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Prevention efforts reduce abuse

By Yvonne Lopez-Morton


As Mary Ann Murphy retires the end of June from 23 years as the founding director of Partners With Families and Children (Partners), she leaves a legacy as a champion of children.

Mary Ann Murphy
Mary Ann Murphy

Under her leadership, the program earned a national reputation as an integrated service-delivery model which co-locates health, child welfare, chemical dependency and mental health treatment.

“We do difficult work well and will stick with the children we serve through thick and thin,” Mary Ann said. “However, the core challenges we face are the twin evils of poverty and racism.

“Children are not receiving what they need in terms of food, clothing and supervision,” she said. “Between 2001 and 2007, 85 percent of the cases we saw were the result of child neglect.”

An accredited children’s advocacy center, Partners’ services focus on children who have suffered physical and sexual abuse, neglect, exposure to drugs and violence.

In addition to services for at-risk children, it provides services for families with multiple needs, including individual and group counseling for parents.

In a 1980s conversation with Mary Ann and others, Spokane physician Alan Hendrickson jotted notes on a paper napkin.  Those ideas became the inspiration for Partners with Families and Children.  They were discussing how the community could serve and protect children who were physically and/or sexually abused.

From those roots, a community effort grew to create a regional center for child abuse, organize doctors, coordinate the investigations of law enforcements and Child Protective Services, the courts and other social and health treatment services, secure funding and identify an advisory board. Eventually it became an independent nonprofit organization with the sponsorship of Deaconess and Sacred Heart Medical Centers.

A cornerstone program of Partners is prevention.  It includes “Darkness to Light,” a curriculum designed to increase public awareness of child sexual abuse issues and educate adults to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to abuse.

“I have focused on prevention for most of the last six years.  I believe we need to intervene before abuse occurs,” Mary Ann said.

She urges efforts to empower and support parents and reach out to parents who experienced abuse.

“In my lifetime, we thought we had to be the voices for children, but I now believe that parent leaders are the wave of the future,” she said. “We need more community conversations. The answers must come from the people most affected by public policies.  They must have a role in helping set the agendas and action plans.”

Her commitment to educating the public about child abuse and neglect issues has been reaffirmed for five years in her helping found the “Our Kids: Our Business” public awareness program in the greater Spokane area.

She is pleased that the community comes together to send a strong message that abuse of children will not be tolerated.

Uniting local media, social service agencies, nonprofits, businesses and others since 2007, Mary Ann, in partnership with fellow social service advocate and friend Marilee Roloff, executive director of Volunteers of America in Spokane, led the effort to initiate Our Kids: Our Business as a response to needs of Inland Northwest children.

Each April, the community “blooms” in solidarity as thousands of colorful pinwheels—the Our Kids: Our Business call-to-action symbol—adorn public spaces, businesses and even private lawns.  This year a shift was made to reusable street banners.

“Working the campaign has given a second wind to my career.  When I started in 1988 at our child abuse treatment center, we could not imagine prevention,” Mary Ann said.

For her, that was hopeful, because she knows how many children need treatment, yet most are too scared to come forward to reveal their family secret. With so many children needing treatment and few coming forward, she’s glad prevention science has progressed.

The campaign engages adults in various participating organizations in planning for children’s safety based on known factors that increase protection: strengthening social connections for families; offering places to turn for basic needs in times of crisis; increasing knowledge about child development and parenting skills, and expressing to children that they are loved and belong, she said.

When Mary Ann was growing up in Utah, her grandfather was the only Catholic doctor in a Mormon town.  When her father died in World War II, her mother went back to school and became a teacher to support Mary Ann and her brother.  They moved to California, where her mother remarried, adding five more children to the family.

Living in Texas in the early 1950s, Mary Ann observed her mother’s quest for social justice as a progressive Catholic.

“She was my mentor,” she said.

The family moved to Spokane when her stepfather was stationed at Fairchild Air Force Base. She graduated from Lewis and Clark High School and the University of Washington, where she majored in political science.

After college, Mary Ann married and was a pre-school teacher in Seattle.

From 1967 to 1970, she was a HeadStart teacher in the Watts section of Los Angeles, day school director at the Children’s Orthopedic Hospital in Seattle in 1970 and 1971, and a pre-school teacher in Washington, D.C., in 1971 and 1972.

She was disturbed by and afraid of the child abuse and neglect she saw.

So in 1973, after divorcing and returning to Spokane with her 10-month-old daughter, she pursued a master’s degree in developmental psychology at Eastern Washington University.  She worked for 10 years with EWU’s department of applied psychology faculty. She designed and administered two grants, which were national models for financing of early intervention services for high-risk infants and families.

When she left EWU, she was a consultant for a year, but yearned for mission-driven service.  In 1983, she became the executive director of Youth Help Association, now YFA Connections, where she helped develop social service programs in six service areas for youth, families and substance abuse treatment.

A practicing Catholic until college, Mary Ann said she and her late husband, Spokane film critic and ad executive Robert Glatzer, raised three children in their blended family with Jewish and Christian traditions in their home.

As she prepares to retire and evaluates challenges ahead for Partners with Families and Children, Mary Ann believes that, in the the current economic climate as federal and state funding collapses, the community needs to help find solutions to support child victims, and prevent child abuse and neglect.

Last fall, Spokane voters rejected the Children’s Investment Fund initiative, which would have generated $5 million each year to support youth  programs through a property tax levy, she said.

 “Partners and other nonprofits have had to make hard choices during this economic downturn,” she said. “To keep everyone employed and retain our level of skills, we had to reduce salaries and increase employee insurance contributions.”

“We all shared the pain, but we held on to everyone,” she said.

Mary Ann is encouraged that Partners’ work was validated with a three-year $135,000 Asset Building Grant from the Paul G. Allen Family Foundation to support financial counseling for families of at-risk children.

She said Partners must continue to respond to children’s needs, because children are often crime victims. She encourages collaboration with law enforcement and schools to strengthen prevention.

Mary Ann will stay in Spokane and explore new paths to reaffirm her social justice values instilled by her mother and others.

For information, call 473-4810 or email