game, the city looks at everything different from the county, and you get to learn everyone’s preconceived notions.
The center hasn’t even been open six months yet, but can you tell what the impact has been on partner agencies and clients?
Well, for sure there’s been growing pains and times we realized we had to slow down a little bit. In the previous model, my team was in the Cascade headquarters, and all the other agencies came to us, did the case, and left. Now, if they’re in the building, they meet and work on the case, and walk back to their desk. But we have to be sure to complete conversations before going back to cubicles. Now, having forensic nurses on board has been one of the biggest game-changers. Before, the families would go to hospitals, with a crisis approach centered on the ER. Now, a kid is in a more neutral environment, but will get to connect with a nurse. Think also of the cohesion of having an entire team in one place. Something that might have required a response to an email or voice message is handled right there in real time.
Is it time to call colocation centers an unqualified success on the national level?
I think if it’s at all doable in a particular community or region, it is definitely the way to go. There may be places where a team may not be solid, or there is a lack of commitment from government agencies or funders, the CAC might fail. And the CAC managers will take some punches, no doubt. But where the framework has come together, it is the best option. And it is undoubtedly making a difference in kids’ ability to grow into teen years, at least feeling that they’ve been heard.
It’s helpful to remember that child abuse was not even a crime until the 1970s. So the rapid professionalization of the community helping children has been remarkable. The sad part of it is the number of times you sit across from a mom who says, ‘This happened to me when I was a kid, but I never told anyone.’ It was the stigma, the lack of responding agencies.
Where the true change comes moving forward is in mental health, at being able to break chains that have existed across generations. That’s where the difference is today.
The crisis of mental health after two years of pandemic applies to both the families we deal with, and with the health care community itself. We suffer burnout on our staff as much as in a hospital. We’re all playing a constant game of Twister. You have to be willing to face parts of society that are dark and evil, without blinking. But our staff is comprised of people who truly care about each other and care about the families we serve.