Advocate for Past Victims : Encino Lawyer Devotes Career to Adults Abused in Childhood

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES;<i> Foster writes frequently for Valley View. </i>

Eight years ago, Encino attorney Shari L. Karney was asked by a mother to take on a child custody case. Karney remembers considering the case as “rather gruesome, untidy and just too personal,” since the client believed her 3-year-old daughter was sexually abused by her ex-husband.

Karney reluctantly took the case, which steered her onto a course that she now hopes will culminate in her eventual goal: a complete overhaul of national laws governing the recall--by adults--of sexual abuse that occurred during their childhoods.

For six years, Karney, along with San Francisco attorney Mary R. Williams and state Sen. Bill Lockyer (D-Hayward) fought for passage of Senate Bill 108. The California law, which took effect Jan. 1, permits “delayed discovery” of childhood sexual abuse decades after that abuse has occurred.


A middle-aged person can now sue his or her elderly parent for sexual trauma caused at age 4, in the same manner as victims of other delayed-discovery injuries, such as asbestos poisoning. Six other states have passed similar laws.

“This law is not about revenge, it’s about accountability,” said Karney, 39, who advocates a national uniformity for childhood sexual abuse laws. “Victims should not have to go through the hoops to prove abuse. I think they should have an automatic right to sue until their 40th birthday,” by which time, she believes, most victims have recognized and taken action regarding their abuse. “Only after that age should they be required to prove a delay.”

Under SB 108, victims under age 26 have free rein to sue; those who are older must take legal action within three years of discovering the abuse.

“Studies show that most sexually abused persons remember their abuse sometime between the ages of 29 and 49,” said Karney, adding that after she accepted the child custody case eight years ago, she remembered being sexually abused by both her brother and father--an assertion she made during hearings for SB 108. “They often need to be that old to handle the emotional trauma that goes along with remembering. That makes incest the perfect crime. By the time a victim remembers the abuse in most states, it’s way too late for any legal action.”

Lockyer said that child and sexual abuse is at “epidemic proportions in California. We hope for two things from this bill’s enactment: that people who have been victims will have an opportunity for redress and that as these problems become more visible, lawsuits will have some deterrent effect and will help prevent future injuries and attacks on children.

“People need to learn that sexual abuse doesn’t go away. It continues to twist the mind and emotions of those who have experienced it for years afterward.”


In response to Karney’s allegations, her 45-year-old brother, who declined to give his name, said his sister’s report of sexual abuse is “a complete fabrication.”

Karney’s father, Louis, said he was “shocked and amazed” at his daughter’s allegations when he first learned of them eight years ago. “All this reportedly happened 35 or more years ago,” said Karney, 75, who lives in Carlsbad. “It’s pretty damned hard to recall any detail from 35 years ago. I just don’t remember anything.”

To ensure he was not repressing any memories, Louis Karney said, he agreed to undergo psychological counseling and to be hypnotized.

After Louis Karney underwent a series of hypnotic regressions, clinical interviews and personality tests, licensed psychologist James J. Tschudy wrote in a Nov. 24, 1983, report that there was “abundant and convincing evidence” that his patient “simply could not have engaged in any sexual act with his young daughter or any other child.”

Louis Karney said his daughter downplayed the 1983 report, calling Tschudy’s practice “Mickey Mouse.” She recently added: “It’s very painful being victimized as a child, confronting your perpetrators and then having them take no responsibility whatsoever for their acts. The painful part of incest is that this is your family that is supposed to love and protect you. These are people I still love.”

After pouring $50,000 of her own money into passage of SB 108, Shari Karney hasn’t slowed her pace since the law took effect. Since January, she has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Geraldo,” “Today” and “Home Show” television programs to educate members of the public about their new legal rights under SB 108.


Karney is also helping to organize an April, 1993, national march on Washington, composed of incest victims, therapists, health care professionals and supporters. The march is “in the thinking stage now,” she said, adding that a series of workshops before and during the march would teach lawyers and victims how to alter laws with restrictive statutes of limitations. An Arizona workshop has already been held.

“We’re planning to have simultaneous marches on each state capital the same day as the Washington march,” said Dan Sexton, a therapist, who with Los Angeles psychologist Karen Gunn is working with national child abuse programs to organize the march. “This will help educate Americans about the size of the problem.”

Last year, at a Los Angeles County Bar Assn. seminar, Karney trained 70 lawyers how to prosecute cases brought on by SB 108. She’s preparing a similar seminar in coordination with the Southern California Women’s Law Center.

“She’s very dynamic,” said Shelley Ackerman, director of the bar association’s lawyer referral services. “Many lawyers believe these new cases are expensive and time-consuming--and they are. It was good to have an expert here that could help fine-tune their skills.

“The rest of the panel and the audience thought highly of her efforts to pass SB 108 and what she’s doing now to educate the public.”

Opposing SB 108 was the California Defense Council, an association of defense lawyers, many of whom are employed by insurers. An abuser’s legal fees and some settlement costs would most likely be covered by homeowner insurance policies under SB 108 since most incest occurs in the home.


“In this type of case there is no evidence of the supposed event other than testimony,” said Jon Smock, the council’s legislative representative. “It’s an inexact science. The concept of defending yourself from a heinous crime that happened decades ago is not only difficult, it’s impossible. You can’t exactly say, ‘I was in Omaha at the time.’ ”

Smock added that school districts also opposed the bill since it broadened liability to molesters not related to the victim. “Schools always want to have early notification of any sexual abuse allegations,” said Smock. “And if any punitive action is warranted, they want to take the action at the earliest possible time, not 30 years later.”

In interviews, attorneys and therapists said most victims take legal action as a last resort, only after failing to get family members into therapy. San Francisco lawyer Williams has filed damage suits on behalf of 50 incest victims, none of whom, she said, had an overwhelming interest in gaining monetarily from the legal actions.

“It’s much more about, ‘You did this to me and I’m not going to let you get away with it,’ ” said Karney. “It’s about accountability and desperately wanting to be believed.”

Seated behind a large rosewood desk in her Ventura Boulevard office, Karney, dressed in a cobalt blue suit, recalled the child custody case that launched her campaign eight years ago.

“I went to Juvenile Hall where the abused 3-year-old was being kept,” said Karney. “After I met her, I walked around and held her. I couldn’t say no to the case after that.”


Karney teamed up with another attorney, who found the case too traumatic and quit three days into the trial, the day before the attorney was to cross-examine the accused father. During the months that led up to the trial, Karney began to have second thoughts herself. “I started having nightmares,” she said. “I would make love to my boyfriend and somehow think I was being raped. Sometimes I would wake up hysterical, convinced there was a strange man in the room.”

Karney became obsessed with the case, “both compelled and repelled by it,” working late into the night, poring over trial evidence, often becoming nauseous.

“I really thought it was just the case causing all that,” she said. “I thought it would pass.”

While questioning the accused father during the trial, Karney’s voice grew heated as she paced before the witness box--a practice that judges discourage, feeling that it borders on baiting a witness. She heard typing in the background, turned, but found no typist.

“Have you ever touched your daughter’s genitals?” Karney asked the father, after receiving testimony from a doctor who said the child’s vaginal scarring resulted from a fall.

“What do you mean by touch ?” Karney remembers the father answering.

“Touch?” Karney stormed. “Don’t you know what touch means? Anybody got a Webster’s Dictionary handy in this courtroom?”


“Listen, you’re not Perry Mason,” Karney remembers the judge interjecting. “You’re not going to get people to confess on the witness stand. Back off.”

After the father replied that he had touched his daughter’s genitals 20 times, Karney shouted, “For what possible reason was there for you to touch your daughter’s genitals 20 times?”

“To medicate her,” the father answered.

“I just started to scream at that point,” Karney recalled. “I jumped into the witness box and got my hands around his throat and started shaking him, real hard.”

Handcuffed by a bailiff, Karney was led out of the courtroom and spent the next two nights in jail. The judge gave her a choice: Be disbarred, go back to jail or enter therapy.

Karney entered therapy, which she continues today. The sound of typewriter keys she heard in the courtroom was indicative of a repressed memory, she said. “My father was a writer. I only felt safe around him when I heard the clicking of typewriter keys. Once he stopped, I got really scared.” Two months after the courtroom drama, Karney finished trying the case at the request of the mother she represented.

“The judge decided he would suspend the father’s visitation rights for six months,” Karney said. “He ordered the child and mother into psychotherapy and actually, he ordered me into psychotherapy. The only person he didn’t order into psychotherapy was the father.”


Karney said that of the score of childhood sexual abuse cases she took on after that, “none had a better outcome.”

She went on to represent teen-agers who had been sexually abused, taking on another dozen cases. She then stopped representing children altogether.

Karney said she “was never able to save a single child” from being reunited with an accused abuser after a trial. “I felt I was not helping them and, instead, felt I was contributing to a legal system that was abusing them. I was really trying to save the child inside of me, trying to give those children the voice that I never had.”

She began representing adult incest victims, and in January, decided to stop taking cases so she could devote her time to educating attorneys and the public. Karney now receives about 120 calls a month requesting information about SB 108, up sixfold from late last year. For income, she operates a writing course that trains attorneys to pass bar exams.

If her story sounds like prime TV “Movie of the Week” material, it is. NBC has bought the rights to her story and is now developing a script, tentatively titled, “The Conspiracy of Silence: The Shari Karney Story.”

“After all this happened, I’m finally at peace within myself,” Karney said. “Fortunately, I’ve been able to go on and help other people. In a way, I’m orphaned now from my family and my past because I’ve broken the conspiracy of silence. But what I’ve gained is great. I’ve gained myself.”