Missoula's First Step Resource Center has received national accreditation, making it eligible for more money to help victims of sexual abuse and assault.

Just as important, said Mary Pat Hansen, the accreditation by the National Children's Alliance represents a "fantastic" recognition of the collaborative work by law enforcement, medical and mental health agencies on behalf of First Step.

"It's very impressive, just the commitment" involved, said Hansen, First Step's lead medical examiner and forensic interviewer.

The Children's Alliance, which helps coordinate services to victims of child abuse, awards accreditation to organizations for best practices, Hansen said.

So, she said, "I look at this as a validation of the work we're doing."

For 10 years now - it opened Oct. 19, 2000 - First Step has seen both children and adults who've suffered sexual abuse. First Step's staff interviews them and does medical exams, and provides other services with an eye toward lessening the trauma of assault and taking a "first step" toward healing.

A nurse or nurse practitioner is on call 24/7 at First Step, located in the Missoula Medical Plaza on North Orange Street next to the Providence Center.

Because First Step does those initial interviews, law enforcement can concentrate immediately on investigations in those cases, said Missoula County Sheriff's Lt. Rich Maricelli.

"We all have a stake in the outcome of this whole thing," he said of First Step's work. "It's kind of a big deal for all of us."

For the past few years, First Step has seen about 300 clients annually, about 80 percent of them children. Most are victims of sexual assault or abuse, but First Step also helps children dealing with physical abuse, drug endangerment or neglect, Hansen said.

Accreditation means First Step will get $10,000 a year from the Children's Alliance toward its work.

Reporter Gwen Florio can be reached at 523-5268 or at gwen.florio@missoulian.com.


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