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UCLA to Study Development of Victims of Alleged Abuse

October 20, 1985|LOIS TIMNICK | Times Staff Writer

A $450,000 federal research grant to trace the psychological and behavioral development of children allegedly molested at the Virginia McMartin Pre-School in Manhattan Beach and at other South Bay nursery schools has been awarded to a team of researchers at UCLA.

The grant from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect will cover the first three years of what researchers hope will be a study that follows the children into adulthood. The researchers want to assess the effect of alleged sexual abuse, to determine what coping mechanisms lessen that effect and to arrive at some recommendations for helping future victims of abuse adjust.

Although several similar long-term studies are in progress, research consultant David Finkelhor of the University of New Hampshire said the Los Angeles study is unique.

"It focuses on children who were preschool-aged at the time of abuse. All share certain common features: They were abused under similar circumstances, and their family and social backgrounds are similar. That is an advantage because the differences we see in coping will not be related to social class background or family constellation but more to such things as how a family reacted, its members' strengths, etc.

"There is no study of children abused in quite this way--all at a preschool. The others draw subjects from a mixed group," said Finkelhor, who will commute here as one of four principal investigators in the study. A noted child abuse expert, he is assistant director of the family violence research program at the University of New Hampshire.

In announcing the study, researchers said that whether a particular child has in fact been molested is not of great importance to them, because they are looking at the kinds of trauma suffered by children reporting sexual abuse by trusted adults.

A sample of at least 100 children ages 3 to 16, drawn primarily from alleged victims in the McMartin Pre-School molestation case, will undergo a battery of psychological tests and answer questionnaires at intervals, with much of the information gathered through their parents and therapists to minimize trauma to the youngsters, according to project coordinator Robert Kelly, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at UCLA and an adjunct faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary.

No data will be collected from the school system or from the children's teachers, Kelly said, because the researchers do not want to risk having children identified as victims and consequently stigmatized.

A control group of 50 children of similar socioeconomic and racial background will be drawn from another as-yet-unchosen Los Angeles area community.

Voluntary Participation

Letters announcing the study are in the mail this week to the parents of about 500 children in the South Bay area. Participation in the project is voluntary, and data on individual children will be kept confidential, the researchers say.

Finkelhor has theorized that children who are sexually abused may develop abnormally. They may be traumatically sexualized--that is, grow up with distorted ideas and feelings about sex. They may feel betrayed, powerless and stigmatized. And these feelings may lead to juvenile delinquency, violent or antisocial behavior, an inability to trust others and other problems in adulthood.

"However," Finkelhor said, "we know that most sexually abused children grow up relatively unscarred." He said long-term studies are needed to detect subtle scars and effects that may show up much later and to find out what helps speed recovery.

The study grows out of a volunteer research advisory group chaired by Jennifer Leonard, grants vice president of the California Community Foundation. That foundation, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and United Way Inc. financed the fledgling group, which has been meeting since the spring of 1984, when the McMartin case broke and lent a special urgency to the need for answers about the lasting effects of child sexual abuse.

Leonard had convened the group to try to stimulate such research while creating an unofficial review system to screen out "thoughtless or ill-qualified researchers" from invading the South Bay, she said.

'Only ... Positive Result'

"A number of people separately had begun to discuss the possibility of research, including some parents of McMartin children who could see that that might be the only possible positive result ever to come from what they saw as a massive tragedy still unresolved in the courts," Leonard said.

A California Community Foundation study published in 1983 pointed out "a critical need" for quality long-term research on the effects of child sexual abuse on its victims, she added.

Principal investigators of the project, besides Kelly and Finkelhor, are psychologist Jill Waterman, an adjunct associate professor in the UCLA psychology department, and Mary Kay Oliveri, a licensed clinical social worker who directs coastal region children's services for the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center in Torrance.

Numerous therapists already treating many of the children--including those from the South Bay Center for Counseling, Richstone Family Center and Children's Institute International--have agreed to participate in the project. Psychologist Jane McCord at Harbor-UCLA is clinical coordinator.

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