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Children Still Suffering From Effects of Quake

December 06, 1987|DAVID HALDANE | Times Staff Writer

Cheri Sandoval, 7, is afraid of empty rooms. Until last week, her parents say, the Norwalk girl refused to go to the bathroom alone or even sleep in her own bed.

Heather Anderson, 9, of Bellflower, has dropped out of school and requires a visiting tutor. "We've been to three psychologists," said her father, Gary. "We'll try school again in January."

The earthquake is over. But more than two months after it violently shook the greater Los Angeles area, many children are still exhibiting quake-related symptoms, according to local psychologists. They range from severe nightmares to the inability to leave their parents' sides.

"It's astounding," said Robert R. Butterworth, a clinical psychologist who specializes in children at his offices in Downey, West Los Angeles and Sherman Oaks. "This is a big problem, but nobody's talking about it."

Gay de Gero, a psychologist for the Montebello Unified School District in the San Gabriel Valley, said, "We've seen far more difficulties than we expected."

Butterworth, 41, said he first became aware of the magnitude of the problem two weeks ago when he gave a lecture at Charter Hospital of Long Beach on "Earthquake Trauma--Children Who Are Still Shaking!" Instead of the 30 to 40 people who usually show up for the regular lecture series, Butterworth said, he found himself speaking to about 160 worried parents in search of ways to deal with their quake-traumatized children. And this was in a community 20 miles from the epicenter of the quake.

"I said to myself, 'We better alert the rest of the community to this,' " recalled Butterworth, who has since started weekly group sessions in which he lies sprawled on his office floor engaging children in earthquake-related play therapy--in which they simulate a quake with miniature homes and people--as their parents wait patiently in the next room.

Based on his work so far, he believes that of children aged 8 to 12 who felt the initial tremor, as many as one in 30 are still experiencing its effects. Although the symptoms have been noted throughout Southern California, he said, they seem to be more common in the communities hardest hit by the Oct. 1 earthquake.

Large Numbers

Officials at several area school districts confirmed that large numbers of children are still affected.

De Gero, one of 10 psychologists employed by the 30,000-student Montebello district, said she has treated about 30 children with earthquake-induced symptoms, including five who have had to withdraw from school. About the same number have been treated by each of the district's other school psychologists, she said.

Dan Vos, a psychologist for the Whittier City School District, which was at the epicenter of the quake, said that about 5%--or 250--of the district's 5,000 elementary school-age students are still attending special therapy sessions set up to deal with earthquake-related traumas.

And in Long Beach, school officials are planning a training session to help counselors deal with children's earthquake fears.

One of the most common symptoms, the psychologists say, is fear of being alone, characterized by the child's insistence--much more than usual--on moving into the parents' bedroom at night. Children who do sleep in their own rooms are often unable to sleep through the night. And many children are afraid of being alone in one part of the house during the day, even though their parents may be present in another.

Host of Symptoms

Other symptoms associated with the earthquake include fear of playing outside, over-reaction to sudden noises, regression in toilet and eating habits, nightmares, hyperactivity, reduced attention span, irritability, apathy and aggressiveness.

At the root of the problem, according to the psychologists, is a basic undermining of the child's sense of security and control. "Children are just beginning to develop some confidence in their environment," said Dr. William Arroyo, a child psychiatrist and clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at County-USC Medical Center. "An earthquake is something they perceive of as life-threatening, which they have absolutely no control over. It becomes evident that they have very little control over their situation (and) it's quite threatening."

Road to Recovery

In many cases, Arroyo said, previous traumas and insecurities are brought to the surface by an earthquake. And in the case of this particular earthquake, psychologists said, the effect was often increased by the several aftershocks and by extensive media coverage.

"All the talk of the Big One probably added fearfulness," De Gero said. Because of television "we're not dealing with just this earthquake, (but) with some future horrendous event that's going to occur."

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