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UTAH CAN LEARN FROM FLORIDA CASE

They were not naive or stupid people. They were prosecutors, police officers, teachers, successful businessmen.

They were also completely unprepared when their worlds fell apart. They learned that their children had been systematically sexually abused and sometimes drugged during day care.It happened in Florida at the Country Walk Day Care Center. When it was over, the day-care operator and her husband both went to prison. For the first time in American history, prosecutors secured a conviction in a mass child sexual abuse case.

Last week, Utah prosecutors, judges, social workers, officials, doctors and others gathered in Salt Lake City to learn how that conviction was made. The answer was simple, although the process was time-consuming and complex: Teamwork.

Drs. Joseph and Laurie Braga, the child psychologists who conducted the interviews for the case, shared their experiences in documenting the investigation, which hinged on the testimony of children 2, 3 and 4 years old who had been intimidated and injured by the adults they had to face down in court.

I get a lot of phone calls about child abuse. They run the gamut from "I can't get Human Services to do anything about my grandchild, who is being abused," to "My kids have been taken away and I didn't do anything wrong."

I can offer very little comfort to these callers. I am not a social worker. I have no influence on the court system. And I can't rush into print with a one-sided story that has a built-in vested interest. I wouldn't even know how to find the truth in such a case.

That doesn't keep me from feeling bad. It's no fun to hear about lives ripped apart by adults who prey on kids. On the other hand, I'm sure there are times when, in a rush to protect children, adults are tromped on as well. I can only believe - and pray - that justice usually prevails.

I saw a lot of hope for all the families involved in a child abuse case in that gathering of professionals. The Bragas were quick to point out they do not go into a case from one side only. They have helped prosecutors and they have helped defendants. They have searched for truth while keeping their minds and their hearts fixed firmly on one goal, protecting children whenever they can.

Learning strategies to work together effectively can only strengthen the entire process of dealing with suspected child abuse, from the initial investigation through the court system, if it proceeds that far.

Utah took a major step in making the process easier on the child and more cooperative among agencies when it established Children's Justice Centers in three cities. And people have been cooperating, to varying degrees, for years. But developing new strategies and getting suggestions from experts who were pioneers can only help.

The multidisciplinary approach will increase the odds of achieving just results for possible victims and for those who are accused.

- In other child news, "The Kids Count Data Book" contains mixed news for Utahns. We are No. 3 in the nation in child well-being, based on nine indicators. We dropped from second place last year and are doing worse in most categories.

If we're ranked high despite worsening conditions, America is losing ground badly in caring for its children. More children live in poverty, lack health insurance and live outside of their homes. Single-parent families are burgeoning.

The teen death rate is up. More teenagers are having babies. Growing numbers of juveniles 10-15 find themselves in custody.

If the trend continues, America won't be a very happy place for kids in the year 2000.

- Troubled families are getting a lot of attention locally and nationally. Wednesday, Bill Moyers examines family preservation efforts with "Families First" at 7 p.m. on Ch. 7.

I screened the documentary, which focuses on families in Michigan, Missouri and Kentucky. In each case, a social worker with a very small caseload works closely with a family that is in deep trouble. If family preservation doesn't work, the family unit will be torn apart.

It's an interesting study that should have a lot of interest locally. Utah has a strong but small family preservation program. Parents learn parenting skills such as how to discipline a child without hurting him and how to set limits. Children learn to take responsibility for their own behavior and appropriate ways to deal with situations and feelings.

Hopefully, they all learn to work together as a family. In doing so, they straighten out their lives and reduce the burden on the foster care system.

When it works, everyone wins.