Susan Keller was putting dishes away last month when her children, Theresa and Clinton, raced through the house, laughing hysterically.

For a moment, she froze.It's not a sound she has heard often in the past seven years, since her children were sexually abused by a baby sitter.

As the sun sparkling on snow-covered ground reminds people in winter that springtime will come, the laughter seems to her a harbinger of healing. Someday, abuse and its aftermath will not dominate their lives.

Nothing will change the past. But the family's fight to grow strong together, the assistance of professional therapists to help them accept what has happened and overcome it, the strength of the love that has bound this quartet together throughout the ordeal, will let them get past it.

And if they can't rewrite their personal histories, John and Susan Keller hope their experiences will help someone else.

"We did everything wrong," Susan says. "We didn't know anything about child abuse. We didn't know where to get help or how to face this. We had to learn from scratch, and we didn't do it very well at first."

They have advice for others who might wake up in a similar nightmare.

"If I were advising someone, first I'd say don't make the mistake we did. Believe your child and act immediately - regardless of who (the abuser) is. Even if you don't want to believe it, make sure. Mark (the baby sitter) would have been convicted if we had responded immediately. Who knows what he's doing now, but I'll bet it's nothing good."

A child who says he or she has been abused should be examined by a doctor immediately. If the accused molester is a family member, Human Services should be contacted, Susan says. Otherwise, call the police. Either one will know where the child should be taken for an examination.

"The reason the creeps get away with it is the public is so dumb. We didn't know what to do. People don't realize anyone could sexually abuse children. It can be a doctor, a police officer, a father, mother, uncle, aunt, neighbor. This doesn't discriminate based on gender or anything. People ask us why we had a male baby sitter. Being male didn't do it. A girl could have. And they might have been safe with another boy. Just don't assume because you have a female baby sitter a child is safe," she said.

"I would give anything if I did not have this knowledge."

Susan thought the teenage boy's mother needed to know when the allegation first arose. That's just one more regret, she says. "Don't ever confront the perpetrator. Let the police handle it."

"Prosecute," they chorus. "Whatever you do, prosecute." If nothing else, maybe the abuser will get therapy and break his own pattern.

John cautions parents against being so cautious that they stunt their children's emotional growth. He knows that he and Susan did precisely that to Clinton and Theresa by preventing them from doing normal kid things. "My children are definitely younger than others their age. Their maturity age is far under."

And John, the man who would not accept counseling and thought he could overcome the emotional turmoil himself, has become something of an evangelist for therapy.

"Counseling is the main thing. You have to be able to get it out in the open and talk about it. Find out what to do about it and then do it. If you don't - well, with me it just festered. The statement that time heals all wounds is totally false. Time just made it worse for me. Things got so far out of control I didn't know what to do."

Like all parents, they have dreams for their children. John hopes that in five years Clinton and Theresa will both be in college. Perhaps Clinton will eventually serve his church. John doesn't want to see either child married until they're at least 23. He wants them to have normal, healthy relationships.

That's still a big worry. Clinton has to fight his tendency to be aggressive. "He has the idea that if people hit him, it means that they like him. He thinks affection includes abuse. I think, I hope, that it will level off."

Theresa needs more time. She's still angry and striking out, particularly since she started remembering and dealing with the details of the sexual attacks, which she had buried. Right now, she's reliving things over and over.

Clinton, on the other hand, still hasn't dredged up - or at least talked about - many specifics.

Theresa has shown great interest in working with people who have disabilities. She's had the opportunity through classes in high school. When she talks about feeding a severely disabled 19-year-old, her voice and face grow tender. "That's what I want to do," she says.

Clinton has long dreamed of being a policeman. But he wonders if he could handle it appropriately were he to answer a call where a child had been abused.

He wonders a lot of things about the future, and he's starting to think maybe he'd like to be a counselor, like the Intermountain Specialised Abuse Treatment Center's Brent Wainwright, who is "pretty cool." For one thing, he says, he'd know what it was like to go through it.

He'd care and maybe he could help.

They all know that complete healing will take a lot of time. But they're willing to invest it. Together.



How to get help

Parents or friends who believe a child has been abused can get assistance from a number of sources. Among them:

The regional office of the Division of Family Service, 487-9811.

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Utah Chapter, National Committee to Prevent Child Abuse, 532-3404.

State Department of Family Services, 538-4100.

Primary Children's Medical Center Child-Abuse Prevention Team: 588-3662.

Or call your local police department or Division of Family Services office.

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