Curbing abuse by nurturing respect for the young

THERE'S a whole new set of terms starting to surface in connection with sexual abuse of children. And they are healing ones. These words include ``nurturing,'' ``love,'' ``affection,'' ``care,'' ``openness,'' ``dignity.'' They relate to family unity, parental responsibility, and adult respect for children.

The concept is simple: Big people who genuinely care for, and respect, the rights of little people won't abuse them.

Interestingly, these ideas are being proffered by some hard-nosed professionals in the child-care and law-enforcement fields. They include psychologists, medical doctors, social workers, legal prosecutors, and judges.

For instance, Robert W. ten Bensel, MD, a health-care specialist at the University of Minnesota who is generally accepted as the leading authority in the field of sexual abuse, laments adult ``disrespect'' for children. And he says ``family nurturing and protection'' is the key to finding solutions to the problem. Charles E. Gentry, director of child and family services for Knoxville, Tenn., also emphasizes family care. He explains that community respect and affection for children will do much to change

an atmosphere in which sexual abuse has been possible.

Recently, about 300 children's advocates came together in Kansas City, Mo., to get a handle on what appears to be a rising tide of sex-abuse incidents around the nation. Held under the aegis of the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges, this meeting was the first of its kind nationwide.

Some reports put the number of children abused or neglected in the United States today at between 4 million and 5 million. An estimated 20 percent of these cases involve sexual abuse. And the vast majority of these occur in the home -- with the offense committed by a family member.

Experts insist that child abuse, like rape, is vastly underreported. Kaye Steinmetz, a Missouri state representative who has championed child protection legislation in her state and elsewhere, insists that ``80 percent to 90 percent of sex abuse and incest cases go unreported.''

Representative Steinmetz is an advocate of strong state laws that, among other things, would: mandate reporting suspected mistreatment of children; terminate parental rights in proven cases of abuse; provide for special means to take children's testimony, such as videotaping or closed-circuit television; and offer treatment for those who violate youngsters.

Law-enforcement representatives and judges, as might be expected, are more concerned with tougher application of existing laws than with new legislation. Judge Aaron Cohn of the Georgia family court, for example, believes that society must be compassionate toward those who need help. But he stresses that sexual abuse is a ``violent crime'' and should be treated as such by the criminal justice system. ``The first priority is protection of the child -- not rehabilitation of the offender or preservation of

the family unit,'' Judge Cohn points out.

Other jurists take a different tack. They say offender rehabilitation -- often through drug or alcohol treatment programs -- is vital to curbing potential repeated crimes of this sort.

The debate over the ``get tough with perpetrators'' approach vs. emphasis on rehabilitation is certain to continue, as will the controversy over providing special treatment for children in court vs. staunch protection of defendants' constitutional rights to a fair trial.

And there are other issues involving sex abuse which divide opinion. ``Take the child out of the home immediately when there is a suspected offense,'' says one group. Another group advocates removing the alleged adult offender instead. ``Prosecute all cases of sex abuse to the extent of the law,'' insist many in the criminal justice system. ``Plea bargain, or resolve the issue out of court with an eye to reducing stress for the child,'' say others.

But the broader rationale -- protect and nurture children in society -- seems to invite a united front.

Dr. Gentry stresses that child sex abuse, spouse battering, and family violence in general are all interrelated. And he says that a better understanding of affection and ``wholesome intimacy'' is an important first step to a cure.

Among other things, Gentry would abolish corporal punishment in the schools -- and ultimately in the home. Violence of any kind is unacceptable, he says. He urges men not to be afraid to express their emotions -- and affection.

Children should be made comfortable with ``appropriate'' affection and intimacy, Gentry adds. ``It's OK to ask for a hug from the right person,'' he says.

Dr. ten Bensel focuses on the dignity of the young and their ultimate importance to society. ``We must all work to make the world worthy of its children,'' he says.

Clearly judicial, legislative, and social-service solutions are all needed to arrest sexual abuse of children. But a clearer understanding of individual worth coupled with a deeper family affection would seem to lead to a more permanent solution.

A Thursday column

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