Saturday, May 12, 1984
(!984) A Mute Girl's Story: Child Abuse and the System
A Mute Girl's Story: Child Abuse and the System
By Robert Lindsey
New York Times - May 12, 1984
There is a small girl here, now 5 years old, who rarely speaks. She is, according to her psychiatrist's testimony, an ''elective mute'' who refuses to talk as a result of sexual abuse by her father that started before she was 2.
The child's mother, Faye Henderson, says she appealed to the police, doctors and lawyers to help her safeguard the child from abuse, but, in the face of the father's denials, could not prevail.
''Nobody would listen to me,'' Mrs. Henderson said. ''Everybody told me, 'You're going through a divorce, all women say that.' ''
So Mrs. Henderson has sued the people she says would not help. The legal battle provides insights into how issues of child abuse are handled by the legal system and raises questions about how the legal and medical professions protect children who are sexually abused by adults. Procedures Said to Be Followed
The defendants - doctors who examined the child, a lawyer who represented Mrs. Henderson at her divorce hearing, and a police officer who once determined that an investigation was unwarranted - have all said they followed appropriate procedures and did nothing wrong.
But the suit filed in September 1983 in the Los Angeles County Superior Court by Mrs. Henderson, a 40-year-old former social worker, asserts that for more than two years she repeatedly told police officials, lawyers, judges and doctors that the infant was being raped and otherwise molested by her father, Dennis Henderson, who had been granted joint custody of the child.
Mrs. Henderson says that even when a medical examination found evidence of sexual abuse after a weekend visit with the father in February 1981, her complaints were ignored, and she was subsequently found in contempt of court because she refused to allow the father to visit the child.
After another weekend visit with her father later that year, the 3-year-old was found to have serious vaginal injuries. A family court subsequently suspended Mr. Henderson's visiting rights, a ruling that was upheld on appeal. Father Denies the Charge
Mr. Henderson, a 44-year-old custodian at a Los Angeles high school, has denied abusing his daughter, saying the mother was abusing the child in an attempt to get a ruling preventing his custody. The authorities have not prosecuted him, for lack of sufficient evidence.
On several occasions detectives refused to prosecute the father on criminal charges of child abuse, Mrs. Henderson says, because they said the child ''couldn't talk yet, and since she could not testify, it would be a 'waste of time.' ''
Linda Pate, a lawyer who specializes in child abuse cases, calls Mrs. Henderson's situation ''a crime of silence.''
''She cried out for help, but nobody would pay any attention to her,'' says the attorney, who on Mrs. Henderson's behalf filed the $20 million negligence suit. People Refuse to Accept It
Those who have specialized in the treatment of abused children say the nation's courts all too frequently grant visiting rights to fathers who molest their children. This happens, they explain, because some social workers and police officers cannot believe that ostensibly normal fathers would molest their own children and are skeptical of complaints a woman makes against her husband in the course of a divorce. Court-appointed psychiatrists, they add, tend to dismiss reports of such parental misconduct as Freudian fantasies.
''It's such an unbelievable thing to many people that they refuse to accept it,'' said Dr. Roland Summit, a psychiatrist at the University of California at Los Angeles who has specialized in the treatment of sexually abused children for 15 years.
''People assume that there is a rational, logical explanation, when there is nothing rational about child abuse,'' he said. ''The bias against mothers who complain is so bad that a woman who is aware of it is often told that she may do well not to bring it up because it will only bring trouble on herself.'' Marriage Was Short-Lived
Dennis and Faye Henderson were married May 5, 1978, according to court records, after meeting in a congregation of Jehovah's Witnesses in south central Los Angeles.
It was apparently a stormy marriage from the beginning. Among other problems, according to the allegations of Mrs. Henderson, her husband complained that in their church congregation ''all the women were lesbians, adolescent girls were not virgins'' and said ''he wanted sex with a virgin, particularly a little girl.''
After several brief separations the couple separted for good in December 1978. After the birth of their daughter in February 1979, Mrs. Henderson asserts, her husband threatened to engage in sex with the baby unless she reconciled with him. ''He warned me that he was going to have me handcuffed, subpoenaed and dragged into jail,'' she says, ''and then have sex with the baby.''
In August 1980 their petition for a divorce came up for a hearing in the Superior Court here. Mrs. Henderson says she retained a lawyer and expressed to him her fear that her husband would molest their daughter if he got access to her. She Signed Custody Accord
At the hearing, she says, she discovered that the man she hired was not really a licensed lawyer but instead was a church member who had misrepresented himself. She says he turned her case over to another Witness, a lawyer who was a stranger to her. The real lawyer, she says, rejected her request to tell the judge about her concerns for the child.
According to Mrs. Henderson's account, this lawyer, Hiram Martin, negotiated an agreement between the couple and instructed Mrs. Henderson to sign it. When she asked what it contained, she recalls, ''He said, 'Trust me,' and I signed it.'' Only later, she says, did she learn that it granted the father custody on alternating weekends and in vacations and holiday periods. Mr. Martin, a defendant in Mrs. Henderson's lawsuit, has denied mishandling the case.
Mrs. Henderson says she soon began suspecting, because of physical marks on the infant, that the child had been molested. After the child was returned from a visit with her father on March 1, 1981, Mrs. Henderson says, she became so concerned that she took the baby to Centinela Hospital in Inglewood for an examination.
Two physicians there, Drs. Bernard Lewinsky and Anthony Hirsch, indicated that they had found evidence of possible abuse, but an Inglewood police detective, Kenneth Bush, decided that the report he received was not conclusive enought to warrant further investigation. They Deny Any Wrongdoing
The City of Inglewood, which is also a defendant in the lawsuit, says Mr. Bush followed the appropriate procedures. He did not return telephone calls from a reporter. The two doctors, whom Mrs. Henderson is suing along with the hospital, denied any wrongdoing.
Mrs. Henderson subsequently refused to allow her former husband to visit his daughter, and he returned to the family division of Superior Court to protest. In December 1981, Judge Hugh Macbeth found Mrs. Henderson in contempt, ordering her to immediately allow the father to take the child for a weekend visit, as provided in the agreement she had signed, or go to jail.
In so doing, Mrs. Henderson says, the judge ignored her protests that Mr. Henderson had molested the child. ''He told me that if I was going to come to court and make such statements and try to put my husband in jail, I needed a psychiatrist,'' she says.
The father took the child home for the next weekend and, when she was returned, a medical examination at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Hospital found that she had been seriously injured. Psychiatric Evaluation Ordered
Hospital social workers reported the incident to the Inglewood police, and the child was turned over to Dr. Gloria Powell, a U.C.L.A. psychiatrist, for evaluation in preparation for a hearing on the matter.
Dr. Powell using special dolls with sexual characteristics and organs, interviewed and treated the child over the first months of 1982, and testified at a family court hearing in April in support of the mother's allegation that the child had been molested by her father. The court suspended his visiting rights.
The California Court of Appeal this April rejected an appeal by Mr. Henderson, against whom no charges have been brought, seeking to regain joint custody. His lawyers had asserted that testimony based on Dr. Powell's questioning of the child with dolls constituted inadmissible hearsay evidence. But the appellate court, setting a precedent, ruled that such dolls could be used by a psychiatrist to elicit information from children unable to talk.
In a recent interview this week, Dr. Powell said that despite more than a year of therapy, the child is still so traumatized by the molestation that she refuses to speak except to her mother and that she is fearful and deeply emotionally troubled. Suit Alleges Negligence
Mrs. Henderson's lawsuit against the doctors, hospital, lawyer and police officer charges that from August 1980 to December 1982 each defendant was negligent in not heeding the mother's appeals for help.
But specialists in child abuse and several mothers who were interviewed said that, based on their experiences, such doubt was not uncommon when a mother in divorce proceedings complained that a child was being molested.
''It's the typical pattern for mothers who are poor or who don't have clout,'' said Dr. Powell, who is still treating the Henderson child. Robin Lanette, an officer of a national volunteer group called Society's League Against Molesters, said that in southern California alone the group received more than 200 complaints from mothers concerned about molestation by their husbands, ''but it's not exclusively a California problem, it's happening all over.'' No One Will Believe It
''We've had a number of families recently who have just had to leave the state or the country, to get away,'' she said.
One mother, saying that she had spent $30,000 on a still unresolved legal battle to retain full custody of an 8-year-old son whom she said had been molested by his father, said: ''It's such a horrible thing no one, even your friends, want to believe the awful truth. My own parents didn't believe me at first and helped my ex-husband get a lawyer.''
Mrs. Pate, the attorney for Mrs. Henderson and the child, recently started an organization, the National Foundation for Molested Children, to help mothers in similar situations.
''The public will simply not believe that a human will do this to a child,'' she says, ''But sometime, someplace, somebody's got to stand up and say, 'something horrible is happening,' and do something to protect the children.''