MID-CITY – Local dignitaries gathered at a plot of land near the UCLA Medical Center, Santa Monica campus on May 2 to break ground for a new, larger center for children who have been sexually abused.

Stuart House opened 25 years ago as an arm of UCLA’s Rape Treatment Center. It brings police officers, prosecutors, and child services together in one child-friendly place so that the victim doesn’t have to be further traumatized by the system.

“Once the child told someone about the abuse or the abuse was discovered,” Gail Abarbanel, the center’s founder and director explained, “the child would be taken to as many as six different agencies in separate locations … and at each place the child would be interviewed by another stranger, sometimes as many as 10 people.”

The groups didn’t collaborate or take into account that courtrooms and police departments are scary for kids.

Stuart House formed to remedy all of this, she said. It has a dedicated emergency room, state-of-the-art forensic services, and therapy programs for the children.

But the house is too small. It hasn’t been able to accommodate all of the need.

Between 10 a.m. on Wednesday and 10 a.m. on Thursday, five children were brought to the house for emergency care, Abarbanel said. A teacher sexually abused one 5-year-old. A 12-year-old was sexually assaulted by her father. One 14-year-old was abused by a neighbor, another by a stranger, and a third by boys at school.

“We want to be there for all of them,” she said.

The new, larger building will double the capacity of Stuart House.

UCLA provided the land and the Rape Foundation has been raising the funds for the new building and expanded operations. The fundraising goal is within reach but is still a ways from completion, Abarbanel said.

Architect Marc Appleton and the firm Gensler will design the $17 million building.

Los Angeles Police Department Chief Charlie Beck was on-hand for the 15th Street groundbreaking event and spoke to the crowd of hundreds. Police and fire officials from several local departments, including Santa Monica, were also present. City Manager Rod Gould and out-going Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky were in the audience.

Beck said he’s seen “literally thousands” of victims of sexual abuse in his career.

“Invariably you show up on the scene in the worst moment of their lives and the hope coming out of the despair when they look at you is palpable,” he said. “You come in as a knight in shining armor so to speak, and you see that in their eyes. That’s the good part. The sad part is that you know that it’s not true. You know that the hope that you’re going to fix this somehow is false.”

Because of the Stuart House, Beck said, LAPD is more successful at catching and prosecuting child-abusers.

“But no matter how successful we are at what we do, it doesn’t fix the tragedy,” Beck said. “It doesn’t restore the sensitive matter. It doesn’t restore the soul of the victim. That’s what the Stuart House does.”

Actress Viola Davis and philanthropist Cheryl Saban, co-chairs of the Rape Foundation’s fundraising campaign, spoke about their experiences with abuse. Many in the audience were visibly tearfully, particularly during Davis’ speech.

“You see the presence of God in the Stuart House, in the people who reach into their pockets and put money in, and the forensics specialists, and the police officers, and the people who really, really care – who’s hearts have been moved,” she said. “Because let me tell you something, when you’re a child and you’re floating around in the world and you face the atrocity of the atrocity of abuse and being victimized, that aloneness that you feel is like a death.”

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