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HomeNewsArchivesEXPERTS: ABUSE WON'T END UNTIL ATTITUDES CHANGE

EXPERTS: ABUSE WON'T END UNTIL ATTITUDES CHANGE

Jan. 17, 2002 – In a day filled with compelling information and statistics Wednesday, St. Thomas resident Lorraine Mason stopped senators cold with the story of her childhood abuse and subsequent tragic adult life.
"It's the most moving thing I've ever heard," Sen. Emmett Hansen II said after Mason made her brief presentation at a Senate Youth and Human Services Committee hearing on child abuse and poverty.
Mason testified that when she was 5, she told her father that her mother's boyfriend had fondled her. Her father beat the man, but her father, not the molester, was "led away in handcuffs." After that, she said, her mother blamed Mason when the boyfriend took off. Mason was left to grow up without positive parental attention. Even the nuns at the Catholic school she attended ignored the bruises she suffered from beatings, she said.
At 12, Mason was coerced into having sex with a 23-year-old man who plied her with nice words. At 15, she turned to prostitution. "I tried to kill myself twice," she said.
At 18, she found herself in an abusive marriage. When her husband gave her expensive jewelry, she told the senators, he would tell her she was "such a whore."
Alcohol and cocaine abuse followed. One time, she testified, she woke up to find several men "taking turns" at her body.
"The perpetrator is the survivor. The victim is left with a soul full of holes," she said.
Mason told the senators that people such as the man who raped her when she was 12 look for children who are ignored or overwhelmed by caring for their siblings. This, she said, is why the perpetrator of child molestation often turns out to have been "a friend of the family."
She said she forgave her mother for her neglect after learning that her mother was conceived as the result of incest between her own mother and grandfather.
While Mason's story was riveting, many of the nearly dozen government agency heads and directors of not-for-profit social service agencies related similarly horrible accounts.
Dilsa Capdeville, who runs the St. Thomas child advocacy organization Kidscope Inc., broke down when she told — as she has many times before — the story of 2-year-old Shaquanna Arnette. The Bergs Home child died in 1992 after she had been badly beaten, molested and burned on a stove.
The killer, the child's mother's boyfriend, went free after serving nine months in jail, Capdeville reminded the senators, because at that time child abuse was not a felony in the Virgin Islands. Shaquanna's death spurred the Legislature to change the law.
Victims go on to victimize others
Capdeville also told of a man arrested years ago for molesting young boys. It turned out the man had himself been violated from the age of 11 by an uncle, but when he told his mother and grandparents, he was beaten and ultimately thrown out of a second-story window. His anger led him to follow the same course, she said, and "he had been molesting two, three, four boys a week for 15 years."
Capdeville said she worries that those molested boys, who are now adults, are out in the community today violating other children. "I'd like to see treatment for the perpetrators," she said, adding that many of those who are convicted of such violations serve their time but return to their old ways once out of jail.
Citing the recent suicide of a 23-year-old St. Thomas woman who had been raped, Capdeville said she was shocked to learn of community insensitivity after listening to a conversation while in line at a bank. "Where is our empathy?" she asked.
Elsie Chinnery, who heads the Adolescent Health Services Division of the Health Department on St. Thomas, said poverty forces families to live in homes where the children do not have their own beds, and this can result in child molestation by family members or others sleeping in the same bed. "We find children fondled at a tender age," she said.
Chinnery also said she is seeing more cases of young boys taking up with older women. The boys provide sexual stamina and the women provide money, housing, food and access to drugs and luxuries, she said.
An advocate of abstinence before marriage, Chinnery had firm advice for both boys and girls thinking about becoming sexually active: "Close your legs and keep them closed. It's a serious responsibility," she said.
Michal Rhymer, executive director of Family Resource Center on St. Thomas, said that in 2001, "over 75 percent of the sexual assault cases we handled were child victims — under the age of 18."
Attitudes seen as the basis for abuse
Iris Kern, who directs the Safety Zone on St. John, said abuse in the local community stems from the fact that many Virgin Islands men view women and children as their property. "And many men of the highest stature are involved with little girls and not prosecuted," she testified, saying abuse will go on until deep-seated attitudes that allow it to continue are changed.
Human Services Commissioner Sedonie Halbert offered similar testimony: "We will continue to witness this demonstration of lawlessness unless we recognize the need to help families establish a strong system of healthy values, principles and lifestyles by which they can be guided."
Several senators had harsh words for people who do not take responsibility for their actions. "Adults bring children into the world and don't take care of them," Sen. Lorraine Berry said.
Sen. David Jones commented at one point, "The business community is busy making money, the educational system is seen as a babysitting service for our children, and our churches are busy getting to heaven and not serving any earthly purpose. When it comes to our children, church and state should not be separated."
A part of the daylong hearing focused on what the Senate can do to stop child abuse. Passing the Child Protection Act, which has been languishing in the Senate since 2000, is the first step, several people said.
Clema Lewis, co-director of the Women's Coalition on St. Croix, said the adoption of a child protection law raising the age of consent to 18 needs to be a high priority and that there should be no statute of limitations on sexual assault cases.
She also said there is a need for child psychologists to be available at Mental Health centers on St. Croix for children in crisis, for social workers to be available around the clock for emergencies, for a group home for pregnant teenagers to learn parenting skills while caring for their babies, and for more group homes to be established for boys and for girls.
Rhymer urged the senators to give social service agencies that do contract work for the government their own funding in the annual budget. They now are lumped into a miscellaneous category, which she said was cut by 40 percent for Fiscal Year 2002.
Sen. Vargrave Richards, the committee chair, called the hearing to take testimony on "critical issues in child welfare: the economic, social and legal impact of the rising incidences of poverty, child sexual abuse, AIDS and its implications for child survival in the Virgin Islands." At the end, he told those who had testified: "If we do not get to the root problem, we will keep doing it over and over. This committee is pledging to be your voice in the community."
Several of those testifying indicated they'll believe it when they see it.
Rhymer told the senators: "For the last two years, I have spent numerous hours awaiting my turn to give testimony on the proposed Child Protection Act of 2000 and then 2001. Let me say that I pray that 2002 will be the year in which this critical bill actually becomes law."
Capdeville made one more point: "In order for us to realistically address this problem, we must first recognize that everyone, not just those of us who work in the various agencies, but the entire community, must respond t
o the plight of our children. We must open our doors, our minds and our hearts; everyone must do his or her part. Otherwise, I can guarantee we'll continue to have these ineffectual hearings."

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