«Return to LEAR'S FEBRUARY 1992 By Heidi Vanderbilt A Chilling Report Do you want to know what incest is? What it really is? No ...»
Santa Monica Hospital donated the site. Private foundations, including the Stuart Foundation—established by the founding family of the Carnation Company to support programs for children—underwrote the building costs. Lorimar Telepictures paid for the medical clinic and examining room. The Rape Treatment Center contributed experienced therapists for the children and their families. County and city agencies provided specially trained law-enforcement officials, child-protection workers, and district attorneys. The rest was paid for by private contributions. "We made a dream come true," says Abarbanel.
Stuart House opened in 1988. Personnel from the Rape Treatment Center, the district attorney's office, the Department of Children's Services, the Los Angeles Police Department, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department are permanently housed there. They are needed constantly. Though Stuart House serves only West Los Angeles, which includes Santa Monica and the western region of L.A. County, it sees hundreds of child-sexual-abuse cases a year, the majority of them incest cases.
From the outside, Stuart House looks like any private residence—nothing intimidating or formal or hospital-like about it. Inside, everything is slightly scaled down. The arched doorways are smaller than usual, the receptionist's counter is low so that a child can easily see over it. The stairs have short risers. The sectional seats in the waiting room are child-size. Children can climb up into a multilevel play area where dozens of stuffed animals await them. Light filters softly through windows and a skylight, and the carefully chosen colors—deep blues, pinks, purples, and grays—soothe. Adults enter Stuart House and their mood lifts. The children seem composed.
The interview rooms are furnished with small tables, toys, a one-way mirror, and an intercom telephone. A child is interviewed only once, at a meeting carefully coordinated so that everyone who needs to attend is either present in the room or listening and watching through the mirror.
The child is shown how the mirror works and knows who is behind it. He or she is allowed to play with the intercom and understands that the people behind the mirror might use the phone to call the adults in the room and have them ask questions. The purpose of the mirror and phone are to allow everyone to hear the story without overwhelming the child. It's easier to talk to one or two people than to six or seven, just as it's easier to tell a harrowing story only once than to tell it 20 times.
Children who need medical exams are seen in the Lorimar Clinic, housed down the block in Santa Monica Hospital. For each child the process of examination is slow and careful and adapted to the child's individual needs.
Page 35 of 56 The children's examining room has kites stenciled along the top of the wall. A koala bear sits atop a cabinet, wearing a stethoscope. The office is equipped with a colposcope, which is a microscope that allows for magnified examination of the child's genitals and anus and makes a photographic record of the findings. A fantasy town painted on a folding screen hides the examining table. It's a tiny table—much, much smaller than those in a gynecologist's office. It has a pillow at one end and metal stirrups at the other. I found the sight of it agonizing. I couldn't look at it without getting a vivid image of a four-year-old in position for a pelvic exam. But the children who come to Stuart House aren't traumatized by the exam. To the contrary, many are reassured.
Matti Five-year-old Matti was sitting in the bathtub, strangely silent. Her mother, Mary Lou, asked her what was wrong. "If I tell you," Matti said, "you'll punish me. He said so." Mary Lou promised she wouldn't punish Matti. Then Matti told. Her mother's friend, a man who took care of Matti, who took her on outings and to his house, had made her undress and go into the bathtub with him. He licked her. He made her play with him.
"White stuff would come out," Matti said.
Mary Lou called her pediatrician. He sent her to the local emergency room. There, Matti was examined by a male doctor. Mary Lou, in the next room, heard Matti scream, "Don't do that! Don't do that to me!" The next day, Mary Lou took Matti to Stuart House. Eventually Matti told her therapist there that she had been photographed. She remembered what the photo album looked like and exactly where her abuser kept it. Immediately, the police got a search warrant and found it. Although Matti had no physical signs of abuse, the photos showed that she had been raped and sodomized for months.
Incredibly, several months later, Matti asked for another pelvic exam, to be done at Stuart House. She said she wanted to know for sure that her body was all right. A female doctor, one of the experts in child sexual abuse who staff Stuart House, examined her on the little table. This time her mother was at her side.
Vertical case management Stuart House uses vertical case management: The same social worker, prosecutor, and police officer stay with a case all the way from intake to resolution. Children and family non-offenders get free long-term individual and family therapy. They see the investigators and social workers regularly.
Kathy Giugliano, Stuart House's child advocate, telephones families often to keep them up-to-date on what is happening with their case. There are no long out-of-touch periods of confusion. Cases—and children—don't get lost in the system. New cases often take only one day to go from the initial complaint of abuse to the interviews with child and family, the gathering of medical information, the interview with the suspect, the issuing of a warrant, and the filing of charges. In other places this process might take weeks, months, even years.
Once the filing takes place, the case is in the hands of the courts and the same delays occur as elsewhere. Meanwhile, therapy at Stuart House, for victims and family non-ofPage 36 of 56 fenders, continues as needed for as long as needed. Free of charge.
In California, as in most states, the child victim who complains of abuse must take the witness stand in criminal proceedings. Someone at Stuart House asked me to imagine what it's like: You are five years old. You have been told by your father that he will kill you and your mother and your baby sister if you ever tell the truth about what he did.
Your mother isn't allowed in the courtroom with you. You had to leave her crying outside in the hall. You sit in the witness chair. Your father sits in front of you. The judge asks if you know who God is. He orders you to tell the truth. Your father, whom you love, glares at you with his don't-you-dare expression. A strange, scary crowd of adults also stares at you. You can't speak. The judge tells you to speak up. You start to cry. On crossexamination, your father's lawyers ridicule you, trick you, and call you a liar.
Stuart House children who must testify are shown the courtroom ahead of time. They are allowed to sit on the witness stand, talk into the microphone, and meet the bailiff and the judge. At trial, someone the children know and trust from Stuart House goes into the courtroom with them for support. (A parent who is not a witness can also accompany the child, but parents are often called to testify, and witnesses are allowed into the courtroom only to give their own testimony.) When her abuser came to trial, Matti had to testify. She had to look at every picture he had taken of her and tell the judge what was happening in each one. Her mother, who has never seen the photographs —"I don't want to," she says—stood in the back of the courtroom and listened. Matti's abuser, who, it had been revealed by investigators at Stuart House, had also molested his stepdaughter, was sentenced to 34 years in prison.
The counselors explained to Matti how old she will be when he is released.
For more than a year, Matti continued to go to Stuart House for therapy. Her mother attended the weekly moms' group. "Before that," she told me, "I couldn't open up. It helped me so much to be with other mothers and to really talk."
The support Stuart House gives to its clients is unequaled anywhere in the country or the world; delegates from as far away as Fiji, Japan, Australia, and England have come to study what goes on there. "We could reorganize the whole system," Abarbanel says, " if there were Stuart Houses everywhere. Then the professionals could do what they're supposed to do: provide services. It takes leadership more than money. A community could convert a room or a floor in an existing building—establish a place for the agencies to operate in one place and make a commitment to work as a team. There could be children's courts, with rooms scaled down and designed for kids, where the environment isn't scary. In the long run it saves money. Cases are well put together and end in more guilty pleas. That saves hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars per case."
Convictions "It's getting better," says Los Angeles District Attorney Bill Penzin. "Partly because of Stuart House, we're getting better statutes and having better outcomes." Also partly responsible for the improvement is a recent change in California law extending the statute of limitations in civil cases pertaining to sexual abuse and incest.
Page 37 of 56 Across the country as well, more and more survivors are successfully taking their abusers to court. In Texas, Shelley Sessions, who has coauthored Dark Obsession, a book about her ordeal with incest, won a $10 million judgment against her father, a Corsicana rancher and contractor, for years of having suffered his sexual and psychological abuse.
In Maryland, Kim Shaffir's stepfather was forced to pay for Kim's therapy and was sentenced to six months for spying on her and for masturbating in her presence as she awoke in the morning. "He got off easy," Kim says. "But I stood up to him, I identified him, and I spoke out. At least he was convicted. At least he got punished for some of what he did."
Also in Maryland, in March 1990, Ralph and Betty Smith were convicted of five counts of incest, child abuse, and unnatural and perverted acts. They were sentenced to 15 years and are currently serving time. "At first we were so shocked that people cared," Lisa told me. "All our lives our parents said to us, `If you tell, I'll kill you. If you tell, no one will believe you.' I felt guilty that I'd told." But, she went on, "I found I had brothers and sisters who cared. Going through the system, I found that the prosecutor cared."
At the end of the case, the Smith children gave plaques to prosecutors Cynthia M.
Ferris and Maureen Gillmer of the state's attorney's office.
SMITH FAMILY AWARDPRESENTED
WITH APPRECIATION AND AFFECTION
FOR LISTENING AND CARING
WHEN NO ONE ELSE WOULD
FOR YOUR COMPASSION AND DILIGENCEWE HONOR YOU
LISA, MICHAEL, MICHELLE, RALPH AND JOE
WONDERFUL THINGS DO HAPPENAPRIL 1990 "It isn't over for us," Michael says. "We'll be dealing with this the rest of our lives."
"It feels so good now not to be ashamed to talk about it," Lisa says. "If someone asks about my parents, I tell them they're in jail."
Recovery Helen and Paul California coast. To my left, fields, cliffs, and ocean—spectacular views, if only I could see them. I focus on the dim, looming headlights of approaching cars and trucks, stay as far to the right as I can, and worry about being late.
Page 38 of 56 I am on my way, reluctantly, to interview Helen, a photographer, for this article. I knew her more than 20 years ago. She had waist-length hair then, gorgeous cheekbones, and slanted green eyes. She would have been beautiful if she hadn't been so somber and so weird. She was beyond skinny; her bones stuck out everywhere. She never washed her hair. She picked at herself constantly, dug at her cuticles and fingernails until they bled, scratched her arms until they were raw, and pulled out her eyelashes. She obsessed about her health, starved herself, gorged, vomited, then starved again. I used to see her in the college cafeteria, muttering to herself and weeping. I couldn't stand her.
I finally cross the river into Mendocino. The fog lifts and I find my way through town to Helen's gingerbread house, overlooking the headlands. She meets me at the door. Her eyes and cheekbones are as I remembered them. Otherwise everything about her has changed. For one thing, she smiles.
Helen tells me that she and her older brother, Paul, were abused from infancy by their divorced mother, Diane. Until they left home—Helen at 16, Paul at 19—Diane exposed herself to them, masturbated in front of them, and gave them enemas. Their father fondled both of them whenever he came to visit and routinely made comments about Paul's penis. They were also physically and sexually abused for years by other relatives and care givers, including a violent live-in babysitter.
Paul became a heroin addict before his 15th birthday. He was suicidal at 18 and hospitalized twice. It was Helen who had to arrange those hospitalizations, because the parents refused to help or even to acknowledge that anything was wrong. At 19, Paul married a 30-year-old woman. In his new home he covered the bedroom walls with photographs of his mother. He lived in a miasma of depression and impotence—and anger aimed at his wife.
Helen first had intercourse at 15 with a drunken, 35-year-old friend of her father's. From then on she slept with any man who asked her. She was raped twice, and at 20, the year after I met her in college, she married a sadistic man (I remember him well; he was straight out of The Shining). She was anorexic and bulimic, and not only picked at herself mercilessly but deliberately cut herself on the arms. An emergency room doctor who once treated her told her he doubted she'd live to grow up. She hoped he was right.
Helen tells me that Paul and his wife have spent years in couples counseling, and that Paul still goes to one-on-one therapy. He has been drug free since his early 20s. He runs his own business, restoring antique cars. He and his wife have three sons, ages 7 to 17.