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


Her self-confidence is hard-won. A victim of sexual abuse as a child, she says, she repressed her memories until she was 29. Then, while representing a 3-year-old survivor of incest, she said she "sort of lost it" during cross-examination of the defendant. "The judge cited me for contempt. I didn't stop and wound up spending a night in jail."

She then went into therapy with marriage, family and child counselor Arlene Drake, who is now Mary Doe's therapist and has an office adjoining Karney's. Since completing therapy with Drake, Karney has worked with her on several cases. They share similar views and use similar language in discussing the subject.

Karney said Drake "was sort of the one who made me take a stand on the issue. She made me write a legal brief representing myself" to her therapy group.

Although she has publicly accused her molester, Karney, 37, never did sue, but dealing with her own sexual abuse, she said, "changed my life, career, what I look like, the way I act."

Karney, who has 16 child sexual abuse cases pending, talks tough about incest and what its survivors and their advocates are up against in the courts and society:

"The most perfect crime is to molest your own child. There's no accountability. We're trying to get that stopped. . . . People ask, 'Isn't this revenge, suing the parent?' Your parents are there to love and protect you. They've violated that. The relationship is broken already. There is no family to save.

"All who've been (victims of incest) and deal with it, become orphaned. The troublemaker, the truth-teller becomes isolated and the family regroups without you."

Karney believes that "the conspiracy of silence in the family is extended to the legal system. . . . It (the legal system) turns its back. Justice is blind to incest. I think it all comes down from women and children being chattel. The first statutes (against incest) were property statutes. They did not want to ruin the stock."

Next door, Arlene Drake said she would like to see more civil suits ("The aggressors need to be held accountable"), but doubts that many victims will want to put themselves through the ordeal.

The room where she sees her clients individually and in groups is light, and furnished with low, wrap-around couches. Several teddy bears are seated on them. "Some people like to hug them," she said.

She is a soft-spoken woman with a gentle manner, but the subject frequently leads her to take on a disgusted tone.

"Look at the family," she said. "The only one accountable is the victim. The crime isn't the incest. Talking about it seems to be the crime. (People say) you risk losing your family. Well, guess what? Most times I think they're better off being out, creating a new family than living in that muck and mire."

Drake rejects the idea that incest is symptomatic of a more general breakdown of the family. Most of her practice, she said, consists of adults who have been abused as children. "These cases go back to incest in the '50s and '40s when we had those 'great' families. . . . I do not feel the family would have broken down if it had really been healthy."

She described the steps a victim has to go through in dealing with sexual abuse, all of them painful and difficult. After going through the remembering, she said, the victim then has to believe herself.

The guilt and shame of blaming oneself must be overcome with the knowledge that the victim was the one wronged; only then is a confrontation possible, Drake said. The victim needs to be able to say, " 'This is what you did to me. Hear it.'

"My job is to deal with what comes up at every step of the way, including legal confrontation . . . to hold the light out there, (to help them) know they can get through it, if they just push beyond the fear."

Sitting in Karney's office, in her first interview after the decision, Mary Doe was flanked by her therapist and lawyer. She seemed to have a comfortable, affectionate relationship with both. They praised her warmly, encouraged her, almost tried to speak for her at times, jogging her memory, prompting her, finishing a sentence. Finally, laughing, they agreed to restrain themselves. Drake commented on the "remarkable difference" between Doe's first visit to her office--when she scrunched in the corner of the sofa, dwarfed in oversized clothes--and the well-groomed young woman sitting there now, articulate in spite of occasional tears and shakiness.

"Who would have ever thought I could even say the word incest ?" Doe asked, smiling.

The first time she "said" the word, she said, was while she was in therapy with Drake. She actually wrote on a piece of paper, doodling. "I remember writing the words father and incest down, not knowing why. And then I started screaming and crying. It was a moment of truth."

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