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Getting Help for Victims Not Always Easy : Child abuse: The most difficult part is to discover that a problem exists.

October 03, 1995|MIKE TERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There were 45,129 reports of child abuse registered in Orange County last year, and of those, 11,122 were for sexual abuse, according to the child protective services division of the county's Social Services Agency.

Through June of this year, there have been 20,187 registered abuse reports, and 4,666 of those are for sexual abuse.

Where can these young victims go for help?

School district psychologists assigned to local schools say they and campus counselors are readily available for students who need help.

But they can't help unless they know there's a problem.

"If kids are not comfortable going to their parents, they tend to go to teachers or peers," said Connie Luizzi, a psychologist at Huntington Beach High. "Once they tell somebody they are comfortable with, then the situation can be handled."

Despite the effects of the county's bankruptcy crisis on school district budgets, district officials said the number of psychologists and counselors was not reduced.

A pilot study by the county's Child Abuse Services Team and the state attorney general's office showed that 77% of accused assailants were known to their victims, but in only 34% of the cases studied, did the assailant live within the same household.

The two-year study, which was completed in July, 1994, tracked 788 cases brought to the CAST offices.

"I think that 77% figure is important," said Cathy Singletary, a program director with the child and family division of the county's Social Services Agency. "The myth is there is a lot of 'stranger danger' out there. But in reality, the perpetrator can be known to the victim in many capacities--and not just within family of origin."

Besides confiding in someone, there are nonverbal signals victims can give that adults should notice.

Bob Dienstag, a psychologist for the Newport-Mesa Unified School District, said that in most cases a sudden change in behavior or personality should tip an unsuspecting parent or teacher that something is wrong.

For example, Dienstag said, a student may become fearful of leaving the classroom, turn moody or have poor concentration skills or memory, usually because of disrupted sleep patterns.

In addition, the student who had been quiet may begin to exhibit aggressive behavior. He or she could also cling to a teacher or a parent, never wanting that person to leave them alone in a room.

"Those are the kinds of changes you look for over a couple of months," Dienstag said.

Sometimes the changes are bizarre.

"I had a case where a 10-year-old abused child would hoard food in his room so he didn't have to go in the kitchen and eat," Dienstag said. "And I had another who was hoarding soap because she was feeling dirty all the time."

There is no definitive profile of a candidate for abuse. But psychologists said victims tend to be loners.

There may also be cycles of abuse in their families; a parent who was abused as a child often does the same thing to his or her offspring. Or they could be emotionally needy, convinced the predator is their best friend and is doing what is best for them.

Even if abuse is merely suspected, protective agencies are immediately notified.

"Any time any adult or credentialed person suspects abuse, by law we must report it," said Chris Davidson, director of special education for the Tustin Unified School District.

"If a child says, 'Don't tell my parents,' I say to them, 'If it's something I have to report, then I will.' I encourage them to talk to their parents. And when reporting a situation, you don't have to give your name, or if you do they won't release it if you don't want them to. And they do follow up those calls very quickly."

Protective services has a 24-hour, seven-days-a-week hot line--(714) 938-0505. Calls are answered by social workers, who then contact the appropriate agencies.

Laura Rydell, a psychologist and coordinator of special education for the Santa Ana Unified School District, said parents can make it easier for their kids to talk to them about sensitive matters by promoting honesty.

"I'd like parents to reinforce to their kids to tell the truth even if they feel it will make their parents mad," Rydell said. "Parents may not like [what happened], but they should be proud of their kids for telling the truth. By making the truth important, I feel kids are more likely to share more feelings with parents."

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