Abused Children Find Help Under One Roof : A collaborative program at Stuart House in Los Angeles County takes youngsters out of cold, institutional settings.

Gail Abarbanel is director of Santa Monica Hospital's Rape Treatment Center, and Aileen Adams is its legal counsel

Ana was seven years old when she told her teacher that she had been sexually abused on many occasions by her stepfather. The Department of Children's Services removed her from her home at night while she was asleep. She awoke the next day in a foster home with strangers who spoke a different language.

During the ensuing months, Ana was interviewed by four different children's services workers. She was questioned by three police officers. She waited two months to receive an expert medical examination. She testified at three different Dependency Court hearings. She was interviewed by two criminal prosecutors. The case still had not come to trial. After more than a year, her mother did not want Ana to participate any further in the prosecution of her assailant because "she was too traumatized by the system."

A county study released last week showed that Ana's case was but one of the 114,000 reported in Los Angeles last year. Every year, thousands of abused children from all economic and ethnic groups seek help from an overburdened, uncoordinated child protection system that too often victimizes them again.

It is time to address this system's failure by adopting new approaches to handling child abuse cases. Los Angeles agencies need to work together, and they're doing it at Stuart House in a program that's much better for kids.

This inter-agency program was designed to solve many serious problems. For example, sexually abused children, like Ana, are frequently interviewed at several different places by as many as a dozen professionals. These interviews are conducted in cold, institutional settings, such as police stations, that frighten young children. Many children either do not receive expert evidentiary medical examinations or wait several months to be evaluated. Crucial evidence is lost. Nationally, more than 90% of reported sexual abuse cases are never prosecuted.

Few victims receive needed therapy, so many suffer from developmental problems and psychiatric disabilities. Abused children also are more likely to become abusers as adolescents and adults, becoming part of the "cycle of abuse."

In cases involving a child harmed by a family member, the person believed responsible often is not removed from the home. Instead, the child is separated from supportive family members and forced to live in another location.

The emotional and monetary costs of this inadequate system are staggering. Seldom does it provide either justice or healing.

To remedy these problems, in 1988 several public agencies joined with Santa Monica Hospital's Rape Treatment Center to establish Stuart House. To design a new system, we tried looking through a child's eyes. For example, we knew children who were afraid of being questioned at police stations because "that's where criminals are taken."

Major financial support from the private sector, including the Stuart Foundations, made it possible to build a brand new, child-oriented facility in Santa Monica. Every feature--materials, surfaces, colors, and furnishings--helps to make children feel comfortable and safe.

Stuart House brings together--for the first time--in one location personnel from the Rape Treatment Center, District Attorney's Office, Department of Children's Services, Los Angeles Police Department, Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department, Santa Monica Police Department, and other law enforcement agencies. Because they recognized the difficulties children have in the current system, the heads of these departments made a strong commitment by assigning their staff members to work on this team.

This approach to handling child sexual abuse cases has many advantages. Families relate to one program in a single location. They experience continuity and support, instead of receiving conflicting advice from different agencies. Unnecessary, repetitive interviews are eliminated.

Only one person from each agency handles a case from beginning to end. Timely medical examinations to gather evidence are performed in a privately funded clinic nearby at Santa Monica Hospital. Therapists at Stuart House ensure that comprehensive treatment services are provided for children and their families.

In addition, cases are resolved more quickly. The participation of a prosecutor from the inception of each case enhances investigations. And few children are removed from their homes because child protection personnel have the evidence they require to have the offender removed instead.

The cooperation that made Stuart House possible is urgently needed throughout the county to respond to what the U.S. Advisory Board on Child Abuse and Neglect recently declared a "national emergency." Working together, prosecutors, police, and other child-abuse specialists can reduce the trauma to children who participate in the system.

Communities around the country, including Huntsville, Ala., and Seattle, Wash., have developed similar programs. Additional government money would support more inter-agency efforts. Rep. Mel Levine (D-Santa Monica) recently sponsored legislation inspired by Stuart House to provide $75 million in federal funding for programs that use a team approach. Money from the private sector is also needed.

Implementing collaborative, child-focused programs may appear in the short run more expensive than perpetuating the established system. But we are already paying a much higher price--in our prisons, foster care system, and mental health programs--for the current system's failure to respond adequately to the rapidly rising number of abused children.

Stuart House is one example of how a public/private sector partnership can marshal the resources needed to reform the traditional child protection system. Our society supports a separate juvenile justice system for young offenders. It is time we develop more responsive systems nationwide to serve innocent children who are victims of sexual physical abuse.

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