TIFTON -- A better way of evaluating child abuse has come to the Tifton area through a new program called Georgia CARES.

The Georgia Child Abuse Resource and Evaluation System was designed to help diagnose and treat abuse -- whether it's physical, sexual abuse or neglect -- by providing expert physicians to examine and treat the children. The program has been in place for about a year and currently has nine centers throughout the state. The program is modeled after the one Florida currently is using. Tifton's servicing center is located at the Affinity Health Group and it services a 10-20 county area. Dr. Friedmeyer, Director of Pediatrics at the Affinity Health Group, is the physician.

Dr. Randy Alexander, a professor of pediatrics at Morehouse College and founder of Georgia CARES, began the program because he wanted to ensure that children who were suspected of being abused were being evaluated by physicians who have the appropriate skills and knowledge to diagnose child abuse.

"ER doctors are great for heart attacks, strokes and trauma, but most of them are never trained in evaluating abuse. And they're more than happy to call me," Friedmeyer said.

Alexander said that although the program is up and running, it still needs to hire expert physicians and find the money to compensate the doctors.

"It costs between $500 and $600 to evaluate a child for physical and sexual abuse," Friedmeyer said, citing national studies. Of that cost, Alexander said, a physician currently may only receive $100 or $200.

As a forensic evaluator, he does several things: examines a child's injuries, treats the child, arranges for counseling and provides his findings to the appropriate law enforcement authorities. Sometimes he has to present his findings in court. He's testified for both the defense and prosecution.

"We're finding, at least here in South Georgia, that very rarely are we going to court," Friedmeyer said. Most of the cases have been plea bargained because the prosecutors have the evidence they need. He attributes part of that the to the Georgia CARES program, because abuse cases are no longer swept under the rug due to lack of experts and the fact that no one felt comfortable tackling those cases.

The physicians use equipment that allows them to take and record images of injuries via computer. This information can be electronically sent to other expert doctors for second opinions. Security is important so whatever they send is encrypted.

"Judges love it because now they're getting two expert opinions as opposed to only one," Friedmeyer said. The program is multi-disciplined, combining the services of the Department of Family and Children Services, police and medical personnel. By these and possibly more organizations working together, the children can receive faster and more complete care.

Friedmeyer says he sees about 10-15 child abuse cases a week. Not all of the children come from Tift County. Margaret McKeown, director of the Tift County DFACS child abuse section, said that in the year 2000, there were about 412 cases of suspected child abuse in the county. Of that amount, actual abuse was found in 149 cases. That's about average, she said.

The program participants have plans for the new program, including helping provide child abuse prevention awareness. That may come in the future. But they physicians have more immediate concerns.

"What we're trying to do all around the state is get child abuse evaluations up into a more professional status, and get people who are interested in learning the forensics of child abuse," Friedmeyer said.

To contact reporter Marie Arrington, please call 382-4321.

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