Officals cut the ribbon as Children's Advocacy Center of Hidalgo County opens the Ayuda Center on Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019, in Roma. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

A victims’ center in Starr County is expanding its services to allow victims of child abuse to receive medical examinations without traveling long distances.

The Children’s Advocacy Center of Hidalgo County unveiled a new medical wing at the Ayuda Center, a shelter for crime victims run by the 229th District Attorney’s Office, that includes forensic examination rooms.

Cynthia Gomez, a forensic nurse with the CAC, said while they are just now beginning to offer medical exams, their services already included forensic interviews, counseling and other mental health services.

“For the most part a child is sexually assaulted, most of the time, by somebody they love, somebody they know,” Gomez said, explaining that it’s usually by someone who has constant access to them.

“Sometimes, they’re not even aware that what is happening is wrong so as they grow and as they mature, they’re aware of what sexuality is — what’s right, what’s wrong — so that’s sometimes when the outcries come about,” she said.

That is what is referred to as a delayed outcry, Gomez said.

“That’s where I come in for the sexual assault exam,” she said.

Gomez said she talks to them to try to obtain a medical diagnosis and ensure they’re okay mentally and physically.

“The children can come in here; this is a safe, neutral place where we can talk to them,” she said. “After they talk to me, I examine their body head to toe.”

During the exam she takes photographic evidence and also administers lab tests for possible sexually transmitted infections and for pregnancy, if applicable.

The type of forensic exams the center performs is chronic exams, which are performed for delayed outcry cases. The other type of exams is acute exams, which are performed within five days of the abuse and must be conducted at a hospital for evidence collection.

“At times, unfortunately, these children, every time they recount something, they’re living through the trauma again because they’re having to remember what they’ve been through,” Gomez said. “So sometimes they just need help from somebody that’s trained and that they can talk to them about how to cope with these feelings, how to cope with the fact that they’re having to talk about it again.”

In his remarks during the unveiling of the facilities, 229th District Attorney Omar Escobar noted the struggle of previously not having forensic examinations available in Starr County.

“All of you remember, those of you in law enforcement, remember that whenever we had a sexual abuse case of a child where we needed a forensic interview, we had to go to Hidalgo County,” he said.

“And for most people that was a major inconvenience, people did not want to take their children to get interviewed because you had to spend the hour on the road over there, another hour over there or two, and then come back,” he said. “We no longer have to do that.”

The Ayuda Center, where the CAC is based in Starr County, opened in 2016 at a former elementary school in Roma.

Escobar praised the Children’s Advocacy Center for their resources and equipment that allowed the Ayuda Center to begin offering the forensic interviews and exams.

“As this place begins to grow, this place will be able to accommodate other resources in the future,” Escobar said. “We’re making use of all of this and really, I think, more than anything we wanted to set the stage for a place where children can come in and be in a peaceful setting.”

Jesus Sanchez, executive director of the CAC lauded their ability to come together as a community to protect children.

“One thing that I encourage you to do is to think about, before you leave today, is what part and what role do you play in helping protect the children of your community,” Sanchez said. “How are you going to contribute to make sure that we make a stance against child abuse?”