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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Taking a stand for the children

By Mike Gordon
Advertiser Staff Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

MARK MARTURELLO | Des Moines Register

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For online information, including a pledge form for "Million Stars of Hope," visit www.cahawaii.org

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What can parents and community members do to prevent sexual abuse of a child? Join the conversation at www.HAWAII.MOMSLIKEME.COM

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A violation of trust and love, the sexual assault of a child can become a secret shame that destroys whatever innocence remains.

The damage can last a lifetime.

But there's something just as awful: The public's refusal to openly deal with the problem.

That's the fuel that drives Alfred Herrera, president of the Children's Alliance of Hawai'i. The problem bothered him so much that last fall he decided to take a stand. In December, Herrera and the alliance launched a public awareness campaign called "Million Stars of Hope."

His goal is to convince the public that it needs to take the problem more seriously.

"It is a very uncomfortable subject matter that people do not want to admit is happening in this state, in their community, in their neighborhoods," Herrera said. "So I thought enough is enough. If this makes us feel uncomfortable, imagine how it makes the victims feel. They are the ones who have been violated."


Through "Million Stars of Hope," Herrera plans to encourage people to step forward and not only support victims, but demand they be treated better.

The campaign also serves as a fundraiser to help the Children's Alliance of Hawai'i, but Herrera said he is most concerned about people owning up to the problem.

He wants them to register with the alliance a form is available online so that it will be able to bring more of the community into future discussions about how to protect children.

"I am trying to begin to change our thinking through this campaign, to look at this situation, to stare its ugliness in the face in order to solve it," he said. "Let's all start pulling our head out of the sand. Let's not ignore it anymore."

Herrera's clients, as well as those at other organizations he works with, often complain that no one believes their stories of sexual abuse. That disbelief is another form of abuse, he said.

Child welfare advocates believe that many sex assaults against children go unreported as much as 90 percent, according to the Hawai'i Children's Justice Centers. The centers see about 1,300 Hawai'i children a year. Most victims are assaulted by someone they know, said Thalia Murphy, a deputy prosecuting attorney who has handled sex assault cases in Honolulu for 21 years.

That level of intimacy helps explain why victims say nothing for weeks, months or longer. Two-thirds of all victims first molested as children wait until they are adults before they reveal what happened, Murphy said.

More than once, she's discovered them during jury selection for child sex assault trials the potential juror suddenly confessing to the judge a personal tale of horror.

"There are so many elements of shame and embarrassment and worry that you won't be believed, especially when the perpetrator is someone who is known and trusted by the family," Murphy said. "It is so hurtful and painful for the victim that there are lifelong effects."


Honolulu gallery owner Sandra Pohl, who would talk about the problem when Herrera visited her Louis Pohl Gallery, was so moved by "Million Stars of Hope" that she persuaded eight artists to donate 10 percent of their profits from a special show. The show opened in early January and has raised about $1,000.

The gallery also teamed up with INTO Inc. for a similar Valentine's Day event.

"When Alfred (Herrera) told me about this program, I thought to myself that everyone has to take a stand on this," Pohl said. "It affects everybody."

Pohl believes in what she calls "the ripple effect." If children grow up mean-spirited because of abuse or anything else they will be mean to people around them, she said.

"If we help even one or two abused kids, what could that do?" Pohl said. "How does that impact our little community?"

Pohl has seen some of this up close, when she worked 15 years ago in the state's prison system. A large majority of the inmates she encountered had been sexually abused when they were children.

They were drug abusers, prostitutes, abusers themselves, she said.

"These kids are scarred for the rest of their lives," she said. "If they don't get treatment early on, they become offenders."

But when they receive help, the victims sometimes find something precious.

Herrera, whose Children's Alliance of Hawai'i offers a variety of programs to help children cope, said he has listened to the voices of rediscovery.

"They come back and they tell us we believed them," he said. "They felt that they knew they were safe with us and that we cared and that we wanted them to be happy."


In more than 90 percent of child sexual abuse cases, the offender is known and trusted by the victim.

A child is especially susceptible if he or she feels unloved, has low self-esteem, has little contact with committed adults or regularly spends time unsupervised.

One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually assaulted by age 18.

Indicators include unexplained changes in a child's comfort level around a family member or trusted adult, abrupt changes in how a child socializes with friends, extreme avoidance of someone the child once liked or a certain house or room, sexualized behavior in front of others and language and details not appropriate to the child's age.

More than 95 percent of sexual assault offenders are male.


The Children's Alliance of Hawai'i at 599-2955. On Kaua'i, call 808-246-3746.

The Sex Abuse Treatment Center's 24-hour hot line: 524-7273 (808-524-RAPE).

The Children's Justice Center (O'ahu) at 534-6700.

In an emergency: call the police at 911.

Reach Mike Gordon at mgordon@honoluluadvertiser.com.