Restoring Trust in the Judicial System

It’s been a long while since I have posted a blog; although ideas regularly come to mind to discuss on this platform. Blogging took a back seat to full-time work in ministry, graduate school, counseling internship, and Mardi Gras season. I began writing this post with an hour and a half left of carnival and it has taken me 3 weeks to complete it. This is a post that is really special to me because it’s about building trust with the judicial system.

In a previous post, I mentioned an article that was published by the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys in which my victim impact statement is featured and a local Assistant District Attorney shared how our meeting influenced him. While I knew my statement would be published, I did not know the ADA would contribute as well. It was when I read his words that I finally felt like I could trust my case would be handled with care, commitment, and grit.

March 8, 2017 marked 11 years since I sat in the court room, watching and listening, as my abuser plead no contest to a deal I quickly regretted. For years following the plea, I felt like the justice system failed me. I could not comprehend that the case was actually classified as a win, when my abuser would only sit in jail for 48 hours. My trust was further broken when I inquired about the status of my abuser’s registration as a sex offender. I was informed that it would be my responsibility to check back in with the court regularly to find out if my abuser had filed the paperwork to petition for removal from the registry.

That last statement made me feel like there was no purpose in healing any further. All I could think about was the fact that for the rest of my life I would have to call the court-house every single week and relive the trauma just to find out if my abuser was working towards getting off the registry. I felt like the people who are supposed to protect the public were letting me down again.

However, things changed when I met Assistant District Attorney Robert Roupe. I scheduled a meeting in December 2015 with him, a few months prior to the date my abuser would be eligible to file a petition. ADA Roupe took time out of his busy schedule to sit down with me. He was not in the specific office when my abuser was prosecuted so he acquainted himself with the case. He asked me questions to better understand what the impacts of the abuse were for me from the time I was a child to the present moment as I sat across the table from him. He asked me how I would like things handled and provided me with options. He explained why the plea bargain was considered a win in the context of my case. Most importantly, he promised to notify me if and when my abuser’s petition reaches his desk. The moment that he took what I dreaded and stressed about the most, having to call the court-house each week, off my plate, I began to see that there was room for me to trust the judicial system again.

I would love to say that I immediately placed all my trust in the DA’s office as soon as I walked through the doors that December afternoon, but abuse significantly interferes with the ability to trust. It took a few months of checking in periodically and ADA Roupe assuring me over and over that he would notify me if the papers crossed his desk, before I started to notice that I had not fretted over the petition for weeks and then months. Then, in December 2016, I met with the Child Abuse Resource Prosecutor for the North Carolina Conference of District Attorneys to discuss potential legislation changes regarding the registry. She provided a copy of the article below. When I read ADA Roupe’s words and how committed he is to providing me the opportunity for my voice to be heard at a petition hearing, I realized that I can trust the judicial system and they will stand up for me and fight for me with all their might. I don’t have to spend the remaining weeks of my life working up the courage to call the court house again. And I know that if I ever have to face my abuser in court again, I will have a strong team standing with me.

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PS: there are a few minor discrepancies of the dates, but nothing significant.

Connecting the Dots

             As I have been preparing my speech for the Gala, I have reflected on different chapters of my life. I remember as a young girl I would sometimes get activity books with connect the dots and color by number pages. There were many times I would draw lines between the wrong numbered dots which would sometimes significantly alter the intended image. I was quite a perfectionist, so usually a “missed connection” would result in me wadding the page up and moving on to another activity.

             When I was a young girl, my understanding of the abuse that was happening to me was much like that of my connect the dots activity sheet. There were some segments that simply were not connecting. Honestly, I am still somewhat perplexed that I sat through health education classes that detailed abuse and the types of actions that constituted this somewhat ambiguous topic. I could pass tests at the end of the chapter requiring a detailed definition of abuse. I wish I had an explanation that would satisfy my mind, but I don’t yet. Unfortunately, I know this is a very frequent occurrence- a person knowing what abuse is but not being able to connect the dots in his/her own life.

             Maybe the dots were not connecting because my abuser had warped my mind to near oblivion about the wrongness of his actions. Maybe the dots really were connected but out of necessity for survival, I refused to look at the image created. I know many other factors that played into my delayed disclosure. I no longer feel guilt or anger with myself for not disclosing sooner because I know I was a terrified little girl just trying to survive.

             My heart just aches knowing that there are so many girls and boys each day that have not been able to disclose to someone the abuse they are enduring. I have been spending more time trying to think about ways we can empower others to speak. Here are my thoughts:

             First, we must ensure action will be taken and that someone will hear and believe the child. This is something we can all do. Believe.

             The second thing we can do is to empower children with a detailed lesson on abuse. For me, the standard definition and examples used in books didn’t work. Be willing to take it a step further and have conversations about abuse. Acknowledge the discomfort and fear a person may experience when talking about abuse. Invite a guest speaker or someone from law enforcement that specializes in forensic interviews or investigations to talk if it is a group setting. Discuss the types of threats an abuser may use to maintain control of the victim. The mental impacts of sexual abuse can be more crippling at times than the actual crime committed.

             Third, provide opportunities for disclosure. When I disclosed the final time, a teacher made herself available for me to talk to her during her planning period. Normalize the fear the child will probably experience when thinking about disclosing and reassure the child that you will believe them.

             Last, know the actions you may be mandated to take following a disclosure. Visit my previous post on disclosure here to learn how important your response is for the child.

             Evil exists in this world and I do not know that sexual abuse will ever cease to exist. But that does not mean the fight is a complete loss like my wadded up activity sheets. Instead, it means the fight against abuse is even more needed. I know that if we all take a bold stand against abuse by talking about it more, educating our children, and creating environments where disclosure can happen and be met with belief and action, then maybe there will be one less child impacted by abuse.

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Be someone she can tell the nightmare she endures. Be someone that will stand up and fight for her, every single day.

The Second Hand Keeps Ticking

I can’t believe today is the last day of 2016. This year has challenged me, strengthened me, molded me, and made me more brave.

A little over a year ago, in December 2015, I sat in my local District Attorney’s office at the court house in the center of town. I anxiously watched the second hand move slightly with each tick as I waited for the ADA to call me back. As I reflect on this year, this particular meeting served as a launching point for some of the pivotal events of this past year for me. The meeting led to the creation and publication of my blog, which is now on the verge of 4,000 views. The meeting led to further research of laws governing the sex offender registry and allowed for contact to be made with a NC Senator. The conversation with the Senator placed me in contact with the North Carolina Conference District Attorneys. Nearly a year after my meeting with the local ADA in December 2015, I sat in another waiting room watching the second hand continue ticking. This time I waited for my appointment with the Child Abuse Resource Prosecutor at the NC Conference of District Attorneys office. It was somewhat surreal to meet and discuss further legislative efforts to better serve victims of child sexual abuse, not just through the court proceedings but in the years after when offenders reach the date of being able to petition for removal from the registry. During this meeting, I was given a copy of the publication in which my impact statement was featured. I was overwhelmed with emotion to see not just my statement, but line after line of words contributed by the local ADA I met with a year ago as he detailed the impact of our meeting. I hope to be able to share the publication soon, so stay tuned. I thank God for preparing me, strengthening me, and giving me the courage to sit in that office a year ago, bravely waiting for my name to be called as the seconds kept ticking.

Making my blog public earlier this year was a frightening choice, but I knew in my heart it was the next step God was calling me to take. Clicking publish has opened the door for me to educate others about laws governing the sex offender registry and the impacts of abuse that are not always discussed. It has given me the opportunity to be a safe person for people to share their story. Clicking publish has resulted in being given the honor of speaking at Triad Ladder of Hope’s 3rd Annual Gala Fundraiser on January 28, 2017. If you live in the area, I hope you will pray about attending or supporting this amazing organization. You can find out more information about the event here.

I am incredibly excited for what 2017 may hold. The blog will continue. The fight for strengthened legislation will continue. Thriving and braving this world will continue.

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Braving the Holidays

Traveling home for the holidays always fills me with excitement as I look forward to spending time with my family and friends that I do not get to see often. There are so many wonderful memories that outweigh the difficult ones. However, if I’m honest, the excitement of returning home intersects with a fear of the reminders of my past. Traveling home for the holidays can be difficult for anyone, for a person with a trauma history- it can become even more complicated.

Navigating the excitement and fear can create an inner chaos that is tough to put into words. Emotions can range from pure happiness of being surrounded by those you love to profound sadness or anger when you see a place that reminds you of trauma. It can feel like a rollercoaster that does not stop. This week, I traveled 15 hours to my home state. I have been piecing together this post for some time now. It was not until I passed a restaurant that used to be a Western Sizzlin’ that the pieces of this post felt like they connected.

As I drove past the restaurant, my thoughts immediately went to the many times I rode in the “big truck” to this restaurant on Friday nights with my family, which included my abuser. However, as I continued driving I remembered a hilarious moment inside that restaurant and I was able to smile. I feel like the story deserves sharing because even in the midst of ongoing abuse- there were many “happy” moments in my childhood.

So, I was probably 9 or 10 when we stopped at the Western Sizzlin’ to eat before we went to the port to pick up the next shipment. After eating my dinner, I filled a bowl with Cool-Whip to eat as my dessert. Nothing else- just Cool-Whip. As soon as I put a large spoonful of it in my mouth, I knew something was wrong. I remember saying “I think something’s wrong with this Cool-Whip.” Initially, we thought maybe it had spoiled or something. Upon closer inspection, I was asked where I got the Cool-Whip from. I innocently pointed to the hot bar for potato fixings. Apparently, I was so excited for the Cool-Whip that as soon as I saw what resembled Cool-Whip I rapidly fixed my bowl without taking into consideration I was not at the dessert bar. I had indeed mistaken sour cream for cool-whip.

I share this story because when it came to mind I realized that the triggers and reminders from my abuse as a child no longer hold the power they once held over my life. I will not say they are gone because I don’t think I will ever be able to travel around my hometown without the nagging thought that there is a possibility I could run into my abuser. Today, I feel much more apt to handle that situation in a healthy manner if I face it. I am thankful the physiological responses to these triggers are no longer paralyzing as they were for many years. I contribute this part of my healing journey wholly to my faith in Christ and my time spent in counseling as a teenager. 

If you are currently in the process of battling triggers as a result of trauma, I hope that you will trust and know that you can overcome them. It is not an easy process and it certainly does not happen overnight. But hold on to the hope that one day, you will be able to pass by that restaurant or see that person that resembles your abuser or that vehicle that looks like the one they drove, and you will not experience the heart-stopping fear that you may feel now. One day, you may even be able to recall a positive experience and smile. aircraft-1362586

12 November 10ths

Today marks 12 years of physical freedom from my abuser. It is a day that I never thought would occur and at some points during my healing journey I wished it never did occur. But today, I am so thankful that on November 10, 2004 I did not have to return to the same home as my abuser.

On this day 12 years ago, I got up like usual and headed to school, excited because it was an early release day. As I walked down the hallway after being called to the main office, I questioned every possible reason I was excused from class. While I knew I had disclosed the abuse at school in the days, or weeks, prior (my timeline is fuzzy), on this day it didn’t cross my mind that another social worker would be waiting for me. When I walked through the front office door, my heart sank. I immediately recognized the first social worker I had talked to standing next to my guidance counselor. A man I did not recognize was waiting to interview me in the office. I learned he was a social worker from another county due to a conflict of interest in the county I lived. I quickly realized this was going to be the day that my abuser would potentially kill me. Ironically, this male social worker I now had to share my “secrets” with, shared a name with my abuser. I’m not sure how long I was in that office, but it felt like forever. I shared some things with him, but not everything. And was eventually allowed to return to class.

As the school day came to a close, my fears of leaving the safety of my school walls resulted in tears falling uncontrollably. I was going to have to go home and inform my family that I told the secret. There were many events that occurred on this day, but my purpose in this post is not to delve into them.

My purpose in this post is to expose the reality that just because physical freedom from an abuser occurs, it is not always a joyous event that we would imagine it to be. It is an extremely hard day. While yes, I look back on that day now and have so much gratitude that I was safely removed from my abuser’s access, I also remember the losses I experienced and the grieving process it involved. The next few days were filled with chaos, confusion, and uncertainty. It was not until years down the road that I was able to function healthily on November 10.

For years November 10 brought with it a rush of memories and emotions that significantly impacted my entire day or week. I can remember one year particularly well because I sat in the social worker’s office at my school and cried over the few tangible possessions I had from my “old life.” Thankfully, healing can happen if you are willing to take the hard steps and work through the trauma.

I finally reached the day that November 10 was just another day in my book of life. After working with an awesome counselor and making my support system stronger, I was able to face November 10 and see the progress I had made. That was when I finally felt free. I reclaimed November 10 as my day, and not one that turned my world upside down.

Today, it has been 12 years since a fearful 13 year old girl went into an office and told a strange man the shame filled abuse she had experienced. 12 years later, that same voice is speaking.

My hope today is that anyone that has experienced abuse in the past or is currently experiencing abuse, will find the strength to use their voice to tell someone they trust what has happened or is happening. Fight through the fear, anger, sadness, shame, and guilt and speak until you are believed.

To anyone that is still persevering through the healing process, keep going and do not give up. Even on the hardest of days, there is hope. That freedom you are longing for will be attained.

To anyone that suspects someone is being abused, speak up! Too many people simply can’t speak yet. Ask questions. Educate others. And report abuse.

We all have a role in this continued fight against childhood sexual abuse and it will take each one of us doing our part to make a difference.

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This photo was taken in November 1999, not long after my voice was silenced. Today, I speak for her.

 

 

Your Response. It matters.

Sexual abuse is not a single-victim crime. It impacts families and communities worldwide. Most people know someone who has experienced sexual abuse. How will you respond when you learn someone you love and care for has been hurt so deeply by this heinous crime? In the years following my disclosure and people learning about my experiences, the reactions have varied across the spectrum from outright rage to assuming I was lying. Each response impacted me- some were extremely comforting and healing, while others caused added distress in my life (unintentionally and intentionally). I hope that through sharing my encounters more people will be aware of how important their responses are to learning of abuse. In this post, I am going to discuss the reaction of wanting to inflict significant injury to an abuser.

 In the days following social services’ intervention and the separation from my abuser, some of the people closest to my family, including extended family, were informed about what had happened. Anger, rage, and the desire to hurt my abuser were very frequent and common reactions. These emotions are absolutely justified and warranted. They are normal reactions and it is okay to experience and express these emotions (not actions)- just not to the person who experienced the abuse. (Just a reminder that these are clearly my opinions and do not apply to everyone). I found myself pleading with people not to “kill” my abuser for what he did. Thus, I experienced further emotional turmoil because I found myself “protecting” my abuser, but also feeling thankful that someone did want to make him pay for what he did to me. I recall thinking “if you kill him, then I’m going to lose you too!” What I could not articulate at the time is the fact that even if someone had inflicted pain on my abuser, it would not have changed what he did to me or erased the impacts of being abused. I was going to have to work through those things despite the condition of my abuser. So, for someone to go and cause him pain, it would only have further negative impacts on me.

“What I could not articulate at the time is the fact that even if someone had inflicted pain on my abuser, it would not have changed what he did to me or erased the impacts of being abused.”

 I do not want to discourage people from expressing their understandable and normal emotions of fury, anger, and rage after learning someone you love has been abused; however, it is more beneficial to the person you love if you can find healthy ways of coping with those emotions. It is also best to avoid expressing these emotions directly to the victim and rather than worrying about the abuser, turn your focus to the needs of the people impacted by the crimes. What are some healthy coping mechanisms to consider when you learn someone you love has been abused and you become consumed with anger?

·       Find a trusted person to talk with about your emotions and reactions

·       Exercise to release some of the intense feelings of anger

·       Focus on the person who was abused and seek to bring them comfort

·       Pray for the strength to not act on your emotions

·       Find a way to turn that anger into pro-active action such as raising awareness about childhood sexual abuse, fighting for stricter penalties for child abusers, etc.

·       Journal – write a letter to the abuser to express the anger you feel, then shred it (probably not a good idea to mail it)

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 Due to the staggering statistics regarding childhood sexual abuse, it is unfortunately likely that at some point in your life you will have to choose how you will reach in this situation. What are your thoughts?

A Letter to my Abuser

So, I just finished writing this letter and I am still in somewhat of a shock that these words came from my heart. They literally just poured out of me. The first line was probably the most difficult. How do you address the person who abused you for years? I figured out what works for me. Here it goes…

October 19, 2016

To the man who stole my innocence.

Years ago I wrote you a letter. I never mailed it, thankfully. Although, it may have been good for you to read it. It was filled with hate and pain- a disastrous combination. I was at my lowest point of despair. I wanted you to witness how my life was ruined because of you. I do not regret writing that letter. It felt amazing to throw all the overwhelming emotions on paper… temporarily. I quickly learned that my hate and utter disdain for you did not change a single event that occurred in the past, it had no impact on you, and it was preventing me from living. I was existing, but I was not living.

With the help of a phenomenal counselor, I discovered how to live again. Slowly, those feelings of hatred faded. I learned that my life was not ruined, despite the really horrible things I endured. I made the decision to take back control of my life- my emotions, my thoughts, and my behaviors. Then, I chose to place my life, my trust, and my faith in the hands of my Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. It may appear that this was an easy transition, when reading my words, but it was far from that. It may appear that it happened over night; however, it actually took years.

At eight years old, my life was forever changed. I continue to encounter circumstances that demonstrate yet another way the long term sexual abuse impacts me. I believe this will be lifelong. Trauma can’t be undone. But, that is no longer a disparaging truth for me. New neural pathways have formed. I have the tools to cope with the triggers and nightmarish memories of the many nights of my childhood. And, in moments when coping and pressing forward is difficult, I have a support system and a counselor that I can reach to for support. My life is not ruined. My life is so worth living.

I never imagined I would consider forgiving you. However, as I grew in my faith and learned about the act of forgiving, it did not seem so foreign. Many times I tried telling myself that I had forgiven you because it was the “right” thing to do. But, it was never authentic and truly from my heart. I can still recall the exact date that I finally “felt” like I had forgiven you. I forgive you.

I believe there are many misconceptions about forgiveness. It does not undo the sexual abuse. It does not remove the sadness I still feel when I think back to when I was just a child- how little I was, how scared I was, how confused I was. It does not mean I no longer hold you responsible for your choices. And it certainly does not mean I want to join you for dinner. In fact, I still pray I never see you again. It does not mean that I will let you petition for removal from the sex offender registry without fighting with every ounce of strength I have for that not to happen.

Forgiving you has allowed me to not just live, but thrive. It has provided me with the ability to accept what happened to me as a chapter in my book of life. It is no longer the conclusion. Forgiving you grants me the ability to turn my focus towards the future- towards strengthening legislation that fights for and protects children, towards completing my degree in counseling so I can hopefully impact lives like my counselors impacted my life, and towards removing the stigma surrounding sexual abuse and creating conversations that need to occur.

Some say the pivotal moment of forgiveness occurs when a person reaches the point of being able to extend appropriate grace to the perpetrator. I’m not there yet. And honestly, I’m still trying to figure out whether that is something I agree with or not. Maybe one day I will reach that place. For now, I have peace with my level of forgiveness for you. So, whether you are wondering or not, my life is not ruined. I forgive you.

Sincerely,

A Very Brave Woman

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For anyone struggling with forgiveness, please know that it truly takes time. Don’t beat yourself up for not being at that point yet in your journey. Healing takes time. Forgiving takes time. In one of my favorite books, Mending the Soul by Steven R. Tracy, the last chapter is on forgiveness. The LAST chapter. In a coming post, I hope to further explore what forgiveness has looked like in my life.