Sexually Abused Children Find Advocates At Center

October 27, 1991|By JoAnna Daemmrich | JoAnna Daemmrich,Staff writer

In the psychologist's office, where she has struggled for 18 months to come to terms with her past, Deshonta speaks softly about the long-kept secrets of her childhood.

She wanted to tell the truth yearsago, before she repressed most memories of the abuse, the frightening, almost unthinkable sexual violence she survived. But when she tried to talk to relatives, they called her crazy and a liar. When her teachers asked questions, she denied anything was wrong.

"There was nobody to tell," recalled Deshonta, whose memories of being molested and raped as a child flooded back after she gave birthto her daughter a year and a half ago. The 22-year-old went back into therapy at Harundale Youth and Family Service Center, where she hadreceived counseling in high school.

Next month, the county is opening a new center to give children who are sexually abused a chance to speak out. Police, physicians, counselors and social workers will work as a team at the Child Advocacy Center in Crownsville to deal with the difficult cases.

"We're looking to minimize the trauma to both the child and the family," said Ed Bloom, director of the county Department of Social Services. "We're trying to have one spot, an environment that's not real cold and clinical, so they don't have to tellthe same story over and over."

Reports of family violence and sexual child abuse have increased sharply in recent years, said David Ladd, director of child protective services. Ladd, who is setting up the center with a $55,866 state grant, said reports of child abuse and neglect have nearly doubled in the last decade. Social workers now investigate 180 to 200 cases a month, in contrast to about 110 to 140 cases in the early 1980s.

Investigations of child sexual abuse roseby 20 percent in the past two years, county police said. Many of the40 some complaints reported each month involve sexual abuse, said Sgt. Charles R. Blevins, who heads child abuse investigations.

Increased public awareness has spurred many more teachers, neighbors and day-care providers to call when they suspect a child has been abused, he said. But he expects even more reports when the public comes to grips with the prevalence of incest and child sexual assaults. Even now, he said, many are incredulous.

"Psychologically, it's still really hard for the public to accept," he said. "They just can't believe it happens. How could a father rape his own daughter? How could a mother molest her son?"

For therapists, hot line counselors and children's advocates, sexual abuse has become one of the most troubling issues of the '90s. Even though children now are learning at a young age to recognize the difference between a hug and a sexual touch, experts believe abuse still is vastly underreported. Many children are like Deshonta was, scared and unable to talk about being assaulted.

School children who call after seeing a puppet show on sexual abuse often are monosyllabic and silent for long stretches of time, said Karen Goldman Lyon, director of the Anne Arundel County Sexual Assault Center and Hot Line. They talk around the problem. An abused child might say he doesn't want to visit grandfather on Sunday, but not go intoany more details, she said.

"What you have in play are the dynamics of fear," she said. "Our major job is to make sure the child is safe. Then we try to find a person the child can talk to."

Deshonta,whose earliest memory is of being molested at age 2, was confused and frightened throughout her childhood. She said she couldn't trust any of her relatives because her family had a tradition of incest. Fromher stepfather to her mother, brothers, sisters and uncles, all wereinvolved until the family was split up by social workers when she was 11, Deshonta said.

"I kind of always sensed I had a dislike for people in the family," she said. In therapy, she explored her long-suppressed memories and found out why.

She called the Child AdvocacyCenter "a good start," a place to raise awareness about sexual abuseand offer children a safe environment to talk. Her counselor, Adel O'Rourke, who heads the youth service bureau, agreed. Many children and teen-agers are intimidated when questioned over and over by police,social workers, counselors and prosecutors, O'Rourke said.

"I've worked with children in the past who, after a while, just want to give up," she said.

By transforming the second floor of the Criminal Investigations Division in Crownsville into a child center, painted with bright colors and filled with toys and stuffed animals, the county hopes to encourage traumatized children to tell their stories.

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