The Child Protection Center/Special Unit at Children's Hospital was created in 1978 to provide 24-hour treatment services to sexually abused children and their families.

It has become a national model and received an exemplary project award in June from the Justice Department's Law Enforcement Assistance Administration (LEAA).

The program accepts children from the District as well as from nearby suburbs.

A staff of nine persons, including nurses, social workers, psychologists and an attorney, handles about 300 cases each year. National estimates suggest that some 100,000 children are sexually abused a year.

The majority of victims seen at the sex abuse unit in 1978-79, 72 percent, were girls between 6 and 12 years of age. Most often they were molested by a parent, a family friend or a relative.

Joyce Thomas, director of the unit, said she believes sex abuse is much more common than realized, but that many cases are never reported.

Thomas said a child suspected of being sexually mistreated should be brought to Children's Hospital, and the police should be notified. The child then will be examined by a doctor for physical damage and venereal disease. A member of Thomas' staff is always on call to provide immediate counseling for the family -- usually parents are the most upset at first. "We act as a clearinghouse," a buffer between doctors, social workers, the police and the courts, she said.

Experts in this field agree that incest cases are the most difficult because the emotional relationships between the individuals are so complicated. Sometimes protective service workers will remove an abused child from the home or send the offending parent away until the problems are resolved.

Although the mission of the special unit is to treat children, Thomas said, "we spend a lot of time diffusing anger," and helping parents understand how the abuse is affecting their child.

Abused children may become withdrawn, frightened and confused, explained Regina Berg, a social worker with the program. Often, abused children internalize the negative attitudes of their parents and are burdened with a sense of guilt about being involved in sexual activities. In extreme cases, these bad feelings can lead to use of alcohol or drugs or even suicide attempts, Berg said.

Therapy involves many hours of talking with the children. Those who have a hard time expressing themselves are encouraged to draw pictures about how they feel.

The special unit began as a demonstration project funded for three years by LEAA, which has been phased out by the federal government. The program now costs about $220,000 a year, funded by the hospital and a combination of small private grants. In fiscal 1982, some funds will be provided by the District's Department of Human Services and the police department, according to Carl Rogers, assistant director of the sex abuse unit.

Continuation of the three-year grant from the National Center on Child Abuse and Neglect (NCCAN) for the pilot program to treat adolescent offenders could be lost if legislation pending before Congress does away with that organization. "It's absurd," grumbled Rogers, noting that all the money ever spent on NCCAN would pay for the construction of only two F-1 fighter planes. --