- The Washington Times - Monday, June 13, 2005

NORTHAMPTON, Mass. — The caller’s voice is tentative, shaky — a little guarded. Listening to her, Amanda Horowitz can hear children chattering in the background. Maybe, she thinks, they are the reason this woman is calling.”Are you concerned about someone in the children’s life that may be at risk to sexually abuse them?” Miss Horowitz asks the caller.

Then, a pause.

“So, you’ve talked with the children about whether anyone has directly touched their private parts,” she continues.

The caller wants to know if children are likely to say whether they have been molested if they are asked.

“I really wish I had the answer you’re looking for,” Miss Horowitz says, her voice calm and assuring even as her response is bound to disappoint. “But unfortunately what I’m going to tell you is that 88 percent of children never disclose sexual abuse even when they’re directly asked.”

It’s a typical call for Miss Horowitz, the help line coordinator for Stop It Now, an advocacy group based in Northampton.

By giving pedophiles and at-risk offenders a phone-in resource center, Stop It Now is trying to change the public perception and approach to dealing with child sexual abuse. The group has been on that mission since it was started 13 years ago — trying to shift the focus of child sexual abuse from solely a criminal justice matter to a public health problem.

The group’s tactics are gaining a growing audience. Stop It Now will be part of a child abuse prevention advisory committee being organized by the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, said Marsha Gilmer Tullis, director of the center’s family advocacy division.

“Stop It Now is one of the first programs in the country to really focus on child sexual abuse as a public health issue,” said Jim Mercy, an associate director for science at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Mr. Mercy said child sexual abuse is often the catalyst for problems such as depression, obesity and smoking, which in turn can lead to suicidal behavior, heart disease and cancer among victims, he said.

But rather than reacting to a situation where a child has already been abused, he said, it’s more productive to identify a potential abuser, understand his behavior and get him treatment that may prevent him from hurting a child.

By the end of the call to the help line, the caller waives her guarantee of anonymity so Miss Horowitz can mail her packets of information on how to approach and deal with the person she thinks might be abusing — or is at risk to abuse — the children. Miss Horowitz encourages the woman to call back to do some role playing and talk about specific steps to take.

“She’s struggling with what I think a lot of our callers struggle with, which is having this gut feeling, but it’s about someone they know and care about,” Miss Horowitz said. “They’re thinking: How could this person actually be someone who could do something like this to a child?”

But critics say questions like that are too overwhelming to handle without notifying the police. They question a private group’s ability to best deal with an issue such as child sexual abuse.

“The response to a report or suspicion of child sexual abuse should involve law enforcement, social services and mental health professionals,” said Northwestern First District Attorney Renee Steese, who has prosecuted child sex abuse cases in Hampshire County, where the Stop It Now headquarters is located.

“Perpetrators of sexual abuse have tortured, physically assaulted and in some instance murdered their victims,” Miss Steese said. “Short of murder, this is the worst crime that can be committed against a human being. It causes damage to the soul.”

David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, finds some benefit to the program.

“There hasn’t been much evaluation research suggesting this tactic works better than anything else to curb child sexual abuse,” Mr. Finkelhor said, noting that abusers fall on a wide spectrum ranging from compulsive, repetitive “sex fiends” to people who might molest a child once and become so overwhelmed with guilt that they will never do it again.

“But the possibility of deterring those less compulsive offenders is quite good,” he added.

Joan Tabachnick, the public education director for Stop It Now, said callers to 888/PREVENT (888/773-8368) are told to make a police report if they have evidence that a crime has been committed. But “the idea of calling the police when you’re not sure about something like this is unconscionable to many people because they’re afraid of pulling their families or other relationships apart,” she said.

In 2004, the Stop It Now help line — which is staffed primarily by Miss Horowitz — handled 900 calls from across the country, a 40 percent increase from the previous year. Most of the callers were women with a hunch that a child was being abused but no hard evidence of it. A small group of callers (6 percent) was concerned that they may be at risk of abusing a child.

“We want to create an environment where people can talk about these issues and problems without a punitive system clamping down on them,” said Maxine Stein, the chief executive officer of Stop It Now. “That’s not to say people can’t be held accountable. It’s essential that people be held accountable for their actions.”

By making people more aware of child sexual abuse and giving them resources to combat it, Stop It Now organizers say, they are taking a similar approach that has worked to curb drunken driving.

“Twenty years ago, it was perfectly normal that before someone graduated high school, they’d know someone who would be killed while driving drunk,” Miss Tabachnick said. “Then Mothers Against Drunk Driving came along and said that’s not acceptable, and the public started shifting the way it thought and acted about drinking and driving.

“We’re trying to do the same thing,” she said. “We want people to intervene before a child is harmed.”

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