AFSM - Fall 2002, Volume 21, Number 3
Kids Share Their Stories to Help Stop Sexual Abuse
by Linda Lee Foltz
In the past 10 years, huge strides have been made in child sexual abuse prevention and intervention. Despite the victories, countless American kids still silently endure the long-term devastation of sexual victimization.
I was one of those children. After traveling my own long and painful journey of healing, I felt an overwhelming need to help children and began volunteering at Pittsburgh Child Advocacy. There I saw hundreds of kids whose lives, like mine, were forever altered.
But nothing could have prepared me for the day one 10-year-old boy came for his forensic interview. What made his story so much more horrific was that, this time, he wasn’t the victim. Having been sexually abused for years, he lashed out, raping his 5-year-old sister. That day I realized volunteering came much too late—prevention and intervention strategies must do more. I realized children are more likely to learn from each other and that courageous child survivors sharing their true stories would be the most powerful way to teach all kids how to stay safe or get safe.
But I had no idea where to find these brave kids. For months I called child abuse centers, therapy groups, and pediatric offices, with no success. Then, within days of each other, two of the most highly recognized professionals in the greater Pittsburgh area returned my calls. Erica Harkema, a clinical forensic manager for Pittsburgh Child Advocacy, said, “If children can communicate with other children, they can help prevent abuse.” Walter Smith, executive director of Family Resources, said, “Abused and healed children are our salvation. They become the people I most admire and wish to emulate.” Both agreed to consult on the book and write introductions.
With their support, the project gained momentum. Therapy groups, independent living programs, and rape crisis centers said they’d seek out clients willing to tell their true stories. And they did. Valiant kids came forward, filling the book with power and integrity. In addition to teaching kids about sexual abuse, they exposed a tragic truth: that although some children speak out at the first stages of abuse, most kids, like Faith—who tells her story below—cannot.
Faith was 12 years old when her father began to force her to flirt in on-line chat rooms. When she began receiving threatening e-mails from a man demanding sexually explicit photographs, her father made her pose with him, telling her she had to do it to keep the man from finding and harming her.
Faith: For more than a year, my dad photographed the two of us doing sexual things. Then he’d send them all over the Internet. He even built a Web site and posted my pictures there. I saw his Web site once, but when I went back to look for it again, the proof was gone and I didn’t know how to stop him.
I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I lost most of my friends because my dad wouldn’t let me hang out with them, he’d only let me hang out with the guys. I wasn’t allowed to have any girl friends at all. If I started getting to close to somebody, I wouldn’t be allowed to hang out with them. I used to be close to my grandma, but my dad wouldn’t let me stay at her house anymore, either. I was isolated and scared. It was awful.
Most of all, I wanted to talk to my mom, but I felt mixed up. I didn’t have any proof, and I didn’t think she’d believe me without it. Besides, he was her husband and I wasn’t close to her anymore. He wouldn’t let me spend any time with her. It was always me and him. And I was always fighting with her and treating her and my little brother really mean.
And there was also my little brother. He idealized my dad, he was his baseball coach—everything. It just didn’t seem fair of me. I felt like if I protected myself I’d just hurt everyone else. So I stayed quiet … but I had all this hatred inside me, and the longer things went on, the worse it got. I was also really mean to my mom, and I beat up on my younger brother all the time. I don’t know why. I guess I just wanted my mom to know that something was wrong. I don’t know, I think maybe I was hoping, since I couldn’t tell her, that maybe she’d ask.
I really wanted to be close to her, I mean, she was my mom, and we had this awesome relationship before everything started. Then it all fell apart. I couldn’t talk to her, and she thought I was shutting her out of my life.
Sometimes I’d just sit there and look at her and be like, “please, please understand.” But I didn’t say anything to her because I was so afraid of him, because I was afraid of hurting her, and because I was afraid she wouldn’t believe me. It was so hard. I felt trapped and isolated, like it would be better if I just killed myself. I cut my wrists and sometimes I’d burn myself with a lighter. Sometimes I even thought about killing him.
One morning, I got up early and saw my dad typing an e-mail. I happened to glance at it and recognized a few words that were in the e-mail, the threatening e-mail from that guy. That’s when I realized it was my dad sending those threatening e-mails to me. He was doing it so he could keep taking my picture. I felt horrible, sick. I checked the computer, looking for proof, but everything was gone. He had erased it all. I felt trapped. He was supposed to be my dad. He was supposed to be protecting me from stuff like that, but he was pushing me into it.
The next day I was putting away my dad’s clean t-shirts in his dresser drawer when I found all these floppy disks with my name on them. I put them in the computer and opened them up to see what was on them. They said things like “Faith nude” or “Faith getting out of the shower.” And when I opened them up it was me, nude, getting out of the shower, stuff like that.
After I found the disks, I knew—I mean, before it was just going to be my word against his, and I was afraid my mom wasn’t going to believe me, but now that I had the proof to show her, I wasn’t so afraid.
As soon as she came home from work that day, I showed them to her and she was really upset with my dad, and really supportive of me. She told me how sorry she was for what I had been going through. She said she was sorry she didn’t realize, and didn’t help me. All those things I worried about didn’t happen; she did believe me and she did stick by me, not him.
My mom didn’t know what to do. She didn’t want to just take the disks and have him come home from work and know something, because he could get pretty mean and then he might just get rid of them. So, right away she called her friend, Shelly, who is a police officer. She asked Shelly what to do.
Shelly came over the next day, while he was at work. But he came home on his lunch hour and saw Shelly there. I think he suspected something. My mom left the disks in his drawer so he wouldn’t think we were doing anything. But that night, while they were at my brother’s football practice, my parents got into a fight. When they got home, my dad hid the disks.
I was really scared after that, because I had already contacted the police and I had already talked to Child Protective Services and now the proof was gone. Without the disks, I didn’t think anyone was going to believe me.
But my mom was determined to protect me. While my dad was at work, she and I searched the house. We found the disks in the attic. We called Shelly right away, and when he came home that day on his lunch break he was arrested.
I wasn’t home when the police came. I was with my mom and Shelly at Shelly’s house. They took me there so he couldn’t hurt me. That night I didn’t go home. I didn’t want to. I stayed with my Grandma because I was still scared, even though I knew he had been arrested.
I guess everyone gets through difficult times in different ways. For me, I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t have anything else to do, so I put my entire time into softball and my school work. I never missed softball practice and usually stayed later than I had to. Softball gave me a way to release some of my anger, in a good way. And because I never wanted to be home, I was always at school. When classes were over, I’d stay in the library and study. I kept up a 4.0 grade point average and still keep a 3.8 to 4.0 today.
I think even though this has been really hard, it’s made me stronger and it has made my relationship with my mom better. It’s also made me a better big sister. I’m really protective of my little brother. Now I watch out for him instead of beating him up. I also think it’s given me some direction, too. Before, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study in college, but now I know I want to go into psychology. I want to help people going through what I’ve been through.
I think one of the reasons I’m doing so well now is because of counseling. When I first went, I didn’t open up. I kept the stress of everything deep inside me. All of a sudden, my blood pressure started to drop and I’d pass out. One day I woke up in the hospital. That’s when I realized I couldn’t just go to counseling and sit there. I had to open up and let this stuff out.
Since then, things are really going well. My counselor is terrific and has helped me to know it wasn’t my fault. She helped me realize I didn’t do anything to deserve what he did. And even though it was my dad, he didn’t single me out or anything. What happened to me could have happened to anybody, and maybe he was doing it to other kids, too. I don’t know. I don’t want to know.
My last counseling session, after two years, was a few weeks ago. The counselor said I’m doing really well. I had to promise her I’d call if I needed her. I think she already knew I would.
Now, things with my mom are just great. Even though we lost our house and had to move and my mom had to go back to work, she’s been there for me every step of the way. I know I can tell her anything. I know I can count on her. I also know she feels guilty because she didn’t see it, but I keep telling her it wasn’t her fault. I keep telling her counseling helped me and she should go, too. Then she won’t have to feel that way anymore.
If I could give advice to kids, I’d say if you’re going on the Internet, be smart about it. It isn’t a safe way to meet people. You have no way of knowing if the person you’re talking to is who they say they are. You might think you’re talking to a 12-year-old boy when you’re really talking to a 65-year-old man. It’s just not safe. Definitely never give out any information about yourself, not even your cell phone number. Strangers can connect any little bit of information to you and if they want to, they’ll find you.
I’d like to tell adults to pay attention to the little things. Look deep. Read between the lines. Just because your kid is out there doing something or dressing some way doesn’t mean she wants to. But, if you find out something has happened, be supportive and help your kid. Don’t feel guilty. It’s not your fault.
Linda Lee Foltz is a speaker and author of Kids Helping Kids Break the Silence of Sexual Abuse.
From the Fall 2002 issue of America’s Family Support Magazine, 21(3) 52–55. To order, visit our on-line store or call 312/338-0900.
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