A Little Girl and Flawed System Spark Physician’s Child Advocacy Efforts

A Little Girl and Flawed System Spark Physician’s Child Advocacy Efforts

“I will never forget that child,” said Gilbert Handal, M.D., Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso professor and Martha Cuellar Chair for Child Advocacy, reflecting on the first case of child sexual abuse he encountered as a medical student almost 50 years ago.  “The little girl was seven years old and came in for Rheumatic Fever.  I needed to examine her hips and she refused.”  He continued, “On a follow-up visit, she allowed the examination to take place and I found that her hymen was gone. She had been sexually abused by her father, and her mother had looked away.”

“The father (the sole breadwinner) was immediately jailed,” said Dr. Handal.  “The little girl and her family were left economically and emotionally impoverished.”  Today, Dr. Handal says the case was handled inappropriately – with little concern for the child or her family unit.  “She hated me and the system.  I felt guilty for trying to help the family and wondered if I could have done something differently.”

The experience stirred Dr. Handal to do more. “When I came to El Paso in 1975, we had 500 cases of child sexual abuse in 10 years,” said Dr. Handal. “During the ‘60s, there was not much discussion about child sexual abuse, but the discussion progressed during the ‘70s and ‘80s.” In 1995, Dr. Handal, Harry Wilson, M.D., TTUHSC El Paso associate professor and toxicologist; Jaime Esparza, El Paso County district attorney; Elias Armendariz, now El Paso Children’s Hospital Chief Operating Officer; and other passionate child advocates, began establishing the Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso. “Dr. Handal and other founding board members worked together to ensure that El Paso county’s sexually abused children received a multi-disciplinary team approach to child abuse investigations, which included healing services being readily available to them,” said Susan H. Oliva, executive director of the Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso. “We are very grateful for such dedicated service to help child victims.”

Today, Dr. Handal is president-elect of the nationally accredited Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso. The mission of the center is to advocate for child victims of abuse and neglect in the El Paso area by providing education and a collaborative, comprehensive and efficient intervention process to seek justice and to maximize each child’s chance for healing. “With community support, this mission can be accomplished in a child-and-family-sensitive environment and with the support of legal, law enforcement, child protective and health care resources,” according to their website at http://advocacycenterep.org.

“Through this type of approach,” said Dr. Handal, “the little girl’s father would have gone to rehab and she and her family would have received counseling before losing everything. Considering that 3 – 30% of girls are currently being abused, this resource is vital.”

Dr. Handal stressed “The shame associated with abuse has tremendous repercussions on the young psyche.” He encourages parents to teach their children about “good touch and bad touch” and to tell them “You’re body belongs to you alone.” And most importantly, Dr. Handal said, “Tell your children not to be afraid to speak up if they have been touched inappropriately. That way, the healing process can begin.”