Once Is Enough

A unique sex abuse center ensures that tender young lives aren't torn apart by the system

Sarah was blind, and Sarah, who was seven, looked three because of a pituitary growth condition. But that wasn't the worst of Sarah's rotten life. Her own mother sexually molested her. Her stepfather sexually molested her. There was oral sex and full sexual intercourse and an entire gamut of sexual practices forced upon her before someone finally got around to noticing this perverse Mommy-Daddy-Baby game.

And then she was molested by the system that subjected her to interview after interview after interview. The assistant district attorney didn't like the first interviews, saying Sarah wasn't credible enough. Sarah, meanwhile, was going to pieces, spreading her own feces all over the walls because she was going to have to go to court and tell her story all over again to a roomful of adults, and she already knew they didn't believe her. And it didn't matter what the junior caseworker said on her behalf to the district attorney. The prosecutor wouldn't let Sarah testify on closed-circuit TV. She had to march into court and face her mother and stepfather.

Then her biological father appeared on the scene. He had remarried and passed his psychological tests showing he was nice and normal. And he wanted her. Wanted Sarah to go live with him and his new wife. But Sarah couldn't be released to him. Not yet. There was still the trial to go through.

Ellen Cokinos hears dreadfully sad stories in a beautiful setting.
Deron Neblett
Ellen Cokinos hears dreadfully sad stories in a beautiful setting.

Late one night, the foster mother who'd been taking care of Sarah while the justice system got around to deciding what it was going to do with her, in full violation of every rule governing foster parenthood, let the natural father take his daughter away. The new family fled to Kansas and, despite all the extradition papers filed by the state of Michigan, never came back.

Of course, the case against the mother and stepfather collapsed. The main witness was gone, and however disappointing Sarah had been to the prosecutor previously, there was nothing much left without her.

Ellen Cokinos, founder and executive director of Harris County's Children's Assessment Center, was the junior caseworker on that long-ago Michigan case. To this day she is of a mixed mind about what happened. "The kid is in college today," she says. "But those people should have gone to jail."

The one thing she was sure of, though, was that there had to be a better way to deal with child sexual abuse victims. So she got herself better trained and more educated, and with determination and a lot of public/private help, she has built a monument to that conviction on Bolsover Street in Houston.

And now experts from around the country come here to study it.

The Children's Assessment Center is a one-stop shop for child sexual abuse victims in Harris County, an image both comforting and disquieting. A child suspected of being sexually abused will be brought here for a doctor's examination in the first-floor clinic, interviewed and videotaped by specially trained personnel, assigned a child advocate to see him or her through the court system and given regular counseling sessions.

The center's goal is to put an end to the practice of having a child go through an emergency room examination, perhaps by a resident who has never handled a rape case before, and then a series of exhausting interviews by assorted law enforcement departments and social service agencies.

Sixty-seven videotape machines stand in rows and columns in one businesslike room of the center. Each one leads to rooms where cameras are hidden in closets. In another room someone from the police or sheriff's office or Children's Protective Services or the district attorney's office watches. The interviewer steps out of the room, excuses herself for a moment, then asks the other viewers if there's anything missed, any statement that should be reviewed again. When the interview is over, that's it, at least until (and if) the case goes to trial. There's no longer a gauntlet of interviews with different law enforcement and social service agencies for a child to negotiate.

But it does not make what follows pain-free. That their lives in most cases will be shattered even further is a given in many of the cases, particularly those involving incest. Yes, just as their assailant warned them all along, Daddy will go to jail, Mommy may not believe them, the family income will drop, Mommy won't have a husband for a while or forever again, which she may resent. Maybe they'll have to move, even go to a foster home if Mommy picks Daddy over them. They lose their school friends and the lives they knew and desperately want back, even with the bad parts.

The $10.5 million facility, opened two years ago after moving out of Children's Protective Services headquarters, is beautiful -- paintings and photographs line the walls, there are playrooms and a new dance room, lots of space and toys -- like a really nice preschool or day-care. It is a lovely scene peopled with children who have been sexually abused or who are brothers or sisters of sexually abused children.

A public/private venture, it is funded through Harris County Commissioners Court and the Children's Assessment Center Foundation. Eleven partner agencies share the space offering a range of legal, law enforcement, medical and counseling services.

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