Once Is Enough

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

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.

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.

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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.

Although the center operates during daytime hours, its personnel are on call around the clock to handle sexual abuse cases involving anyone up to 18 years old. And yes, there are cribs there to hold the babies.

"When we moved out of the CPS building, we promised the community to take every sexual abuse case," Cokinos says. The response has been enormous. The center saw more than 5,000 sexual abuse victims last year and actually hosted more than 7,000 kids when siblings are included.

Buddy Williams is a sergeant with the Houston Police Department and the front-line supervisor for police officers assigned to the center. He's remarkably candid about the ignorance of some officers in dealing with child sexual abuse cases.

He and the center try to educate. Every HPD office has a pink card with the center's cell phone number to call when there's a suspected child abuse case. Do they always use it correctly? No. He had an officer call him the other day. An 11-year-old boy had been sexually abused by his uncle. The officer was all hot to go, to take the boy to the nearest emergency room. Williams stopped him. "No, no. Put him in your police car," he told him. "We videotaped the interview, got all we needed and the child went home," he says.

Sometimes being the "go-to place" works better than others. Julia Wolfe, the center's supervisor in therapy services, says they had a case of a 15-year-old girl raped by a guy who had kidnapped her from school and taken her to two hotels. He gave her $2 to get home. She got on a bus to the southwest command center, where she was told to come to the assessment center. She got in a cab and made her way there.

The police officers who work at the center "have to have an affinity to do this," says Williams. "It's a lot more glamorous chasing homicide cases and doing robbery investigations."

"But ask most law enforcement officers the question, Who would you rather put behind bars, a convicted burglar or a convicted child molester?" Williams says. "Well, it's the child molester."

Dr. Margaret McNeese founded the clinic on site. She supervises the five physicians who rotate services.

Technological advances have made the medical examinations better to undergo. A high-tech machine called a video colposcopy (used for years in gynecological exams) takes still photographs and videos of the child's genital area, precluding the need in most cases for a full pelvic examination.

There are other advantages to this approach, McNeese says. A doctor who goes to court for the prosecution has more authoritative evidence to bring with him, rather than drawing a doughnut shape and calling it the hymen. Also, she says, doctors on either side of the case can look at these internal and external photographs and make their diagnoses of what happened, without the need for repeated physical examinations of the child.

But medical involvement doesn't stop there. The child can now come in for follow-up treatment on anything else that is needed -- immunizations, whatever. McNeese's philosophy is that a sexual abuse examination may be how they meet these kids, but it doesn't define their relationship.

CPS supervisor Debra Emerson sat in a room with a teenage boy, their chairs back to back. He had a secret to reveal, to unload, but even though he desperately wanted to tell it, he told her he couldn't look her in the face while he said the things he had to say. So they talked, shoulder blades to shoulder blades, as a hidden video quietly recorded the conversation. It was a sordid tale of sexual abuse by the boy's stepfather. What made it especially poignant, Emerson remembers, is that the boy had wanted a father for so long. What he got when his mother married, though, was a sexual predator.

Boys in particular have a harder time telling what has happened to them, the workers at the center say. Socialized to be strong and tough and to take what comes their way, a lot of boys feel if they are abused, that makes them gay. Many don't tell because they don't want to hurt their parents.  

Center personnel say the typical child sexual abuse victim is a nine-year-old white girl from a middle-income family who is molested by her stepfather. But don't make too much of that, officials say -- biological fathers are right behind in that statistic.

Incest cases are often multigenerational. Williams mentions "the 19-year-old grandmother" in Houston last year, who became pregnant at nine or ten herself and whose daughter became pregnant in turn when she was nine or ten.

A girl is sexually abused and grows up to marry a man who sexually abuses her own children, center lore goes. "These people find each other, have kids and go on," Cokinos says. It is a cycle of abuse her center is trying to break. So besides the therapy sessions for the kids, there are counseling sessions for moms and families.

Some of the mothers who are called to the center sit and read a newspaper while the examination is going on, McNeese says. Others are in tears. Many never come back.

"These women don't leave these men. For some reason they feel bound to them," she says. "They're sacrificing their child one more time."

Leading questions in interviews are out. No confessions are forced. Anatomical dolls are brought out only as a last-ditch effort. "Seventeen years ago, yes, we asked horribly leading questions. 'Yes, your daddy did this to you, didn't he,' " says Cokinos ruefully. But training has made forensic experts of her troops, she maintains.

The videotapes mean not only does a child not have to tell her story over and over leading up to trial, but sometimes the bad guy pleads out, after his lawyer views a videotape and realizes the child is going to be a strong witness.

If the case does go to court, the child goes there armed with the confidence needed to make a better witness.

Other changes: As a young caseworker, Cokinos would drive to a child's house by herself and do the interview in one room while the perpetrator sat in the next. Now her interviewers talk to the child at the center, and there is police backup in bringing a child in. And instead of being handled a pile of files on the first day on the job and told to go do their best, interviewers are given three months of training.

There also have been improvements in how the district attorney's office reacts to these cases. Years ago the D.A.'s office was cutting deals. "We won't file a case if you go to class," Cokinos recalls prosecutors saying. Well, that didn't work.

Many of the children come here because they've finally had enough and told a teacher or counselor at school and the school immediately contacted CPS. Some tell a friend. Very few tell a parent.

Sometimes there's an accidental disclosure: Someone walks in on the child while he or she is being sexually abused. Those can be the hardest cases of all, interviewers say, because most of those children are still guarding their secrets and are not prepared to tell.

Schools are, in fact, bound by law to notify CPS. The way it's supposed to work is for CPS to come out, briefly investigate and immediately move the child to the center. A parent, never the alleged perpetrator, is called from there and asked to come to the center. Cokinos says they still have had trouble with some schools where officials wanted to "work things out" and called the parents first, saying they'd be contacting CPS. By the time CPS got there in most cases, she says, "they were in Mexico," packed up and gone with the kids.

That's part of her expansion plan, to get schools more knowledgeable of and involved in what they do at the center. She wants to reach other nonprofits and the courts and further educate D.A.'s ("Yes, we need specialized prosecutors to handle child sexual abuse cases.") She wants to open up a satellite center, start a hot line.

Cokinos and her investigators have been all over the city, she says. "Every private school, every public school. This Internet thing adds a whole new level of sick."

It's difficult to come out of the Children's Assessment Center and not be depressed. There are just too many dreary stories there. The three-year-old whose 14-year-old brother talked her into masturbating him, saying there was candy in his penis. The 39-year-old man on an hour-long tape explaining why and how he molested 102 boys starting when he was 12 years old and his cousin was six. The 13-year-old girl, sexually abused by her father starting at age six, who cried so many times to herself at night that there were no tears left when authorities finally discovered the abuse. The boy who loves his sister and hates her, too, for telling that their father has been abusing her, sending him to prison.  

Then there was the 14-year-old boy who now has AIDS from being sexually abused by his uncle from the time he was five years old till he was ten. This was the case that caused veteran interviewer Fiona Stephenson to fear she was going to cry in a session for the first time in eight years. The boy kept reassuring her that he could handle what had happened to him. "It just broke my heart. He was so strong. His life was changed. He'll never have a normal life."

Victories are counted in children rescued, in perpetrators brought to judgment and removed from society, at least for a time. As Stephenson puts it: "You always have to think of the ones you've really helped. The abuse has stopped. That's what you have to think about."

That and the fact that in a world that has dealt with these boys and girls so harshly already, Cokinos and her allies know they have furnished a place that treats children with dignity, respect and unconditional love.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month. To contact the Children's Assessment Center, call (713)986-3300.

E-mail Margaret Downing at margaret. downing@houstonpress.com.

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