The traumatizing impact of the criminal justice system on sexually abused children may be eased in Orange County if an experimental program being introduced today proves successful.
Aimed at drastically reducing the number of interviews that abused children must endure, the program would coordinate the needs of investigators and also provide an array of support services under one roof.
Called the Child Abuse Services Team or CAST, the program involves unprecedented cooperation between 10 police departments, the county Department of Children's Services, the district attorney's office and a host of private agencies which have agreed to coordinate their investigations of sexual abuse cases.
Criminal justice experts say they had become increasingly concerned with the ordeal youngsters are put through after abuse was reported--a process that requires them to recount and relive a brutalizing experience over and over.
"We got together and conducted a mini-poll and in the worst-case scenarios a child might be interviewed 25 times, at the least 10 to 11 times," said Superior Court Judge Betty Lou Lamoreaux, who is chairwoman of the Child Abuse Services Team committee and formerly was presiding judge of the county's Juvenile Court. "By the time a child goes from police to social workers, mental health workers, doctors, therapists, lawyers, more detectives, it only heaps on more abuse."
The 6-month pilot program, run by the Orange County district attorney's office and paid for by the county and private agencies, will operate out of the county's Orangewood Children's Home in a specially designed suite of rooms and will provide interviewers trained to deal with abused children.
Agencies participating in the program include the Costa Mesa, Cypress, Garden Grove, La Habra, Newport Beach, Orange, Santa Ana, Tustin and Westminster police departments and the Sheriff's Department.
"It had become obvious that the way we were doing things was not in the best interest of the kids, " said Gene Howard, director of the Department of Children's Services. "We think that with CAST we will be able to decrease the trauma caused by the system itself."
There are similar interdepartmental teams in Santa Monica and in Santa Clara, San Luis Obispo and San Joaquin counties. But they do not equal the Orange County program in scope or services provided, according to those officials involved.
Officials contend that the cooperation forged by the program will strengthen communication between the agencies and make their investigations more effective.
"Everybody has been working in their own sphere, and while we give lip service to networking with other county agencies, it is not something that happens naturally," said Jan Sturla, an assistant district attorney and CAST staff member. "This should work for the children, and it should work for the rest of us."
Children may be affected in a number of ways, experts say. Already embarrassed by the abuse itself, many children withdraw and refuse to cooperate with authorities. Others maintain a strong facade through the process but are in fact deeply hurt.
And it is believed that the emotional upheaval of reliving abuse can cause lasting damage.
"It's a humiliating thing for kids to have to go through," said Cathy Campbell, director of CAST. "We ask them to sit down like you and I would sit down and recount the most intimate details of their lives. It's hard to know what kind of healing, if any, gets done."
Many youngsters who are asked to tell their stories over and over eventually recant them, regardless of the truth, experts say.
"There is a lot of guilt already, and if Dad goes to jail and Mom is mad, they feel responsible for everything," said Robin Tobias, an after-care family therapist for ChildHelp USA, a group that supports physically and sexually abused children. "They ask themselves, 'what have I gotten myself into,' and they will change their stories."
Conversely, the effects of continually repeating a story can also make the child seem glib and unbelievable, authorities suggest.
"By the time a child appears in front of a jury, they have a tendency to repeat things by rote, and the jury gets the impression either that it's memorized or they have been brainwashed and the story might not be true," Lamoreaux said. "I've tried a couple of cases myself, and it comes out so easily that it makes you wonder. From the judicial viewpoint, that is one reason we need a new approach."
Based on the example of other programs around the county, authorities say, CAST should boost the number of successful child-abuse prosecutions.
The Orange County program is modeled on a similar one that has operated in Huntsville, Ala., for more than 3 years.
Ethel Amacher, clinical director of the Huntsville program, said the team approach has resulted in fewer numbers of recantations.
"We can see that when children have a supportive team around them, they see themselves as part of that team," she said. "We are prosecuting more cases and prosecuting them more successfully. Our case load has risen. We are reaching so many more people."
Sturla said: "An emotionally strong child is a better witness, a more coherent witness." But he added: "As a prosecutor, I like to think that we are not torturing a child by putting him or her through this procedure. A better conviction rate is a desirable sidelight, but the focus is to help the child."
Last year, more than 4,000 cases of sexual abuse of children were reported to police agencies throughout the county. Because of its limited scope, not all of these potential cases will be referred to CAST. About 200 children are expected to make up the initial case load, officials say.
The focus of the program will be the children's center at Orangewood, in rooms designed to be non-threatening and comfortable for the child.
Within the center are two waiting areas, one for younger children with child-size, bean-bag furniture and toys and the other for older children and teens. Both will be equipped with televisions and videocassette recorders.
Key elements of the center are the three interview rooms and a connecting observation room.
The plan is for one trained interviewer to handle the questioning for investigators throughout the criminal process. Because officials from several agencies will be able to observe and provide data to the interviewer, it is expected that the number of interviews needed will be reduced sharply.
"Right now, there are a variety of ways police departments go about the process," Sturla said. "Some kids are interviewed by the patrol officer who arrives on the scene. Others use more experienced detectives. Having an experienced, qualified interviewer will increase the quality of reports (that the D.A.'s office) will get."
The initial medical exam and contacts with social workers, therapists, court-appointed child advocates and lawyers will also take place at the center.
And while children caught up in the justice system are often left bereft after a case is resolved, families involved in CAST will be provided with mental health and other support services.
Officials say that if the program is successful, it might be expanded to include victims of other kinds of child abuse.
"I think this is a program that will last," said Supervisor Gaddi H. Vasquez, a former police officer who has championed the program from the beginning. "The Board (of Supervisors) is very committed to it. This is a re-looking at how we do business in this sensitive area of helping our children. Incidents of child abuse in all forms are on the rise and we must be prepared to deal with these situations in a more effective way," he said.
1988 CHILD ABUSE IN ORANGE COUNTY 1988 Incidence of Sexual Abuse of Children Reported in Orange County Month / Incidents January: 244 February: 302 March: 396 April: 378 May: 375 June: 362 July: 275 August: 360 September: 359 October: 457 November: 345 December: 388 TOTAL: 4,241 The total is 22% of the reported cases of child abuse, virtually the same as the 23% recorded in 1987. In January, 1989, there were 340 cases of sexual abuse reported (23% of the total). Source: Orange County Social Services Agency, Child Abuse Registry