Protecting children longtime top priority for Carmel Valley resident

By Kathy Day

Growing up, Charles Wilson didn’t know that child abuse existed.

But as a college student he saw a commercial with a nursery rhyme playing in the background and a child crawling toward the camera. The only words were “Who would hurt a little child?”

That was the moment when he knew what he wanted to do with his life, Wilson said.

He said he had always wanted “to do something relevant” and planned to be a teacher. His introduction to what some children must endure came when he was student teaching at an inner city school where he said he was first “confronted with violence and abuse.”

But when he saw that commercial as a college senior he went straight to the library on campus to find out who was trying to stop the abuse. That began a learning curve that now has him leading the Chadwick Center for Children & Families at Rady Children’s Hospital and heading up the California Evidence Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare.

“What drew me in was the unfairness,” Wilson said. “I wanted to stop their pain.”

After graduating from the University of Miami, he applied for a job as a child protective services worker. Hired to work in a rural county southeast of Tampa, “within weeks I realized how woefully unequipped I was and the system was,” he said.

With that knowledge he went on to graduate school at the University of Tennessee where his focus was on systems change. Two years later he was working in the Memphis children’s protective services department and helped its administration.

Soon he was appointed as the state’s director of child welfare services – a post he held for 14 years, “surviving” several governors.

“I grew weary of politics,” he said. “I wanted a place that did outstanding clinical work and that aspired to change the world.”

Few places, he added, do both. One of those is the National Children’s Advocacy Center in Huntsville, Ala., where he went after leaving the state post. The other was the Center for Child Protection at what is now Rady Children’s Hospital. In 2004 the Center was renamed after its founder, Dr. David Chadwick, and today the Center is internationally known as the Chadwick Center for Children and Families.

The challenges of his job are many. There’s the obvious one of finding philanthropic support and funding, particularly with the recent problems in the economy that forced him to cut his staff by about half and led to the closure of three of the six offices — even though the number of cases they were handling continued to rise.

Even greater, though, is providing therapy for children who “have been abused or witnessed horrific violence like murder and rape,” Wilson said.

The center’s stated vision is “to create a world where children and families are healthy and free from abuse and neglect” through services aimed at “healing, intervention and family support.”

A recent participant in a Keep Kids Safe forum at Cathedral Catholic High School, Wilson said that while stranger abduction is a very serious concern, it still a tiny percentage of all the cases compared to abuse by people known to the child.

“People don’t want to hear about it, but it happens in … every geographic and [demographic] setting,” he said. “One way to talk to the public is not to scare them but to talk about the insidious effects.”

While he said professionals try not to over-sensationalize the topic, “the bruises and lacerations heal … but the emotional – and maybe the metabolic – effects are lasting.”

Wilson prides himself on the center’s efforts to reduce those effects through an evidence-based approach which utilizes individualized assessments and protocols rather than a more generic approach. It puts a strong emphasis on trauma and how it informs each case.

The center does really good work,” he said. That includes interviewing children brought to them by Law Enforcement or Child Protective Services who may have been abused or witnessed a crime. The staff includes board certified child abuse pediatricians who are experts in knowing “what’s abuse and what’s not,” as well as professionals and paraprofessionals trained in trauma treatment. They also have a special program for children under age 6 and one aimed at “neglect intervention” that helps teach parents how to make their homes and parenting safe.

Other elements on Wilson’s watch are a strong research program that includes working closely with the Child and Adolescent Services Research Center at Rady Children’s, and helping design a new a screening and assessment program for foster children with mental health needs across the state. Wilson also works closely with other leaders to manage Rady’s inpatient psychiatric hospital unit, previously run by UCSD. And, if that’s not enough, they conduct numerous training programs across the nation and overseas, including the recent 27th Annual San Diego International Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment that attracted almost 2000 people from 37 countries.

Since Wilson joined the center, he said, a lot of new scientific information has been discovered in the field of child abuse and violence and new ways have been developed to implement it in real world practice.

Our goal is to do what we know is best and do it every day,” he said.

Acknowledging that he loses sleep over the challenges of funding and staffing, Wilson does have outlets that enable him to relax. One of them is surfing at Swami’s. He learned how to surf growing up in Florida and discovered the famed Encinitas break about 10 years ago. But he admits he doesn’t get out as often as he should.

In his spare time – much spent in airports while traveling – he’s also written a book. Although he has yet to market the 80,000-word crime novel, he talks readily about its plot. He said it puts the reader immediately into a Civil War battle, which turns out to be a reenactment. When one person is shot – for real – the plot, as they say, thickens.

One character, an investigator, “is loosely based on my wife” who was the lead child abuse investigator for the Tennessee Bureau of Investigations and the setting includes an old country home not unlike the country house built in 1844 where they lived in Tennessee.

That house is also the scene of one of his favorite memories of their youngest daughter Lauren. Before they moved west, she attended a small country school with what Wilson described as “an old-school teacher.”

One evening after she first started there, they were sitting around the dining room table reviewing the discipline rules for the new school.

“It said if you misbehave, you can be put in a corner,” Wilson recalled. “If you continue to misbehave, you will be sent to the office, and if you continue to misbehave the principal can paddle you.”

Lauren looked confused and didn’t understand. “She said, ‘You mean they hit kids?’”

Wilson said, “I wish every kid would find that concept confusing.”

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Quick Facts


Charles Wilson, MSSW

Resident of:

Torrey Hills


Wilson directs the California Evidence-Based Clearinghouse for Child Welfare, under contract with the California Department of Social Services. Wilson is the Executive Director of the Chadwick Center for Children and Families and the Sam and Rose Stein Endowed Chair in Child Protection at Rady Children’s Hospital-San Diego.

Wilson serves as the director of the Safe Kids California Project. He also co-chairs the Child Welfare Committee of the SAMHSA-funded National Child Traumatic Stress Network and serves on the Board of the California Chapter of the National Children’s Alliance.

Past president of the American Professional Society on Abuse of Children and past vice president of the National Association of Public Child Welfare Administrators and a former ex-offico member of the National Children’s Alliance Board of Directors.

Awards received:

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration of Children, Youth, and Families, Commissioner’s Award 2012; San Diego County Commission on Children and Youth. Stars Award 2011; American Professional Society on Abuse of Children, Career Achievement Award 2010.


Wife Donna Pence was the first female Special Agent with the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. For more than 25 years she worked undercover, special crimes, and field investigations. She organized the Bureau’s first missing children’s program, specializing in child sexual abuse and child homicide investigation. She was also in charge of the statewide Drug Enforcement Unit and the Training & Recruitment Unit. A former trainer and curriculum specialist with the Academy of Professional Excellence, a project of San Diego State University, she now contracts with them. She has established her own corporation, Pence Wilson Training and Consulting (

Next month the San Diego Police Foundation is recognizing Donna for her pioneering role for women in law enforcement at its annual “Women in Blue” award ceremony.

Daughters Lauren, a Canyon Crest Academy and UCSD graduate, plans to attend law school in the fall; Alexis, a San Dieguito Academy and MTU graduate, manages Loss Prevention for Hibbetts Sporting Goods Distribution Center in Birmingham, Ala.; and Krista, who graduated from high school and college in Tennessee and is now a psychiatric nurse in East Tennessee. She has two children.


Surfing, photography, “quick cars”


Aside from professional literature – history and Tom Clancy. Favorite book is ‘Exodus’

Favorite films:

“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”

Favorite getaway:

Saladita, a surf spot just outside Ixtapa-Zihuatanejo, Mexico


“Big people shouldn’t hurt little people.”