Protect Your Child This Summer

This is an edit of a previous post, “Sexual Abuse in the Presence of Others,” because as summer begins it is important to pay close attention to who has access to children. Many children will venture off to various camps, spend time with extended family members, and travel on vacation with their family. Unfortunately, these are all places that sexual abuse occurs. They are places that we often don’t think about sexual abuse occurring because typically there are a). many people around, b). people we trust, and c). it’s all about the fun. Sexual abuse does not always happen “in the dark” or in isolated locations. It can happen in the midst of others.

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network reports that “approximately three quarters of reported cases of child sexual abuse are committed by family members or other individuals who are considered part of the victim’s ‘circle of trust.” I know it is hard to imagine anyone in your family or extended circle of trust harming your child, but it has happened too many times to too many people and we can’t ignore this any longer.

I believe many people have the misconception that sexual abuse can only occur behind closed doors or when the abuser is alone with their victim. It’s interesting that I started this post the other night and today while scrolling through twitter, I saw a very similar post. We sometimes have the thought “well no one will try to do anything with so many people around watching.” Unfortunately, this is not the case. Abuse can happen in your presence and abusers are so powerful in their manipulation skills that no one will be wiser.

There were many times my abuser was brazen enough to abuse me in the presence of others. Some evenings when I was a child, we would sit around and watch television together in the living room. It became expected of me to grab a quilt and sit in my abuser’s lap during what should have been a safe and innocent bonding time. He was bold enough to do this because he knew how much he had manipulated me. I was so fearful in those moments that I would sit and act as normal as possible while he abused me rather than pushing the quilt away and screaming. Sexual abuse occurred in the presence of others.

In a previous post, “The Power in Truth,” I detailed an encounter I had with an older man in the pool area of a hotel. While it was only that man in the sauna and my siblings and I swimming in the pool, this was a very public location that a predator preyed.

If you have children, I hope you will take the time to talk about body rights and healthy touch. Empower them. Give them the choice of whether or not to hug a family member. Maybe a handshake or high five is more comfortable for your child. If your child appears fearful or nervous around certain people, do not brush it off as shyness- ask questions. Fight through the discomfort this type of conversation may bring and have these necessary conversations now.

My intention is not to make you paranoid about every person your child comes into contact with, but to make you aware that abuse does happen in the presence of other people. It is not always isolated incidents.  And just because it is a holiday or summer vacation does not mean an abuser will take a day off and abstain from abusing.

 

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Children deserve to know their body rights at any age. There are age appropriate ways to have these conversations. It is never too early to empower children.

 

 

 

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Identifying the Signs of Child Sexual Abuse

I am pretty sure the first place I learned the term “sexual abuse” was during a health lesson in elementary school. Although I was being abused at the time, the connection between what was happening to me and what I read in my book did not exist. If you research signs of sexual abuse or something similar, there is a fairly consist list of “symptoms” a person may exhibit if they are being abused. While I firmly believe in the importance of knowing the signs, I also know that if we rely solely on the lists, there are many children that may not be identified as victims because they do not demonstrate the signs in a typical manner.  

             So, what are the signs of sexual abuse?

  • Acting out in an inappropriate sexual way with toys or objects
  • Nightmares/sleeping problems
  • Becoming withdrawn or very clingy
  • Becoming unusually secretive
  • Sudden unexplained personality changes, mood swings, and seeming insecure
  • Regressing to younger behaviors, e.g., bedwetting
  • Unaccountable fear of particular places or people
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Changes in eating habits
  • New adult words or body parts and no obvious source
  • Talk of a new, older friend and unexplained money or gifts
  • Self-harm (cutting, burning, or other harmful activities)
  • Physical signs, such as, unexplained soreness or bruises around genitals or mouth, sexually transmitted diseases, pregnancy
  • Running away
  • Not wanting to be alone with a particular person

List is compiled by:

http://www.parentsprotect.co.uk/warning_signs.htm

This is clearly not an exhaustive list. These are just a few of the signs of sexual abuse in children. It is extremely important to realize that some children will exhibit many of these signs as a result of other circumstances in life (not necessarily abuse, but likely something traumatic), while other children will experience none of these signs and have endured significant abuse. We can’t simply rely on checklists to determine what is taking place in a child’s life.

Parents and caregivers must be attuned to their children. God has created each child with a unique personality intricately woven together. It is our responsibility to know what “normal” is for a child and to be able to readily identify when something seems “off.” From there, we must be ready to have the “not so easy,” but absolutely necessary conversations to discover what is taking place in the child’s life. It may not always be abuse, but if a child is experiencing any the distressing “signs” listed above, they need someone to intervene and assist them through the difficult time.

If you are unsure of how to start the conversation with a child about potential abuse, visit this website for some tips. RAINN is a great website and resource for further information. Feel free to leave me a question in the comment section.

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A Plea for Justice, Impact Statement Pt. 3

In the final part of my victim impact statement I decided to begin with the day I was freed from my abuser. While I was so thankful to have someone believe me and take action against my abuser, it was also one of the scariest days of my life. Things did not get better on that day and at the time it felt like life became immensely more difficult. I want the judge to see that my abuser’s actions did not just effect me, but they also significantly impacted my family.

What I call my “Freedom Day,” came on November 10, 2004. I was a little over a month shy of turning 14. While I was freed in a physical sense from the hands of my abuser, I am still learning today that healing is life-long. Over 250 counseling sessions, a Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) diagnosis, antidepressants, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, nightmares, flashbacks, panic attacks, shame, low self-worth- these are just some of the things I’ve dealt with in the last ten years. When physical freedom from the abuse happened, my entire world was turned upside down even more. My siblings, mom, and I were forced to leave a house we dearly loved, our belongings ended up ruined in storage, our precious pets were left in the care of my abuser, and we moved into a single bedroom in my grandparent’s house. And that was only the beginning.

Next I wanted to convey to the judge my concerns regarding the potential of my abuser harming another child. I want the judge to see that my abuser was very skilled in manipulative tactics. It provides me with some peace of mind that my abuser is listed on a public sex offender registry. I also want the judge to look at the picture below and see what I looked like a year after the abuse began. I want the judge to see that I was just a child.

I could spend a really long time detailing the last ten years of my life. There have been highs and lows but I’ve made it through them all, just like I survived the years of abuse. But that is not why we are here today. For nearly two years I have been anxious about this day. It absolutely terrifies me that there is a chance my abuser can be removed from the sex offender registry. There are hardly words to describe the peace of mind I have knowing that law enforcement knows where my abuser lives and that people who have children around him can know that he is a predator. It brings comfort to me to know that the likelihood of another child being abused by him is at least decreased some by him being on the sex offender registry. I am not his only victim. He also assaulted my XXXXXXX. The abuse was not a one-time incident. I can look back at when I was an eight year old child and see just how manipulated and controlled I was by my abuser. He was brazen enough to abuse me not only in his bedroom, but also in the living room, in the swimming pool, and in the cab of his truck. The fact that he abused me despite the rest of my family being one room away shows just how capable he is of grooming another child and abusing them without anyone knowing- for years.

In conclusion, my abuser added me to a list that I never wanted to be on. If I ever go before the judge, my plea will be that my abuser remain on the sex offender registry for the duration of his life.

Not only does a denial to my abuser’s petition for removal from the registry protect other kids from the potential of being abused by him, but it also serves as continued justice for the crimes he committed against me. That August night when I was just eight years old, hoping to watch a television show and bond with my XXXXXXX, I was forever added to a list I didn’t choose- child sexual abuse victim. My XXXXXX chose to put my name on that list. I will forever live with all that list brings. Just as I will always deal with the effects, I believe that my abuser should have to live with the ramifications of his actions, which landed him on a list. Even if my abuser is one of the very few predators that never abuses another child, it would be an injustice for him to no longer have to face the consequences of his choices that forever altered my life.  

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Not My Shame, Impact Statement Part 2

***Trigger Warning***

I am going to be authentic at this moment and tell you that it is scary posting the second part of my victim impact statement. I am definitely experiencing some anxiety just thinking about pressing “publish.” That feeling of shame resurfaced as I read back over the words I typed months ago. I choose to overcome and rise above because today I know it is not my shame.  

This part of my impact statement focuses on what I want the judge to know regarding my abuser’s actions. I did not want the judge to simply look back at the charges and see three counts of indecent liberty with a minor. The title of that charge does not convey, in my opinion, what really happened. If I ever stand before a judge to read my statement, I want the judge to hear what my life was really like during the years of abuse. I want the judge to know, it didn’t happen just three times. What I did not want to do though is recount every detail of the abuse. Because, I am so much more than what happened to me. I don’t want the judge to see me as a victim. When I go before that judge, I want him/her to hear the reasons my abuser should not be removed from the sex offender registry and I want him/her to see how strong I am today and how I am thriving. There is hope. Always.

So here is the first part of my statement, if you missed that post, and part two follows it:

Today, when I entered this court room, I did not come in as a victim like I did ten years ago. Today, I am standing here as a survivor. However, being a survivor does not mean that I am freed from the effects of long term sexual abuse at the hands of Jeffrey, my former step-father, my abuser. Rather, being a survivor means that through the flashbacks, depression, anxiety, guilt, and shame, I will choose to keep living, thriving, and healing. Ten years ago, as a victim, I did not have the courage to stand before the court and speak about the heinous acts that were committed against me. Today, as a survivor, I have a voice that is ready to be heard. And it begins with that August night I watched “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” with my then step-father which forever changed my life.

What should have been an innocent bonding time turned into a nightmare that I lived every time the show aired and my abuser was home- sometimes five nights a week. While that August night is when the ongoing sexual abuse began, the intentional grooming process began long before that. When I was just six, seven, and eight years old, my abuser was preparing me for that night I would come lay in bed beside him to watch a television show- but leave a victim, terrified by his threat and feeling completely ashamed and broken. That August night I could have been covered from head to toe in manure and still I would have felt cleaner than I did as I washed my abuser’s semen off of me, at eight years old.

During the years of abuse, I would go to school every day and come home knowing what my abuser would expect of me that night. The threat and fear he instilled in me on that August night, and the years of grooming broke me down to the point that my abuser never once had to tell me to come back to the bedroom and perform sexual acts. I reached the point of believing that this was my duty and my abuser reinforced this belief by telling me that he knew “how curious little girls are” and that he was just “helping me out.” My abuser was never drunk, high, or under the influence of any mind-altering substance when the abuse occurred. Those things would not have excused the crimes, rather I say it to clarify that my abuser consciously chose to abuse me hundreds of times.

It is still hard to see the words I have typed and to know that is a chapter in my book of life. But I find hope in the many chapters that follow. My chapter of accepting Jesus Christ as my Lord and Savior and the journey of faith that follows. My chapters of graduating high school and college. My chapter of becoming a missionary through the North American Mission Board. My chapter of starting graduate school. My chapters of playing sports competitively. There are so many chapters in each person’s life. We can’t just look at one chapter and decide that’s what defines a person. We are more. 

In the coming days, or weeks (cue graduate school chapter of life), I will post the final part of my impact statement. 

Check out this song by Natalie Grant called “Clean

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