Monday, April 11, 1988
A healing haven for abused kids
By Sally Ann Stewart
USA Today - April 11, 1988
His name has been changed, but his sad story is true. Now, he lives in a place where adults help, not hurt.
The place: the Village of Childhelp USA, a 240-acre ranch with 76 kids, 16 horses, five geese and a pig, 25 miles west of Palm Springs. The Village marks its 10th birthday this month as the USA's only residential treatment center solely for abused kids.
Tuesday, Childhelp officials and ``ambassadors,'' including Cheryl Ladd, Phyllis Diller and Jack Scalia, meet in Washington with Congress members to announce plans to study the spread of AIDS among sexually abused kids.
April also marks National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and Childhelp's national hot line - (800) 4-A-CHILD - shows an alarming increase in child abuse.
When the hot line opened in 1982, experts answering the calls for help recorded 8,600 calls. In 1987, they marked 148,452 calls.
Hot line director Dan Sexton believes we're better at reporting child abuse, but also thinks there's more to report.
``When you deal with stress like our society does, with a let's-have-a-few-drinks-and-forget-about-it mentality, then it breaks down inhibitions and lets people abuse more,'' says Sexton, 36, a self-described abuse ``survivor.''
``We don't do anything as a society in teaching people how to parent and it's difficult to hope that the problem is going to go away on its own.''
The American Humane Association in Denver counted 2.2 million reported cases of child abuse in 1986, compared to 1.9 million in 1985. But spokeswoman Katie Bond disagrees with Sexton.
``We're just learning more about child abuse every day,'' Bond says. ``Even 20 years ago, a severe spanking was just considered discipline, even if you broke your child's back.''
What's the difference between discipline and abuse? ``If you're hitting your child hard enough to leave a mark, that's abuse,'' Sexton says. ``If you call your child stupid and ugly and a jerk, that's abuse.''
Sherry, 9, and sister Linda, 8, also live at Childhelp. They are blonde and beautiful, and their parents put them in porno movies with their brother, 6.
Studies show sexual abuse also has skyrocketed in the USA. The American Humane Association counted 6,000 reports of sexual abuse in 1976.By 1985, there were 113,000.
Abuse doesn't end, either. A whopping 80 percent of abusive parents were abused when they were kids, Sexton says. The Village's mission is to break that cycle.
Actor Jack Scalia says he and his wife, Karen, won't spank their 6-month-old daughter, Olivia.
``We have a definite hands-off policy and a definite love-on policy,'' says Scalia, who visits the ranch and helps raise money for Childhelp.
``Being with these kids out at the Village has taught me that God thinks enough about me that he has entrusted me with his most precious gift. No child ever, ever deserves to be hit.''
Joy Beyers, public awareness coordinator for the National Center for the Prevention of Child Abuse in Chicago, says Childhelp's mission is important but expensive.
``Everything they're doing, they're doing in good faith, but putting that kind of money into the ranch, you have to realize that it's for a relatively few number of children.
``I'd like to see more money go to prevention, to parenting classes. Even though these kids need help, we're not going to solve the problem by mopping up after the abuse.''
But Childhelp co-founder Sara O'Meara says all abused children benefit.
``We're trying to be a research lab,'' she says. ``We have research projects, the hot line, training programs for professionals. We work very hard to raise as much money as we can because we really believe in doing as much as we can.''
Childhelp's celebrity support has attracted high visibility and big bucks.
Last month, the National Football League Players Association hosted 1,500 at a black-tie dinner at the posh Century Plaza. Guests included Danny Thomas, Jimmy Stewart, Connie Sellecca, and football's Joe Namath, Rosie Grier, Bob Golic and Dave Duerson.
The dinner raised about $300,000 toward running the $7.5 million-a-year charity.
``At the Village, you really see the difference that care and love and treatment make with these children,'' says actress Cheryl Ladd, a Childhelp volunteer since the Village opened. ``The minute they are given the nurturing and love and protection they need, it's amazing how they blossom.''
It takes an average 14-month stay for each child - ages 2 to 12 - at the Village to recuperate. They live in cottages with eight or 10 other children. At least two staff members are always there. Each child has a bicycle and a weekly allowance (25 cents to $1).
Whatever the children need, they get. A child who had been ``shaken cross-eyed'' by her father had eye surgery. Others undergo plastic surgery.
``One little boy had `bad kid' written in cigarette burns across his back, so we had that removed,'' O'Meara says. ``We've had noses rebuilt, complete faces rebuilt.''
It's a little harder to heal a child's spirit. Jamie, 5, tugs a stranger's hand at the Village. ``Are you my mother?'' Jamie asks. No, the stranger says. ``Well, then,'' Jamie says. ``Will you sit next to me at lunch?''
About half the ranch's children go to public school. The others attend a smaller ranch school.
From 6:30 a.m. wake-up until 8 p.m. bedtime, every minute is filled with homework, group therapy, household chores, art lessons and family-style meals. There's still plenty of time for kids to get in trouble, but discipline is swift, fair and controlled.
Four-year-old Mark sits in a chair, tears dripping down his cheeks while an egg timer ticks away five minutes. When the alarm sounds, staff counselor Elaine Chavez kneels by the chair.
``Do you know why you got a timeout?'' Chavez asks.
``When it's nap time, you're supposed to be quiet because you need to rest. You're not allowed to jump on Timmy's bed. Are you ready to take a nap now?''
Mark nods again. ``Will you carry me?''
``You're too big for me to carry you,'' she says. ``But I'll hold your hand and walk with you, OK?''
When a child gets too old to discipline with timeouts, parents can take away phone and TV privileges, says Ladd, whose daughters are 13 and 11.
``I don't want to sound like I never lose my temper with them, because I do,'' Ladd says. ``It's important that even though I get angry and send them to their rooms, at some point we sit down and talk.
``Communication - that's the thing. You can help your child be a better friend to you by being a better friend to them.''