Barbara Peschiera ’82 

Barbara Peschiera ’82 

Out of the Shadows

Barbara Peschiera ’82 helps children recover from sexual abuse—and bring their abusers to justice.

By Raymond Rendleman ’06 | December 1, 2014

Isabella Butler had a question for the judge. Could she bring a friend with her to the witness stand for moral support?

It was an unusual request, but under the circumstances, Clackamas County Circuit Court Judge Robert D. Herndon granted it. 

Isabella’s stepfather, Cliff Robert Martinez, first began abusing her when she was just eight years old. She kept the secret until she was 13, when she reported the abuse. But shortly after that, she recanted her accusation because she feared losing his financial support for her wheelchair-bound mother.

Years later, she finally told detectives in Oregon City the truth about her stepfather. At their behest, she called Martinez and got him to admit to his perverse acts while they taped the conversation—an act of courage that led to this day in court.

Now 18, Isabella walked with her friend to the front of the courtroom, where she unfolded a statement she had written in all-capital letters on a few sheets of notebook paper. The girls held hands and Isabella began to read, glancing up occasionally to look directly into the eyes of the man who molested her. 

“I will never forgive or forget what you have done to me,” she said.

It was a moving speech and a remarkable show of bravery. It was also, in many ways, a testament to the work of Barbara Peschiera ’82, executive director of the Children’s Center, an Oregon City nonprofit dedicated to supporting and assessing children who have been subjected to abuse and neglect. A passionate advocate for children, Barbara has played a vital role in developing nationally emulated programs designed to end the trauma of child abuse.

Walking through the labyrinthine Children’s Center, you’ll see plenty of plush sofas for family gatherings and teddy bears for kids to take home. Further back, you’ll also see microscopes hovering over exam tables. Interview rooms maintain the sofa-and-teddy-bear aesthetic, but also feature walls of one-way mirrors.

Oregon had no independent organizations to help children and families recover from child abuse until 1985, when Dr. Jan Bays created a child-abuse clinic at Emanuel Hospital. “After the 1980s, the interest in exploring it as a physical and medical issue exploded,” says Mike Regan, the Clackamas County deputy district attorney who runs the child-protection department. “They’re able to treat the child and let the child know that despite those years of abuse, their bodies are going to heal.”

The mission of the Children’s Center is primarily clinical—that is, focused on the child’s well being—but interviews by Children’s Center investigators often yield evidence that plays a pivotal role in the courtroom.

Interviews typically begin by asking children about what they remember doing with the suspect. But questions can’t be leading. Instead of asking, “Did he touch you?” more common questions are: “Who was in the bedroom at the time?” “Where was he in the room?” and “What happened then?” Such questions encourage children to hop up onto those sofas and demonstrate what everyone was doing that day. Anatomically correct dolls, rarely used, are available for children having trouble expressing the events of an incident in question.

“We ask who was in the room and what happened in the room, and we would never bring up the sex thing,” Barbara says.

Prosecutors have been impressed with Barbara’s leadership. After taking charge of the Children’s Center in 2012, she built relationships in Clackamas County by visiting regularly with leaders of local health and law-enforcement agencies.

“Barbara’s very open to feedback, highly professional and a good listener,” says Regan. “The defense attorneys frequently try to paint the Children’s Center as an arm of the prosecution, but they make their own determinations, and we often disagree with them.” 

That’s why the public needs multiple partners to protect families against abuse, Barbara argues. Since it’s not an arm of law enforcement, the Children’s Center can provide more comprehensive support for families. “Parents and families are doing their best with what they have, and hopefully with investigating sexual abuse, we’re helping them have the tools to improve their situation,” she says. “In situations where families are challenged, we also point out things they do well, because the only bad guy is the offender, and it’s important to remember that.”

At the end of her sophomore year at Reed, Barbara couldn’t become a junior until she declared a major. “There was no humanities degree at Reed, so I decided to major in religion—even though I hadn’t taken a religion course,” she recalls. Using the Reed major with the least number of requirements, she decided she could build a humanities background for herself.

Taking a German history class with Prof. Christine Mueller [history 1973–2004], Barbara was struck by many parallels in German and American culture. She concluded that what happened in Europe in the thirties could happen here—or (on a smaller scale) within a family having challenges.

“It’s easy just to blame Hitler for the atrocities, but there was an environment that allowed that to happen, and I see that in families,” she says. “So much of our history is about power and control, as is child abuse. Sexual abusers do not have a mental illness—for them it’s about power and control, so I try to be mindful of who’s marginalized and how that changes their relationship with who’s powerful.”

After graduating from Reed, Barbara got a degree in journalism from Northwestern University and worked as a reporter for more than 12 years at newspapers including the Oregonian and the Statesman Journal.

“I think that broad liberal-arts background was very useful in covering the multitude of stories as a journalist, and it’s given me a bit of a moral grounding as I’ve approached nonprofit work,” she says. “The education I got at Reed gave me a sense of the physiological and sociological conflicts of human beings and gives me a sense of what unites us as human beings.”

She later became the first executive director of the Columbia Learning Center, in St. Helens, Oregon, and then served as development director for the Oregon Health & Science University Foundation, the Oregon Food Bank, and the Oregon Zoo, before taking the helm of the Children’s Center.

The Children’s Center has been at the forefront of research into the connection between child abuse and drug abuse. Studies have found that children whose parents have drug problems are at greater risk of sexual and physical abuse, and roughly half of the children who are referred to the center test positive for drug exposure. One case involved a three-year-old boy, who was referred because of concerns that he had been exposed to marijuana. His test results showed that he had actually ingested ecstasy.

Kids who are referred to the center for drug endangerment are now also evaluated for other types of abuse, because parental drug involvement raises the risk that their children will be abused or neglected.

After reading an article about the Children’s Center in the Oregon City News, an investigation company executive was so impressed that he decided to offer a similar service in North Carolina. “When I saw that article, I thought to myself, ‘that’s wonderful,’ and now I’m thinking about how to replicate this,” said Mike Bostic of  M&K Record Researches in Greenville. “It’s just one good way for the counties and prosecution to verify that people are doing what they say they’re doing.”  

“Today I finished a horrible chapter in my life,” Isabella told the courtroom, where more than a dozen of her friends and family members had gathered to show their support. Thanks to her work with Barbara, the police, and her own courage, her stepfather pleaded guilty. Judge Herndon then sentenced him to 15 years in prison. “He committed, short of murder, the most horrible act,” the judge said.

During the sentencing, court officials lauded Isabella’s bravery in coming forward to the witness stand to read a statement.

Although Barbara cannot comment on specific cases, she’s found that it takes an intentional intellectual process to manipulate a child to do something sexual. She encourages parents to have conversations with their children about how they react to strange behavior.

“The overriding value is a child’s innocence and purity, and that’s an important state to preserve in children, while at the same time preparing them to protect themselves,” Barbara says. “The biggest message parents can give their children to keep them safe is always communicate how special and how loved that child is and continually open the door to talk if they have experiences that confuse or scare them.”

Raymond Rendleman ’06 is the editor of the Oregon City News. His last article for Reed was about Emilio Pucci ’37.

Tags: Alumni, Health/Wellness