According to some people involved in Orange County’s justice system, when a case of child abuse is reported, numerous investigative agencies may descend on a family, sometimes requiring a youngster to repeatedly relive the terrorizing event during questioning by police, social workers, lawyers and others.
It is possible, officials said, for one child to be interviewed up to 25 times before a case is resolved, becoming so traumatized by the experience that he or she is permanently affected.
But beginning Jan. 1, county government and private agencies will begin shielding sexually abused children from what officials say is further “brutalization” by the criminal justice and social service systems themselves.
Called First of Its Kind
A 6-month pilot program, operating out of Orangewood children’s home in Orange, will coordinate the activities of the numerous investigators, social workers and lawyers involved in such cases.
The Board of Supervisors, in a move that was called unprecedented for a body of its kind, alloted $117,191 Tuesday to operate the program for at least 6 months. Another $90,000 has been pledged by private agencies, including the Orangewood Foundation.
“Can you imagine the abuse put upon a child when the trauma of the initial abuse is repeated over and over?” said Betty Lou Lamoreaux, who until earlier this year was presiding judge of the county’s Juvenile Court.
As a result of the program, she said, the agencies involved will be operating as a group “for the first time in the county’s history.”
Lamoreaux heads the Child Abuse Services Team, a committee of court, law enforcement and social service officials formed by the Board of Supervisors a year ago to tackle the problem.
The idea for the team came from Municipal Judge Pamela L. Iles and Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, who said he was familiar with the situation because of his work as a former police officer.
“There is nothing more frustrating for a police officer than to be ready to go to court with a case and have a parent understandably refuse to allow a child to continue to be subjected to the process,” Vasquez said.
The program the CAST members devised requires that a single “child-friendly” site be established where a youngster can immediately be interviewed by people trained to question children. The child would immediately be assigned a volunteer child advocate, who would be present during all subsequent interviews and proceedings.
Later, the child and his family would be provided mental health and other support services. At present, children typically are questioned in police stations by untrained officers, then have to repeat the same story many times, officials said.
Once a case is resolved, children and their families are often left to their own resources, according to Larry Leaman, a CAST member and director of the County Social Services Agency.
Judge Iles said that CAST modeled its program primarily after one in Huntsville, Ala., but that no program will be as comprehensive as Orange County’s in terms of the number of agencies involved and the services provided. No other similar program has been established with money from a county government, CAST members said.
Orangewood is redecorating an entire floor for the program, and 10 police agencies have signed up to participate. About 200 children are expected to be involved in the pilot program.
Of 14,628 cases of child abuse reported last year, 3,478 were sexual abuse cases.
Lamoreaux said that if the program is successful, it will be expanded to include victims of other kinds of child abuse and satellite centers will be established countywide.
CAST has already begun seeking private financing to operate the program beyond 6 months, she added.