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Help for the Helpless : For abused children, Stuart House offers comprehensive care and a guiding hand through a 'nightmare' system.

May 26, 1991|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The room looks so cute that it takes a moment for reality to sink in. Coloring books sit on the little table, the panels of the folding screen turn into a turreted playhouse, pastels brighten cupboard handles and doorknobs, a playful plush monkey clings to a stethoscope.

But then there is the tiny examining table--with cold metal stirrups at one end.

This is no playroom.

The clinic is part of a program for young victims of sexual assault, run by Santa Monica Hospital's Rape Treatment Center. The rest of the program is down the street at a separate facility, Stuart House--a toy-filled, stuffed-animal pastel haven. All the fanciful touches are just part of the effort to minimize additional trauma to the children.

The center opened Stuart House in 1988 because "the system children had to go through was a nightmare. They were constantly revictimized," says Gail Abarbanel, the center's founder and director.

The "system," in fact, involved three very different, and poorly coordinated, aspects--criminal justice, child welfare and medical care. And what had been intended to provide comfort, healing and justice for the victim often amounted to punishment:

* Examinations in threatening emergency rooms, often by medical people untrained for this particularly sensitive task; evidence undetected or lost. One horror story involved a 4-year-old girl subjected to three pelvic exams at three hospitals.

* Interviews in noisy, crowded police stations and district attorney's offices.

* Repeated interviews, as many as 12 to 20 per victim, and a confusing maze of law enforcement, protective service and social work officials. Case workers frequently replaced each other, providing no continuity.

* Trips to dependency court, precipitous removal from home and family, placement in a strange home or institution. The alleged abuser often remained in the home while the child was removed.

* A frightening, bewildering time on the witness stand in a roomful of strangers.

In contrast, Stuart House has developed a comprehensive, friendly approach to treatment, legal action and therapy. The various parts of the system come to the child in a non-institutional environment, and this system tries to accommodate itself to the victims' needs. Police, prosecutors, therapists and social workers work with the young victims in friendly environs.

Stuart House has what Abarbanel calls a simple philosophy and treatment guideline: "What's best for the child?"

And what's best, professionals say, often results in better evidence and swifter justice.

Nancy Daly, a member of the Los Angeles County Children's Services Commission and the National Commission for Children, says Stuart House's one-roof, multidisciplinary approach "is the only approach. It saves children tremendous grief and pain, and it should be going on all over the county, state and country."

On the first visit, Aileen Adams, the center's legal counsel and child advocate, or Stuart House Director Colleen Friend meets everyone, provides a detailed tour and tells the child and family what to expect. They explain everything, even the one-way mirror in the interview room: Someone will be looking on, they say, usually the social worker from Children's Services.

"We do not keep any secrets from them," Abarbanel says.

The young victims have had enough secrets.

Call her Marlene. For reasons of confidentiality her family's real names cannot be used.

She is 29, and the mother of Debbie, 7, and Patty, 5. She sits at a child-sized table in a sound-proofed, soft-colored interview room at Stuart House. Last summer, Debbie sat a similar table and told her story to the police and district attorney. Today, Marlene retells the story, still showing shock and disbelief. The case is going through the court system; a trial is imminent.

Marlene says a family friend molested Debbie. He was divorced, said he loved kids and volunteered in community activities. He enjoyed taking kids on outings--to the zoo, picnics, McDonald's, movies. Sometimes there would be overnights at his house.

Patty, who tends to cling to her mother, never wanted to go. Just Debbie.

One morning Debbie returned from a movie and overnight outing with an expensive Barbie doll set. The doll aroused Marlene's suspicions because the family friend was not wealthy; also, Debbie seemed "real down and out, and she was getting smarty with me."

Finally, while in the bathroom with Debbie, Marlene learned there had been no Ninja Turtles movie the night before. She learned that sometimes there were no other kids on the excursions.

She asked questions. "If I tell you," Debbie replied, "you'll punish me and he'll punish me."

What followed, with plenty of reassurances from Marlene, was a vague, incomplete story of touching, of taking pictures, of threats to kill Debbie and her family. It was clear from the telling that the molestation had happened before; Marlene still doesn't know how many times Debbie had been abused.

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