Victims often confused and ashamed as well as frightened
Providence, R.I. — Josie is a quiet, shy, pretty teen-ager. She kept a secret for six years -- an awful one -- because she promised her father she wouldn't tell. From the age of nine, she was sexually abused by him. At first, Josie (not her real name) was afraid her parents would get divorced if she told her mother. At the same time, her father kept reassuring her that what they were doing was alright. He even suggested to her that, as she grew older, boys wouldn't like her if she didn't do ``these things.''
Confused, angry, withdrawn, the young girl finally confided in a cousin and ultimately her mother. Her father was arrested. After an initial denial, he admitted the abuse. He was given a five-year suspended sentence and placed on probation. Josie's mother filed for divorce.
Now Josie is trying to put her life back together. She finished high school recently and enrolled in secretarial school. She has a boyfriend. And she attends counseling sessions at a local therapy center. She says she is telling her story in hopes that other children may be spared her ordeal.
Counselors Frank Pescosolido and Diane Petrella are helping Josie and her mother. Josie attends small group sessions with other girls who have had similar experiences. ``We're all rather old for our age,'' she says philosophically.
Mr. Pescosolido and Ms. Petrella are codirectors of the East Side Center in Providence, R.I., which specializes in counseling children and families involved in sex abuse.
In a combination office-playroom -- replete with dolls and teddy bears, there for demonstration as well as comfort -- these therapists try to elicit from youngsters what are often tales of horror about sexual abuse. Some of their clients are as young as two years old. Many, like Josie, are in their teens. East Side's cases are referred by welfare and other agencies where a determination (or suspicion) of abuse has been established. It also gets hospital and private referrals.
Pescosolido and Petrella don't conduct investigations of abuse. They are, however, often asked to validate suspicions of authorities.
``In most cases, we assume that something has happened'' explains Petrella. She says children are frightened and ashamed of this type of experience and, in most instances, not likely to conjure up facts. Asked if youngsters are not apt to inaccurately report events, Petrella responds that ``a child might be confused about time and space -- but not themes.''
Pescosolido and Petrella admit that occasionally a youngster lies about being abused. They mention cases where a mother seeking custody will ``prime'' a child to concoct a tale of abuse by an estranged father. But they are more concerned about children like Josie who fail to report molestations. They insist they are aware of dozens of cases where police and courts never get involved because no formal charges are made.
``Although I am a mental health professional, I see any abuse as criminal'' says Pescosolido.
However, East Side's therapists don't always advocate a jail sentence for a convicted molestor. Particularly in incest situations, they would prefer to use counseling to reunite families if at all possible. It is not unusual for children to retain strong emotional ties to an abusive parent or for a child to experience acute feelings of guilt about the effects on the family following a report of abuse.
East Side is one of scores of private centers across the United States addressing the sex abuse of children. Most operate quietly and generally outside public view. However, some therapy groups -- such as the Los Angeles-based Children's Institute International (CII) -- have received widespread publicity, some of it controversial, as a result of highly publicized court cases.
CII was hired by prosecutors in the McMartin Pre-School case where, as a result of their interviews with nursery school children, seven teachers and administrators were indicted on charges of sexual molestation. However, charges against five of the defendants have since been dropped for lack of evidence. The district attorney now disagrees with CII's findings that 14 child witnesses in this case were molested by the defendants.
The defense has maintained that the McMartin case was not based on legitimate police probes but on ``fantasies'' of the children, elicited by suggestive questions posed by CII therapists.
In a sex-abuse case in Hawaii, a jurist recently declared the testimony of two preschool-age girls to be incompetent. Circuit Court Judge Robert Klein said the accusations of molestation by the youngsters likely were the result of ``layers and layers of interviews, questions, examinations . . . fraught with textbook examples of poor interview techniques.''
A controversy has arisen over the role of therapists in such cases. Often they are hired by the prosecution as expert witnesses and are, at least indirectly, pressured into assessing abuse and pointing the finger at the abuser.
Ian Russ, a researcher for CII, says it isn't the job of the therapist to determine the truthfulness of a child but to help the court determine ``what a kid can understand.''
``Psychiatry has no better track record in determining truth than the law does'' he states.
Gary Melton, director of the law and psychology program at the University of Nebraska, goes even further and says that sexual abuse just can't be determined from clinical evaluations. However, Dr. Melton, who has extensively researched children's court testimony, holds that youngsters, especially preschoolers, are no more prone to lying on the witness stand than adults.
Most experts agree the psychiatric process regarding children and molestation needs to be strengthened and made more credible. For example, the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges is urging more specialized training for therapists who deal with sex abuse.
Pamela Langelier -- who directs the child forensic service at the University of Vermont -- interviews over 300 children a year who have allegedly been victims of sex abuse. She says a basic problem is that the courts ``entangle children in a legal system that expects them to meet adult standards.
``Courts are trying very hard. Lawyers are lawyering. Parents are frightened,'' she says. She adds, however, that although children have few legal rights, they are constantly put into situations where they are treated as if they enjoyed the rights of adults. Second of three articles. Next: How the courts are wrestling with the issue.