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Survivors Unite to End Cycle of Abuse : March: Organizers hope that mobilizing adults gives the issue urgency and saves a generation of children at risk.

April 28, 1993|SHARI ROAN | TIMES HEALTH WRITER

The march and rally that is expected to draw thousands of Californians to Sacramento on Friday won't look much different from other rallies that color the Capitol almost every week.

But this one, while bringing attention to child abuse and neglect, is indeed different from other gatherings held on the issue. This time, organizers say, the participants represent adult survivors of child abuse who--healed and powerful--are stepping forward to work for a new generation of children at risk.

The concept--tapping abuse survivors to be advocates for child abuse prevention--is a new one, says Glenn Goldberg, executive director of the California Consortium, a network of organizations working to prevent child abuse. Mobilizing abuse survivors takes the fight to a new level and forces it beyond sensationalism toward solutions, experts say.

"We're excited about this," Goldberg says. "We've finally figured out that this is the group that has critical mass. We think they are the missing link in working to prevent child abuse."

Similar rallies have been held recently in Washington and New York. And Goldberg has fielded so many inquiries from child advocates in other states about the Sacramento gathering that he predicts the event will go national next year. The rally is the culmination of Child Abuse Awareness Month.

The adult survivor movement represents an evolution in society's recognition of child abuse and its long-term effects, experts say. Only recently have mental-health professionals reported seeing an upsurge in adults seeking counseling for abuse or neglect they suffered as children.

"In the last five years we've seen all these newsletters, publications, organizations and support groups started by adult survivors. It's their way of wanting to be heard," says Maureen Brugh, founder of Monarch Resources, a Torrance-based clearinghouse for information on childhood sexual abuse and incest. "And as you heal and get well, you want to give back. You want to make sure other children don't go through what you went through."

While only rough estimates can be made, about one in every three girls and one in six boys are physically or emotionally abused in childhood, reports the California Consortium.

"The problem with tracking survivors is that between repressing memories and being in denial, it might be 40 years before they say, 'I was abused' or 'I'm a survivor,' " says Carolyn Heinlen, of the California Consortium. "We honestly don't know how many survivors are out there. But we know a lot of people who go into therapy are dealing with issues of childhood abuses."

Some child advocates have predicted that the shame, silence and pain felt by victims of child abuse would prevent adult survivors from speaking out. Instead, a growing number of adults are stepping forward.

"This rally will say that survivors can and want to make the world a better place for children," says Barbara Oliver, director of the Child Abuse Council of Orange County. "Not everyone who is an adult survivor will want to work on this. But I often hear adult survivors say that they wish there was something they could do. This is something they can do."

Adult survivors of abuse begin to realize their trauma is part of a much larger societal problem, Oliver says.

"One of the things that has come out of the abuse survivor movement is that as people talk about their abuse they realize they didn't deserve it, and that the children of today don't deserve it either," she says.

Part of healing from child abuse is recognizing that "you're not the only person this has happened to," says Claire Reeves, founder of the Monrovia-based Mothers Against Sexual Abuse.

"It has been a taboo subject. And there is still a lot of denial," says Reeves, who has a relative who was sexually abused. "As long as the secrecy remained, we haven't had a chance of stopping it."

According to recent statistics from the National Committee for Prevention of Child Abuse, more than 2.9 million children were reported to authorities as abused or neglected last year, a 7.8% increase over 1991.

But, says Brugh: "People haven't really been willing to hear that. People think, 'Are these kids just being spanked? Are they just crying wolf?' Children are taught not to talk and to deny what is going on."

At Friday's rally, participants will represent all levels of commitment to preventing child abuse, organizers say. Some hope to work directly with children or advocacy organizations, while others have a more political focus.

"Unlike kids, we can vote," says Goldberg.

Many adult survivors are turning their attention first to their homes, hoping to break the cyclical nature of child abuse, says Brugh.

"With my son, I have broken the chain of alcoholism and abuse in our family for the first time in probably five generations," she says. "One of the things I've given my son is allowing him to talk about anything. I was not allowed to talk as a child."

And, notes Oliver, there is growing recognition that preventing child abuse means doing more to help families with young children deal with stress and isolation.

"There is the saying that it takes an entire village to raise a child," she says. "It takes the whole community understanding that child abuse prevention is everyone's responsibility. If a child grows up in a dysfunctional way, everyone in the community is affected by that."

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