Good development — child-centered

New Philly facility helps victims of child abuse

By Helen Ubinas, Daily News Columnist

POSTED: September 03, 2013

ANTHONY SMITH was 7 when he was lured from his bike and sexually assaulted.

Nearly every day after school, he and his best buddy would finish their homework and chores and then ride their bikes around their South Philadelphia neighborhood until it got dark.

But one day, Smith finished his work early and went to the nearby gas station alone to work on his bike so that he’d be ready to ride when his friend was done.

He was just a few blocks from home, on 25th and Ellsworth streets, when a man he didn’t know seemed to appear out of nowhere. The man, his clothes stained with engine grease, started chatting him up. “You can ride your bike good,” Smith recalls the man saying. “Bet you can’t ride it over here. No way you can ride it over here.” They wound up in a secluded spot in the back of a tractor-trailer.

“He told me that if I did what he asked, he wouldn’t hurt me,” Smith said. As to what happened next, Anthony doesn’t talk about the actual abuse.

“He helped me get dressed and walked away, and I never saw him again.”

Smith, now 48, vowed that he would take the secret to his grave, and when he spiraled into drugs and alcohol to numb his pain, he almost got there.

“I was afraid of breaking my mother’s heart,” he said.

Because Smith was assaulted by a stranger, he isn’t a typical victim of abuse – usually children know their abusers, and are abused over an extended period of time. But the silence Smith kept is very typical.

So is the shame and fear that keep many victims from speaking out. Chris Kirchner, executive director of the Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, said that when Smith was assaulted in 1972, children were often questioned at a police station or at home, sometimes in the very home where the abuser lived. Even as awareness and intervention improved, she said, children were often forced to relive the trauma as they were questioned by multiple agencies in multiple settings over several days.

But not anymore, not in Philadelphia. As of last week, all the city agencies that deal with the 1,600 reports of child sexual abuse each year will be located under one roof. That includes the nonprofit Philadelphia Children’s Alliance, the Police Department’s Special Victims Unit, the Department of Human Services and the District Attorney’s Office.

From the outside, the new Philadelphia Safety Collaborative on Hunting Park Avenue looks like any other government building. But inside, it has been carefully laid out to coordinate investigations, provide forensic interviews, and offer medical and mental-health services for victims and their families. Now, when a victim and caregiver are in one of the facility’s several interview rooms, they just have to walk down the hall for a medical exam or to set up an appointment with a therapist.

“When you have the number of people who have to talk to children who have been abused and who are mandated to investigate, combined with the number of reports in a city like Philadelphia, trying to affect collaboration without being co-located” – in the same place – “was almost like pushing a rock uphill,” Kirchner said. “This changes all of that.”

Smith, who works for the Gift of Life Donor Program, finally broke his silence when his secret began to affect his family relationships. He first told his older sister, who cried and said it explained so much about his isolation. He went to therapy, and quit drinking and taking drugs. And then last October, after a screening of a movie about men surviving childhood sexual abuse, Smith did what was once unthinkable. He shared his story publicly. He’s been sharing his story as often as he can ever since.

“I want people to know that there is a way out of the darkness, that they can regain their power through their voice.”



Phone: 215-854-5943

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