Kevin Riordan: Stratford's CARES Institute ensures hope for young victims of sex abuse

Esther Deblinger and Martin Finkel head the CARES Institute in Stratford, which turns 25 this month. CARES helps young abuse victims.
Esther Deblinger and Martin Finkel head the CARES Institute in Stratford, which turns 25 this month. CARES helps young abuse victims. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / Staff)
Posted: August 24, 2012

The CARES Institute in Stratford turns 25 this month, but "happy anniversary" may not be the best way to acknowledge the milestone.

CARES, which stands for Child Abuse Research Education and Service, deals with issues "that are not everybody's cup of tea," founder Martin Finkel says.

"Nobody wants to imagine adults doing terrible things to kids entrusted to them," he says, adding that most victims receiving medical and mental health treatment at the institute know their victimizers.

The outpatient facility, which is bright with color and light, does not offer services to adult sex offenders. It does provide training for parents and professionals.

"We see it all," Finkel says. "Forty percent of the sexual abuse victims [treated at the center] are under 6."

During the fiscal year that ended June 30, the institute served 1,386 males and females under 21, most referred by the state Division of Child Protection and Permanency. There were 185 referrals in June alone, a monthly record.

Since the institute opened in 1987, it has seen more than 18,000 patients, about 85 percent of them victims of sexual abuse.

"We need to ensure that these children get effective treatment," says psychologist Esther Deblinger, 53, who joined the center 23 years ago. She and Finkel, 64, a pediatrician, are its directors.

Deblinger and Finkel live in Cherry Hill with their spouses and children. Each has a friendly, caring manner that I imagine helps soothe a traumatized youngster.

"With treatment, there's hope, which the media often don't emphasize," Deblinger says. "Of course, there are negative effects, including PTSD, depression, substance abuse, and a greater risk of suicide. But you'd be amazed how, with the right therapy, children can bounce back. They're very resilient."

One of four such outpatient facilities in the state, the institute is the only one associated with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey-School of Osteopathic Medicine. It has 45 employees and a $4 million annual budget.

Under legislation signed by Gov. Christie on Wednesday, the entire Stratford campus will become part of Rowan University.

"It's impossible to overstate the value of . . . CARES," Thomas Cavalieri, dean of the statewide medical university, says in a statement.

"Think of the thousands of children here in New Jersey they've helped recover from abuse and neglect, and thousands more across the country and the world who have benefited from the approaches to treatment developed by CARES."

As anyone within range of a media outlet knows, child sex-abuse cases are ubiquitous. CARES is doing research into the origins and frequency of such behavior. But growing public awareness of child sex abuse doesn't make it easier for victims to come forward.

"The silence is no longer as pervasive," Deblinger says. Yet sex abuse "is still something that's very, very difficult for children to disclose."

Adds Finkel, "the reason this stuff goes on and on and on is because of secrecy."

That's why he has developed techniques to help professionals taking histories from victims avoid what he calls "leading or suggestive" questions. He seeks simply to enable the child to share the truth about his (about 40 percent of victims are boys) or her experiences.

Finkel, who often takes histories from youngsters in the institute's care, notes that while physical trauma may occur (medical treatment is provided at Cooper University Hospital), the child's account is often the only evidence that sexual abuse has taken place.

Deblinger helped develop an increasingly widespread therapeutic approach called Trauma-Focused Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. Its goal is to free victims from self-destructive beliefs - including that they're "bad."

It's no wonder they're confused, given what they've been through.

The details of many cases are excruciating to hear, but the team at CARES can handle the ugliness.

The last thing a victim needs, Finkel notes, is to realize the doctor is upset by what he or she discloses.

Besides, says Deblinger, "we're lucky. We get to see kids get better."


Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or kriordan@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the Metro columnists' blog, "Blinq," at www.phillynews.com/blinq.

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