The first of about 25 incest victims that Shari L. Karney has represented in the past five years was herself, the Encino attorney said, but it wasn't in a court of law.
As part of her therapy, Karney's psychologist had aked her to present a fictional lawsuit to a group of other adults who had been sexually abused as children. The suit sought damages from her brother and father, both of whom Karney says molested her as a youngster.
The assignment was so effective in getting Karney to stand up for herself that she later became one of a handful of attorneys statewide who file civil lawsuits on behalf of others who were molested by family members when they were children.
Both her father and brother deny molesting Karney, and she has had no contact with either of them for years.
Although some psychologists and attorneys dispute the merits of suing, Karney, 36, said she has no reservations about using the legal system to win compensation for incest victims. In fact, she believes so strongly that they deserve to be reimbursed for therapy and other costs that she finances most of the suits herself. Income from Karney's school, which coaches aspiring attorneys on how to pass the Bar exam, enables her to charge clients only what they can afford and often to represent them for free.
"I never actually sued my brother and father because I don't need the money," Karney said, "but I am determined to win as many suits for other people because maybe if potential offenders realize they stand to lose their treasured Rolexes, they'll decide to do something else."
Only about 100 such suits have been initiated in California since the first was filed in 1980, primarily because state law currently requires most victims to file by their 21st birthday for cases to go to trial.
But insurance companies that have paid damages under defendants' homeowners policies because the acts occurred in the home say a growing number of such suits are being filed as attorneys challenge the 21st birthday limitation.
Karney is one of those determined to make it possible for victims over 21 to bring their cases to court, where they can receive greater financial compensation than under settlements. Damages awarded in California have ranged from $12,000 to $100,000, she said.
Susan McGreivy, a Los Angeles attorney who authored one of the first briefs on the issue, believes that Karney will prevail in her goal of getting the courts to loosen restrictions on civil suits.
"She's like a moray eel," McGreivy said. "Once moray eels bite, that's it. They hang on for dear life."
Four years ago, Karney helped draft a state law that raised the age limit at which incest victims may file suits from 19 to 21 years old. The law, enacted last year, leaves it up to the courts to decide if the cases of older victims may come to trial under a legal premise known as "delayed discovery."
So far, no judge has decided in favor of hearing the cases of older victims, said Mary R. Williams, an Oakland attorney who also worked on the legislation.
Some psychologists contend that the delayed discovery principle applies to incest cases because victims often repress the painful memories of their molestations until they are in their late 20s or 30s, said Arlene Drake, an Encino psychologist who specializes in incest cases.
Karney said she did not remember being repeatedly forced to have sexual relations with her brother when she was 8 years old until she began representing a 3-year-old incest victim in a custody battle. Then she found herself having flashbacks in court and sought therapy. She was 29 years old, she said.
"My brother was 14 years old at the time, and I was his favorite," Karney said. "I protected him and didn't tell anyone."
Karney also maintains that her father had her perform oral sex on him several years before the incidents with her brother began.
Karney's background makes her an ideal advocate, some of her clients said. One client, Pam Coley of Rancho Cucamonga, recently won an out-of-court settlement against her father, who she claims raped her from the time she was 6 years old until she left home when she was 20.
"I'm so glad Shari is fighting for us because I want incest stopped," Coley said. "I am sick of it."
Karney said she is not taking any new clients now because she wants to focus on existing cases. However, she and other lawyers face strong challenges from defendants' attorneys and from some insurance companies.
Ellis Horvitz, an Encino attorney whose firm has represented defendants' insurance companies in incest cases, says he supports an age limit on civil cases because memory becomes less reliable over time.
'Ample Time to Sue'
"I think three years from their 18th birthday is ample time to sue," Horvitz said. "There will always be hardship cases that break your heart, but I know of no law that works perfectly all the time."
Some psychologists also think that efforts of lawyers such as Karney are misplaced. Henry Giaretto, executive director of Parents United, a nationwide sexual abuse treatment program, said the emphasis ought to be on reconciling the family.
"Suing should be the absolute last resort because victims are just cutting themselves off from the family," he said.
But Karney responds: "My answer to that is always, 'These families are lost anyway or the molestations never would have happened.' "