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Task force on violence against children begins work in Baltimore

Abusive BehaviorSexual AssaultJustice SystemJoe TorreEric Holder

The famous baseball manager was a scared kid once. When he came home from school and saw his father's car parked out front, he often fled to the relative safety of a friend's house.

"There is no worse emotion than fear," said Joe Torre, who managed the New York Yankees to four world championships. "I was never physically abused, but the fear my dad brought to our house in abusing my mom was very personal, very real."

Torre talked about the far-ranging impact of that fear on Tuesday as he co-chaired the first meeting of a task force appointed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder to examine violence affecting children. Torre and 12 fellow panelists spent the day at the University of Maryland, Baltimore listening to testimony from abuse victims, community activists and scholars. Holder has asked the task force to produce a report next year with policy recommendations for improving the nation's response to the issue.

"We are launching a new chapter in the work of protecting our young people from violence and harm," Holder said as he kicked off the hearing, "and ensuring that, in this country, every child has a safe place to live, to learn and to grow."

The task force began its work as allegations of sexual abuse by a former Penn State football coach are making national headlines. Though that scandal did not prompt the initiative, panel members said the case highlights the need for a national reckoning with violence against children.

"It's important that we all pause and learn as much as we can about the patterns of abuse in the Penn State case," said Robert Listenbee, a Philadelphia trial lawyer who is co-chairman of the task force. "We need to turn those lessons into ways forward."

Torre spoke of his reluctance to discuss the abuse in his childhood home until he was much older. "I was embarrassed," he said. "But kids need to know that violence isn't a secret they need to keep."

Topics at the hearing ranged from gang violence to sexual abuse to witnessing spousal battery. No matter the source of violence, speakers said, children frequently feel that no one can help them.

Sonja Sohn, an actress from "The Wire" and founder of a Baltimore-based program for at-risk youth, spoke of witnessing abuse in her childhood and turning to drugs for years to dull her pain. She said she sees the same loss of hope in the kids who come to her ReWired for Change program.

"The effects of the violence they live with just add up in layers," Sohn told the panel.

Children affected by violence need to hear from adults who have survived similar travails, she said. "It helps them to open up."

Another Baltimore woman, Jacquelynn Kuhn, recalled how a neighbor began abusing her when she was 5 years old. She said she kept silent through two years of abuse, even though her father was a Michigan state trooper. Through tears, Kuhn said she struggles to build lasting friendships to this day.

A task force member asked Kuhn, who works with the Baltimore Child Abuse Center, what might have helped her to speak out as a child.

"I think parents labor under the delusion that schools are teaching children what is an appropriate touch," Kuhn said. I think schools are laboring under the delusion that parents do it. This is a message that needs to be constantly reinforced for a child."

Listenbee said one of his goals is to make victims aware of clear paths to help. "People need to know directly where to turn," he said. "That should be common knowledge."

The task force plans to hold three more hearings in Albuquerque, Miami and Detroit, and to make policy recommendations next year.

"The attorney general is very committed to this," Listenbee said. "His presence here is a strong indication that he will take our input very seriously."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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