Dr. Karen Rush excited to get to work meeting challenges of protecting, advocating for abused children

Children's Center has a new executive director at the helm in Dr. Karen Rush, who brings more than 20 years of experience working with children as an administrator and principal for North Clackamas School District, as well as a researcher in therapeutic and psychological settings.

Dr. Karen RushRush began work on Jan. 1 alongside Rebecca Nickels, who has served as director in an interim capacity for the past year. Nickels is staying on as a contractor through Jan. 21 to help ensure a smooth transition for Rush.

As a resident of Clackamas County, Rush has firsthand experience with challenges facing the systems that protect our children and a deep-seated passion for the work she'll embark on as she leads the Children's Center through a tumultuous and transitional period for many social service nonprofits.

"As a member of this community I have some dreams and goals for our overall community, and that is that our community is known as a place where children are safe," Rush told Pamplin Media Group. "My dream is also that there's a recognition that all families have unique struggles and that we build a safety net underneath children to support their families, their schools and other community organizations that help them."

Dr. Karen Rush comes to the Children's Center — an Oregon City-based nonprofit that conducts medical examinations and forensic interviews to support kids across Clackamas County who are the victims of abuse, neglect or have witnessed violence — after 20 years with the school district where she most recently served as principal of Oak Grove Elementary.

In addition to serving three elementary schools as principal, she served for six years in the North Clackamas School District's central office filing various roles such as director of early learning and other high-level positions.

Rush began her career in Minnesota after graduating Summa Cum Laude from University of Minnesota with a bachelor's degree in child psychology. She also holds both a master's and a Ph.D. in education psychology. She cut her teeth at Minnesota's Early Childhood Research Institute where she directed studies on prenatal exposure to drugs and alcohol, as well as the inclusion of students with disabilities. She and her husband spent a few years in Utah before moving to Oregon in the late 1990s, when Rush became an assistant professor of education at the University of Oregon. Along the way she has also designed therapeutic programs in clinical and school psychology settings.

Rush joins the Children's Center at a moment when the COVID-19 pandemic is posing many challenges to social service providers and advocacy groups whose contact points with children in the public school systems have been all but eliminated due to distance learning.

It's no secret among social service providers that a lack of interaction with the mandatory reporters who would typically observe the signs of abuse or neglect — teachers, school psychologists and nurses, administrators, etc. — has led to many cases being unnoticed. And many expect caseloads to mount as the vaccine is more widely distributed and children to return to the classroom.

Voters rejected a financial lifeline in November that would have imposed a new property tax, with revenue going to children's-safety organizations like the Children's Center, in which the average homeowner in Clackamas County would pay approximately $3.78 per month on a home with an average assessed value of $302,000. However, partnerships built to push for the failed measure are providing a unique opportunity for organizations like the Children's Center — and others who are part of Clackamas County's Safe Kids Coalition that advocated for the levy — to dig into their work and create a robust response to the eruption in cases of abuse and neglect.

For Rush, that unique opportunity to be on the cutting edge of children's services and leading the way for how medical examinations and forensic interviews are conducted to positively impact the lives of Clackamas County children was a huge draw for her joining the organization.

"My staff and I talked regularly about our concerns for children when they weren't in a place where they had trusted adults that they could easily talk to," she said. "Obviously, in distance learning, kids' opportunity to have one-on-one time with an adult is pretty challenging, and the opportunity to build those relationships, so every week teachers and I were having conversations about how do we offer a space where children can let us know what's going on?"

Rush said the Children's Center is also recognizing the amount of stress families are dealing with in these times is truly "unprecedented," despite disdain for overuse of that word.

Rush believes that having less opportunity to learn about the resources available to them has stretched many families to the breaking point, and the Children's Center is trying to find ways to work with its partners in Clackamas County to ensure those families are educated on the resources there to help them.

"I'm super jazzed to be part of the Safe Kids Coalition, and I think something that I'm really excited about is just seeing where those organizations that all kind of serve similar constituents, how do we partner together so we can be more synergistic in our work," Rush said.

On a personal note, Rush said that she's extremely humbled and thrilled that the Children's Center's Board of Directors put their trust in her to lead their organization during a time of such uncertainty and uncharted waters. In some ways, she said, this is a dream job to bring all of her skills and passions into one role.

"Since conversation sort of started happening with the Children's Center back in October, it has been a major feature in my dreams and my conversations, so it has been something that I am just so honored and excited to get to do," she said. "And I feel really passionately about it, and I just want to jump in quickly, but I also know that there's a lot that I need to learn about the organization and about the partnerships."

According to Rush, that learning period will play a huge role in setting herself up for success, and she's currently working with Nickels as she fully takes the driver's seat over the coming weeks.

For Nickels, she said it's been an honor working alongside the Clackamas County community to work on behalf of children.

"Thank you all for the way you welcomed me when I arrived and trusted me, and our team, with your continued support," Nickels said. "It truly takes a village to raise a child, and I've loved being a part of this one."

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