November 10, 2004. The day before Veteran’s Day. The day freedom arrived for me. Freedom from abuse. Even though the years seem to fly by, on November 10 of each year, I am keenly reminded of just how far God has brought me in my healing journey. One month ago, I shared my story of finding my voice after abuse silenced me, with over 500 amazing individuals at a Child Abuse and Neglect Conference in Michigan. Fifteen years ago, I could not see past the day that was before me. My life was filled with uncertainty, fear, and confusion. Fifteen years later, my days look much different. However, I would not be where I am today without the incredible support system God has placed around me.
When I spoke in Michigan, I listed all of the people who have advocated for me in various ways, identifying them by the role they played. Teacher. Guidance Counselor. Social Workers. SBI Agents. Coaches. Youth Pastor/Leaders. Professors. Friends. Family. The list goes on. I have never had to walk this healing journey alone.
I do not believe healing from childhood sexual abuse simply ends one day. I do not believe it is something we can just check off our to-do list. My body and my mind will always remember what happened. But, living in freedom, I have a choice.
Daily, I get to choose to keep pursuing a life of light, renewal, healing, and learning. I refuse to fall back into the place of silence where shame and fear once held me captive.
I am committing my 15th year of freedom to the continued fight for reform of the NC sex offender registry legislation. It is a fight for survivor’s voices to be honored and heard a decade after a court case is closed when abusers are provided the opportunity to petition for removal from the registry. Until all voices are heard and honored, I will fight.
I can still vividly recall the shakiness and fear that seemed to consume me when the Assistant District Attorney called me to the stand to be sworn in last summer. Based on television shows, you would think the swearing in process is a piece of cake. We regularly see people place a hand on the Bible and swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. How hard could it really be? Just get up there and tell the truth, right?
I will never consider testifying in court as a “light” event in a person’s life. I can remember my heart racing, my hands trembling, and my voice shaking as I was sworn in and took my seat. Testifying in court is not guaranteed to end in the survivor’s favor. That lack of certain conviction is what played the most significant role in accepting a plea agreement when my abuser was initially charged. I experienced only a glimpse of what a trial feels like when I testified at my abuser’s petition hearing. But that glimpse was enough to help me better understand the trauma that will occur in the courtroom.
Over the years, courts have implemented trauma-informed approaches to reduce the impacts of courtroom testimony on victims. But there is no way you can expect testifying in court to not have impacts on a person as he/she relives the trauma. We should be prepared to walk with individuals in the days, weeks, or months after the court has issued a ruling. Whether the ruling is favorable or not, there will be major impacts.
Facing my abuser in court and testifying on why he should not be granted a petition for removal from the sex offender registry is one decision I will never regret. I don’t have to wonder if there was anything else I could have done to prevent my abuser’s removal from the registry. I had the chance to speak the truth in public in front of my abuser and his family as they sat by his side. I got to reclaim the voice of “little Kendall” and stand up for her. And even though the court’s decision was not in my favor, I would make the same decision again.
I do believe there are times when allowing a plea deal to be reached is best for the case, especially when there has not been a prior conviction. When the case against my abuser was first heard it court, it was the best decision to accept a plea bargain. I believe that plea deals protect children from further trauma. But I also believe that there is power in having the opportunity to testify- especially at petition hearings. It is kind of like the saying “it has to get worse before it can get better.” Testifying is going to be worse (but not worse than the abuse endured), but then you can come out on the other side stronger and braver. It is awful to do everything in your power to influence a decision yet still have it not result in your favor. It is unspeakable to hear a judge say “Therefore, based upon the findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court orders, adjudges and decrees the relief requested by the petitioner is granted…” But, I have absolutely no regrets.
If your abuser is petitioning the court from removal from the sex offender registry, I would encourage you to reach out to the District Attorney’s office and seriously consider appearing in court to make a statement. I am more than willing to talk with you more about the experience.