It is a dark and often hidden side of humanity, but the abuse of innocent children is constantly illuminated in Angela Coulter’s vision.
As the executive director for the past seven years of the Children’s Advocacy Center of Grays Harbor — a public non-profit organization that deals with prevention, investigation, intervention, prosecution and treatment of the physical and sexual assault of children — she fights daily to protect those who must rely on the vested interest of strangers like her.
Coulter’s path to a leadership position at both the Children’s Advocacy Center and before that at Beyond Survival, a resource center for crisis support and assistance of abused women, where she was previously executive director, has been a journey of her own self discovery. It’s a journey that began to take form in the wake of the loss of a job.
She was born in Aberdeen, and raised both there and in Hoquiam. After graduation from Hoquiam High School, she worked in a number of fast food chains and then in retail job at Ernst until the store closed when she was 25. “I’d overheard my manager talking with someone, saying, ‘you know I’m kind of worried about Angie, I don’t know what she’s going to do after this,’ ” she said.
And, it was true, she was not really sure what to do next. Then, despite having a toddler at home and no driver’s license (though medically cleared, a seizure disorder had caused her to wait to get it), she decided to take a chance and go back to school.
“Then I figured out that I was smart,” she said.
It was around that time that a friend of hers, one who she describes as “very smart, capable,” confided in Coulter that the man she had just ended a relationship with had been physically and sexually abusive toward her.
“It didn’t make sense,” she said, adding that she herself had never been in an abusive situation in her adult life and wanted to understand the issue better.
She decided to focus her studies and training, which she began at Grays Harbor College and continued at The Evergreen State College, on sexual assault and the abuse of women.
“I wanted to understand more of why it happens and why it continues to happen,” she said.
Through both her education and profession, she says, she now has an ability to see the warning signs of abuse and has a greater understanding of why some choose to continue in such relationships.
“They love that person and can’t step away from the situation,” she said. “It’s not really a conscious choice to stay.”
Once Coulter finished her education in 1997, she decided to pursue a career in mental health, starting her first career job at what was then called the Evergreen Counseling Center (now Behavioral Health Resources) in Hoquiam.
“It was really good for a first job, it was so hard,” she said, adding at times her life became absorbed in some of the “messy” mental health situations with which she assisted.
In her second case, Coulter became maybe a little too involved in her concern for a homeless woman she describes as having a personality disorder. “She was young, and had a lot of potential, but (she) couldn’t see it.”
The case became a large part of Coulter’s life. When her husband at the time asked about the woman by name, she was confused.
“I said, ‘why?’ Because, you know, confidentiality is my best friend. He said, ‘because you were yelling it in your sleep,’” she said.
The woman has since gotten into a residence, and “achieved a little bit of permanency,” Coulter said.
“You or I would think, ‘Oh hell no, that’s not stable,’” she said. “But for her … you have to be able to celebrate the little victories.”
Such a mantra, one of admitting that some things cannot be changed, is one that Coulter — who considers herself a very optimistic person — still uses at her Children’s Advocacy Center job, and in assisting with Beyond Survival.
“I just have to focus on what I can do and not let it make me externally crazy,” she said. “I’ve learned to kind of let certain things go.”
It is likely that is a necessity for someone like Coulter, who is constantly working to improve her surroundings and has transformed the center for the better since she began in the position.
“Ang (Coulter) has really done a great job in renovating,” said Dr. Steve Hutton, of the Children’s Health Center in Aberdeen, who praises Coulter’s efforts overall. “There have a been a whole lot of changes since 1998 (the year the center opened).”
He is part of a large multidisciplinary team, including law enforcement detectives and sexual assault clinic directors that meets every two weeks with Coulter to discuss cases of allegations of child abuse.
“We’ve all dealt with some pretty icky stuff together,” said Coulter.
She has personally helped increase the center’s staff from a low of 12 or 13 when she began to a high of 37 in 2008. Due to funding cuts, which fluctuate often and also ended the Headstart program that had been added, the current staff is at 23, with about 17 full-time employees.The center receives about 50 percent of its funding from Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, and the rest from federal and both private and public local sources. Coulter continues to fight for whatever she believes the center and the community of Grays Harbor deserves, she said, and routinely writes grant proposals herself.
Her persuasive abilities were likely the reason her request for a cover for the center’s playground was selected for funding by the Greater Grays Harbor, Inc.’s Leadership Grays Harbor Class of 2013. She has also renovated the center with cosmetic changes to several rooms within the facility, with the help of volunteers who aid in her visions.
“We live and die by volunteers who say, ‘what the heck, let’s fix this,” she said, adding they can always use volunteers for things like “painting, cleaning, holding babies.”
Coulter came to her position at the Children’s Advocacy Center after the sudden diagnosis of cancer and subsequent death of her first husband left her looking for a job with more stable hours to be able to take care of her then pre-teen daughter, Emily.
“I was a single mom and couldn’t monitor a 24-hour operation,” she said of her job at Beyond Survival, where she often worked 50-60 varied hours a week, and was often called to the hospital in the middle of the night.
Now, she said, while her job “in theory” is a 9 to 5 position, she still works “plenty more than 40 hours a week.” And, now that her daughter is grown, she often works nights in a volunteer position with Beyond Survival. Just a couple of weeks ago, Coulter “doubled up” working as both the Children’s Advocacy Center Executive Director and the Interim Director at Beyond Survival when two members of the “very small” Beyond Survival staff had deaths in their families and the center needed more of her assistance.
Often enough, Coulter said, she “runs around like a chicken with her head cut off,” tending to one-on-one sessions within the facility, the center’s crisis nursery (where children may stay for up to 72 hours) and regular daycare that’s open to any children. She also works on administrative things, supervising visits, assisting with the center’s case aid programs, “making sure all the lights are on” and doing a little bit of everything to make sure all of the center’s programs run effectively. The center has many programs, and even owns eight vehicles to transport children wherever they need for supervised visitation. Coulter spends a lot of time talking with the children who end up at the center, her youthfulness and authenticity often aids in her quest to help.
“Teens think I’m awesome ‘cuz I swear,” she said, adding that once the children realize she is there to understand the situations and them better they often open themselves to her. “Many of them, they’re not used to grownups communicating with them at that level. It usually sets them off and then they are pretty comfortable.”
Not surprisingly, for Coulter there rarely is a moment of rest. Even away from the office, the cases often tend to return to her thoughts.
“There are the really horrible things that happen, those are the case that keep me up at night,” she said, adding many cases feature repeated sexual abuse, many times “generational.”
“They don’t know a different — or what I would say is a better — way to live,” she said.
The biggest challenges for the center are often bureaucratic, Coulter said. But the hardest part, for those in positions like hers, is accepting the inability to change people who have no desire to do so themselves.
Processing each day that there are many children whom she may never be able to assist due to logistics haunts Coulter psychologically at times.
“There are families where it is happening, right now. How can I get up?” she said, adding there are also many unfortunate times that instances of abuse go unnoticed, or maybe even worse — are investigated for many years but not proven until seemingly too late.
“I have to let it go. Sometimes you just can’t make a difference.”
Fortunately, Coulter said she would estimate that the ratio of those whom the center sees more than once, is only about 20 percent in comparison to the 80 percent they help and then never see again. But the criteria for “getting better” is all based on perspective.
“For instance, a mom who has five kids taken away, who now has more kids and she is caring for them and doing well and yeah, she seems better,” she said. She said she even considers it a success when the mom who has lost custody of all of her children has now been able to turn her life around.
Still, she and her team at the CAC are constantly striving to think of ideas for preventing such occurrences. One of the most recent is a countywide “Baby Team” that plans to focus on young, first time mothers whose infants have been placed in foster care.
“We feel that it’s a small group that we can handle and make the best change we can,” she said, adding the plan is to prevent future occurrences by giving the young mothers the care and support they need to be successful and make better decisions. She hopes such programs will change lives for the better as they were able to do for her own.
“I was raised here and we were poor, and benefited from all of these services and now I get to give back and help other kids,” she said.
And for these kids, Coulter is not afraid to speak her mind. She does not hesitate when asked if she has one thing she most would like lawmakers to change.
“A child put in foster care, and then returned (to parents), there should be no (second) chances,” she said, adding she believes at that point the child should be put up for adoption. Currently, there are essentially unlimited chances in such instances.
“At some point the parents’ needs don’t matter anymore, permanency is all that matters. Returning kids and moving (them) around is abusive in and of itself.”
Of course, her preference would be that all kids remain with their parents in a stable and loving home — and she continues to work to make this the case for the families who come to use the facilities at the Children’s Advocacy Center. Sometimes, the difference that can be made through such assistance is visible in the strangest of ways, said Coulter, like one recent occurrence where she was present at a family’s home where an argument had ensued.
“It was a kiddo I had been working with for several years and was thinking, ‘This is great, this is normal teenage stuff. They were all dramatic about normal stuff,” she said. “It was great.”