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Molestation Victim Wins $1-Million Judgment : Courts: Woman who sued her father hopes the case will help stir public awareness of the problem of childhood sexual abuse.

July 15, 1993|TOMMY LI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

SAN GABRIEL — A San Gabriel man has been ordered to pay his daughter $1 million for the suffering she endured because he molested her as a child.

Keith Arwin Stratton, 49, is a registered sex offender who was convicted in 1986 of molesting his daughter, Kristy Lee Stratton. She had turned 12 two months before the conviction. Stratton already had been convicted in 1978 of molesting Kristy's older half sister and spent four months in a psychiatric institution.

The father pleaded guilty to five counts of child molestation in the 1986 case and received an eight-year state prison sentence. He was released on parole in December, 1990.

Now 18, Kristy Stratton says she had little chance to enjoy her childhood and, in the wake of her lawsuit against her father, she agreed to be interviewed by the press, saying she wants other people to know about cases like hers.

Stratton says she endured years of terror because of the sexual abuse. The abuse occurred in the San Gabriel house where she visited her father as a child after her parents were separated and where her father still lives. She was afraid to tell her mother about the attacks, which she says began when she was 3, and did not reveal them until she was 11.

"I was a little kid stuck in a helpless position," Stratton said. "You're little and he's big, and you're scared of him. . . . You don't stand up to someone the rest of the family is scared of."

Last September, Stratton sued her father for damages. The judgment came in Burbank Superior Court last month after a 45-minute trial before Judge Pro Tem Virginia Chernack.

Stratton's father, who represented himself in the case, declined to return a message left at his home seeking comment.

During the trial, Keith Stratton testified that "he had only molested Kristy two or three times," said Kristy Stratton's attorney, Robert K. Holmes. "He denied the . . . years of continual abuse."

Holmes said Stratton's father has 60 days from the June 23 judgment to file an appeal. Meanwhile, the attorney is working toward foreclosing on the five San Gabriel Valley homes Keith Stratton owns in an effort to recover the judgment, which is binding for 20 years. Holmes said he will receive "less than 40%" of the settlement for attorney services.

Kristy Stratton, who lives with her mother and stepfather, said she was surprised by the speed with which her lawsuit went to trial and was resolved. She is concerned that the public will think she sued because "I'm after the money," she said, and decided to come forward with her reasons.

One of them, she said, is the need to pay her $400-a-month therapy costs, which her mother has been paying since she was 11.

"She didn't have to pay for it," Kristy Stratton said. "It wasn't fair. It wasn't her fault."

Because her parents were separated throughout most of Stratton's childhood, the molestations usually occurred during visits she made to her father's home.

"I just think something's not right in his head. . . . One time, he told me he's doing it because he loves me. And that's really sick," she said.

Another reason that Stratton took the case to court was to make the public aware of the growing problem of childhood molestations and to encourage other victims to step forward to share their pain rather than bottling it up inside.

"I know that there are hundreds of boys and girls out there who are (molested). . . . People don't need to grow up like I grew up," Stratton said.

"I'm not saying everybody should sue the person (who molested them)," she said. "They should just have help to talk to somebody."

She added that "filing a lawsuit against (my father) is showing that you're a strong person. . . . It's probably the most difficult thing I've done since 1986," when she told prosecutors about the attacks.

Although no statistics are available as to the number of such cases filed each year, civil attorneys say complaints resembling Stratton's are rare but slowly increasing.

"Within the last five or 10 years, we've seen more and more of these cases," said Mark Mazzarella, chairman of the State Bar of California's litigation section. "Typically, it's a stepparent or an uncle (being sued)."

During the last five years, Holmes said he has handled 30 similar cases. Two went to trial, resulting in judgments of $25,000 and $150,000. Most of the clients were women between 20 and 35; only three cases involved male clients in their early 20s.

"These cases are quite rare because few adults wish to step forward," Holmes said. The Stratton case is "the largest judgment I've had. The vast majority of these cases are settled (out of court)."

Stratton now works at a women's clothing store, attends college and has a 21-year-old boyfriend.

She remains fearful that her father will find her and confront her--and possibly sexually or physically attack her again.

"I just think that the potential is still there," she said. "I don't want him to have my phone number. I don't want him to know where I'm working."

One thing that she does want her father and the public to know is that she has no regrets about filing the lawsuit and taking $1 million from her father.

"If I would have lost, I would have won," she said. "I kind of would have made a point. . . . That was a way for me to stand up to my father (for what he did)."

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