Our Protectors

We don’t usually think about them until we need them. And by that point, we really need them. Police, fire, search and rescue, U.S. Coast Guard, advocates for children—they all step in at times of crisis.For some, like those who fight wildfires, the work is intensely physical. For others, like search-and-rescue, it can be highly specialized—picture rescuing someone on a rock ledge with ropes and a litter. Or our protectors might need a high degree of technological and psychological knowhow, like the police detective and children’s advocate who help protect kids from online predators and other criminals. In many cases, whenever our protectors get dressed for work, they are preparing to put themselves in harm’s way to help people they probably don’t even know. On the next pages, we profile some of our North Sound protectors to find out how, and why, they do what they do.

Pauline Renick, a 26-year Bellingham Police Department detective, is human just like all of us, with hobbies like golf and travel (ideally, combined). But her profession as protector of our most vulnerable citizens, children, make her a superhero to some.

“You know, I think society as a whole has the idea that cops are ‘tough,’ but I’ve always thought of myself as a human being first, just like everybody else,” says Renick, who has worked the last five years as the department’s internet crimes against children detective. She averages about 20 to 25 active investigations at a time. With support from the Blaine office of the Department of Homeland Security Investigations, Renick has been involved in the arrests of between 60 and 70 suspects since 2013. As a child abuse detective, her job is to identify and protect child victims of sexual abuse, which can include images or videos of children engaged in sexually explicit acts or sexual exploitation of children.

For Renick, her passion to protect children, and a strong support system, keep her inspired. Still, at times her work haunts her. “You know, sometimes I can’t get those images out of my head,” she says. And while each case could seem like just another day on the job, Renick is determined to treat each case with the same compassion, empathy, and vigor as the last. For victims, she says, “It’s likely the worst thing that has ever happened to that person, and you have to think of it that way.”

In March of 2013, she faced what she called “one of the most memorable” cases in her career. Bellingham police arrested repeat sex offender Raymond Joe Wagner on suspicion of molesting two preteen girls regularly over several years. The older of the victims disclosed the abuse to her parents when they heard rumors that Wagner was a sex offender. “If it was not for [her] strength, he wouldn’t have been put away,” Renick says. Wagner was sentenced to at least a decade in prison in 2015 and is currently serving time at Stafford Creek Corrections Center.

Working alongside Renick to protect and help heal victims of sexual abuse is Gail Tierney, Children’s Advocacy Center coordinator at the Brigid Collins Family Support Center. The center, a Bellingham-based nonprofit that aims at ending child abuse, provides resources for families like Parenting Academy, which teaches parenting skills, and Stewards of Children, a class that coaches adults on ways to prevent, recognize and react to child abuse. While a common practice is to teach children to say “No” or speak up when someone is making them uncomfortable, the two-hour Stewards of Children class makes adults aware of the realities of child sexual abuse, says Tierney. The Brigid Collins Center has trained 7,000 people in Whatcom County through the program, including teachers, church groups, and book clubs.

“Everyone should have this training,” Tierney says.

In addition, Brigid Collins is an accredited Child Advocacy Center, providing a multidisciplinary team approach to cases of child sexual abuse, working with law enforcement, medical professionals, prosecutors and child protective services to effectively bring justice and healing to victims. Renick and Tierney work together as pieces to this puzzle as forensic interviewers. Both women are highly trained to interview children who come to the center after disclosing or showing signs of abuse. Through a structured interview process, the interviewers assess the child’s safety, medical and psychological status, and attempt to obtain helpful information for the criminal case. “My job is just to listen to kids,” Tierney says. “Listening is really every adult’s job. Children count on us to believe them and protect them.”

TIPS for protecting children

  • If you suspect, report—don’t question. Deciding whether there is abuse is not your job, leave that to the professionals.
  • If your child is a victim, practice self-care. Caregivers and others are affected by child abuse, not just the victim.
  • Get trained to spot the signs of abuse through the Stewards of Children class at the Brigid Collins Family Support Center.

To continue reading Our Protector feature series, click here for the next story.

"'I think society as a whole has the idea that cops are ‘tough,’ but I’ve always thought of myself as a human being first, just like everybody else.'"