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Advocate for Past Victims : Encino Lawyer Devotes Career to Adults Abused in Childhood

August 01, 1991|R. DANIEL FOSTER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Foster writes frequently for Valley View.

"We're planning to have simultaneous marches on each state capital the same day as the Washington march," said Dan Sexton, a therapist, who with Los Angeles psychologist Karen Gunn is working with national child abuse programs to organize the march. "This will help educate Americans about the size of the problem."

Last year, at a Los Angeles County Bar Assn. seminar, Karney trained 70 lawyers how to prosecute cases brought on by SB 108. She's preparing a similar seminar in coordination with the Southern California Women's Law Center.

"She's very dynamic," said Shelley Ackerman, director of the bar association's lawyer referral services. "Many lawyers believe these new cases are expensive and time-consuming--and they are. It was good to have an expert here that could help fine-tune their skills.

"The rest of the panel and the audience thought highly of her efforts to pass SB 108 and what she's doing now to educate the public."

Opposing SB 108 was the California Defense Council, an association of defense lawyers, many of whom are employed by insurers. An abuser's legal fees and some settlement costs would most likely be covered by homeowner insurance policies under SB 108 since most incest occurs in the home.

"In this type of case there is no evidence of the supposed event other than testimony," said Jon Smock, the council's legislative representative. "It's an inexact science. The concept of defending yourself from a heinous crime that happened decades ago is not only difficult, it's impossible. You can't exactly say, 'I was in Omaha at the time.' "

Smock added that school districts also opposed the bill since it broadened liability to molesters not related to the victim. "Schools always want to have early notification of any sexual abuse allegations," said Smock. "And if any punitive action is warranted, they want to take the action at the earliest possible time, not 30 years later."

In interviews, attorneys and therapists said most victims take legal action as a last resort, only after failing to get family members into therapy. San Francisco lawyer Williams has filed damage suits on behalf of 50 incest victims, none of whom, she said, had an overwhelming interest in gaining monetarily from the legal actions.

"It's much more about, 'You did this to me and I'm not going to let you get away with it,' " said Karney. "It's about accountability and desperately wanting to be believed."

Seated behind a large rosewood desk in her Ventura Boulevard office, Karney, dressed in a cobalt blue suit, recalled the child custody case that launched her campaign eight years ago.

"I went to Juvenile Hall where the abused 3-year-old was being kept," said Karney. "After I met her, I walked around and held her. I couldn't say no to the case after that."

Karney teamed up with another attorney, who found the case too traumatic and quit three days into the trial, the day before the attorney was to cross-examine the accused father. During the months that led up to the trial, Karney began to have second thoughts herself. "I started having nightmares," she said. "I would make love to my boyfriend and somehow think I was being raped. Sometimes I would wake up hysterical, convinced there was a strange man in the room."

Karney became obsessed with the case, "both compelled and repelled by it," working late into the night, poring over trial evidence, often becoming nauseous.

"I really thought it was just the case causing all that," she said. "I thought it would pass."

While questioning the accused father during the trial, Karney's voice grew heated as she paced before the witness box--a practice that judges discourage, feeling that it borders on baiting a witness. She heard typing in the background, turned, but found no typist.

"Have you ever touched your daughter's genitals?" Karney asked the father, after receiving testimony from a doctor who said the child's vaginal scarring resulted from a fall.

"What do you mean by touch ?" Karney remembers the father answering.

"Touch?" Karney stormed. "Don't you know what touch means? Anybody got a Webster's Dictionary handy in this courtroom?"

"Listen, you're not Perry Mason," Karney remembers the judge interjecting. "You're not going to get people to confess on the witness stand. Back off."

After the father replied that he had touched his daughter's genitals 20 times, Karney shouted, "For what possible reason was there for you to touch your daughter's genitals 20 times?"

"To medicate her," the father answered.

"I just started to scream at that point," Karney recalled. "I jumped into the witness box and got my hands around his throat and started shaking him, real hard."

Handcuffed by a bailiff, Karney was led out of the courtroom and spent the next two nights in jail. The judge gave her a choice: Be disbarred, go back to jail or enter therapy.

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