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Challenge to Child Abuse : Court Case Widens Options for Adults Seeking Redress


Mary Doe's story:

From infancy until she was about 5 years old, she was sexually molested, sodomized and raped by her father. She blocked all memory of that abuse for almost 20 years, going through a tumultuous adolescence and early adulthood that involved alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual promiscuity, low self-esteem and suicide attempts.

A drunk driving arrest led to mandatory treatment for alcoholism. Sobriety led to psychotherapy, and that process led to the release of all those repressed memories.

Now she is suing her father for damages.

That the case of Mary Doe vs. John Doe can go forward in California is due to a precedent-setting ruling Nov. 30 by the 6th District Court of Appeal in San Jose. The court ruled that, although her memory of the alleged abuse came long after the three-year statute of limitations had passed, Mary Doe could still sue her father based on a concept called "delayed discovery." In cases such as Doe's, the court ruled, the statute of limitations should begin running at the time the plaintiff remembers the alleged abuse rather than when it allegedly occurred.

It is a landmark decision that advocates are hailing, but calling not enough. They tend to agree, however, that it is one more step toward permitting adult victims of child sexual abuse to seek redress.

On the other hand, there are observers and experts who describe themselves as conflicted over the ruling--often citing belief in the justice, if not the wisdom, of such suits. They fear false accusations, or see such suits as detrimental to the well-being of the victim or ruinous to what is left of a family relationship.

Shoneen Gervich, a Bay Area spokesperson for Victims of Child Abuse Laws (VOCAL), said she supported the recent court of appeal decision but voiced some reservations about adult civil suits.

"In some situations, people have been led through an overly zealous therapist to induce memories which they label as memories of incest," she said. "I know of one licensed therapist who told me every single client who comes to her, through a process of regression, discovers they were sexually abused as a young child . . . . But memories are so vague and unspecific at that age."

In the meantime, the suits continue to be filed.

(Doe originally filed suit under her real name, as most plaintiffs do, according to her attorney, Shari Karney of Encino. But at the request of the defense, an agreement was reached that the record be sealed.)

Throughout the '80s child sexual abuse, including incest, has been increasingly on the public mind--as lawsuits, allegations and statistical information come to light.

A recent issue of Los Angeles Lawyer magazine reported estimates that one of every three girls and one of every 10 boys is sexually abused or molested before age 18, that 4- to 9-year-olds are at particularly high risk, that 16% of all girls will be victims of incest, and that reports of incest of male children are on the rise. Although most media attention has focused on criminal proceedings, professionals in the fields of law, mental health and child welfare say that civil suits filed by alleged adult victims of child sexual abuse are increasing.

At the Los Angeles County Bar Assn., Shelly Ackerman, directing attorney for the lawyer referral and information service, is putting together a panel of attorneys with expertise in this area. The panel and an upcoming attorney training workshop were instigated by Kay Shafer, a lawyer who has worked on such cases, written on the subject, and continues to do pro bono work on the issue.

Shafer said the Women's Lawyers Assn. will be involved in the panel and hopes to make a presentation on the subject at the national convention of the American Bar Assn., being held here in February.

"We're not advocates (of such suits)," Ackerman said, "but we found such a need for attorneys. The civil suits are increasing and we're a reflection of that."

Two name plates on the door in the Encino office building announce "Shari L. Karney, Attorney at Law" and "Karney Writing Course." Inside, the mauve, pink and gray waiting room is stocked with copies of Savvy, Ms. and Connoisseur magazines, a tin of cookies, and a dish of miniature candy bars. A Lucite-framed copy of a Glamour magazine article on incest lawsuits that featured Karney hangs on the wall.

Karney, who has often described herself as a survivor of child sexual abuse, exudes self-confidence. She is full of words like empowering , calls herself a "heller," and says, "I became devictimized. I really got grounded in my own power."

Her practice consists exclusively of adult survivors (her preferred word) of child sexual abuse, of whom about 25% are male, she said. Because many of her clients cannot afford the costs of litigation, she supports much of her practice with the proceeds of her writing course, which prepares attorneys to pass the state bar. Her answering tape, with information on the course, assures the caller, "You can be a winner too."

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