17 Years of Freedom

Each year, November 10 rolls around and I find myself thinking how bewildering it is that another year has passed. 17 years ago today, I went to school like any other day. Only this time, I would never return to the place I had called home- the place I absolutely loved, surrounded by fields of corn, filled with my pets, where I fell asleep each night. It was also the place where my abuser resided. This day is mostly filled with gratitude, but I would be remiss not to acknowledge the remembrance of the pain and suffering that I endured leading up to November 10, 2004 and in the time since.

The changes over the years in how I view this day, how my body remembers, and the meaning attributed, reveals the healing that I have experienced. I can acutely recall the third anniversary of my freedom and the immense pain the day brought. I was a junior in high school. I still had the pajama pants I frequently wore when my abuser used me for sexual gratification and I remember holding them in my hands and sobbing because even though I was physically freed from my abuser, I still could not see a future for myself where the impacts of the abuse did not haunt me. This was one of the lowest points in my journey. Throughout my story, there were people God placed in my life who guided me and helped me make it just one more day. That pit of despair is where an advocate met me and encouraged me to try a new counselor using a newer trauma-focused model. It was in this place where I discovered hope again. While it waned at times in the years following, I have never found myself as hopeless as I did at year three. This day is never easy, but it is different each year as the healing journey continues.

I often speak about the misconceptions we sometimes have about a person’s Freedom Day. All too frequently, we quickly celebrate and rejoice when a child is physically freed from the abuse they were experiencing. We should celebrate that freedom. But we must make room for all the chaos that comes rushing in quickly. Reflecting on what it felt like when I learned I would never return to my abuser, I do not recall it feeling celebratory at all. I had just spent the minutes prior hiding behind a shed with my younger siblings while our mom confronted my abuser. There were tears, fear, uncertainty, confusion, and anger in the midst of relief that I might now be safe. I literally went from believing one minute that my abuser would kill us to breathing a sigh of relief as he drove away. Physical freedom is just one part of being free.

Disclosures and freedom are only the beginning of a lifelong road of healing. It is filled with snares and valleys, caves and avalanches, mountaintops and scenic waterfalls. Please, allow room for all of it. If you are walking with a family or an individual after a disclosure of sexual abuse, I hope you will take the time to read through my suggestions for being the best advocate in their lives:

  1. Allow us to express all the emotions we feel without judging them. It is not helpful to hear, “well at least you don’t have to see your abuser anymore” or “you shouldn’t worry about your pets because you got away.” Chances are, we may be in a place in our journey where we are regretting our disclosure because our lives have been turned upside down and we just want things to go back to the way they were- at least there, life was predictable (this stage does not typically persist, but it is a common reaction). Let us grieve the losses we have experienced. Let us be angry when justice seems far away. Let us feel whatever we feel and not feel bad about it.
  2. Identify the needs the family may have and re-assess the needs often. Maybe you can prepare a meal for the family when there will be late afternoon/evening counseling sessions. Maybe you have somewhere safe you can store some of the family’s belongings until they get back on their feet. Maybe you can drive the siblings to extracurricular activities when the parent has meetings and appointments with district attorneys, law enforcement, child advocacy centers, counselors, etc. Maybe you can take care of the family’s pets until they have a place to call home again. The list of needs can be incredibly long, and the needs can persist for an extended time. It took nearly 1.5 years from my Freedom Day to the day my abuser accepted a plea deal in court.
  3. Be an encouraging, calming, loving, strong presence. We did not really talk about my abuser’s first court date with people in our community. But when I shared about my abuser’s petition for removal from the registry, the court room benches behind me were filled with people who chose to be present for me. Do not underestimate the power of your presence. It shows the survivor that you believe them, and you care about them. Those two things are protective and healing for survivors. Your actions say: you are worth it.
  4. Do not direct all your attention and focus on the “identified victim.” Intrafamilial abuse impacts the entire family as abusers must groom everyone to maintain control. Check in on the non-offending caregiver and the siblings of the victim. Their lives have been turned upside down too. They often experience ambivalent emotions and, in many situations, lack a safe place to express those feelings.
  5. Advocate FOR us until you can advocate WITH us. We will need you to be the louder voice for us when we start healing. When we see you advocate for us, it helps us learn how to advocate for ourselves. Help us find and continue to use our voice in whatever direction we feel led. Fight for just legislation that supports victims. Push for policies that prevent children from being abused in the first place, but also expose those who commit these crimes and protect others from future victimization. Support agencies and ministries that serve individuals and families impacted by abuse. Educate yourself- know the red flags, learn how to make a report of abuse, talk to children about their bodies and teach them to recognize abusive/manipulative behavior.

This is clearly not an exhaustive list of how you can make a difference, but I hope it leads to action. During this year of freedom, I hope to help you become an advocate for children like I was 17 years ago, brave and scared. Stay tuned for posts with specific actions you can take to be the voice for those who have not been able to use their voice yet.

This is the child who would disclose her abuse one last time.

The Cost of a Disclosure

Last week, a presentation I recorded in December went “live” at the International San Diego Conference on Child and Family Maltreatment. In my presentation I discussed the often-overlooked needs and losses experienced by family members after a disclosure of intra-familial child sexual abuse. I have decided to share parts of this presentation in this post for a few reasons: 1. Clinicians need to be aware of these impacts so they can help their client process them during treatment 2. Churches have the opportunity to minister to hurting families post-disclosure 3. Understanding the inevitable losses debunks myths about false accusations.

Relational Loss: many perpetrators do not act “all bad” within the family unit. In fact, they are often loved and trusted by family members. Following many disclosures in which law enforcement and child protective services become involved, the perpetrator and other family members are separated. In my family, my mom and siblings and I moved from the home we shared with my abuser. Despite the horrific crimes my abuser committed, he had been a constant in our lives for over 7 years. My siblings and I loved our cousins/aunts/uncles/grandma on that side of the family. In what seemed like an instant, those relationships were irreparably damaged. While the relational loss to my abuser was absolutely necessary and what we needed, the rationality of it did not squelch the pain of losing family. Young children will likely have great difficulty comprehending why they now can’t go visit Auntie who lives just up the street. Clinicians need to be prepared for complicated grief when relationships end abruptly due to child abuse. Churches can minister to families by increasing social support, filling the void that now exists.

Economic Loss: when the perpetrator is a primary caregiver/breadwinner, the family will likely incur significant financial impact. Because I grew up in a small, rural town where “everybody knows everybody,” I was signed up for counseling an hour away from home. This meant at least once a week, we were traveling over two hours round trip for mental health services. Gas money, co-pays, and time off from work = financial loss (though it was well worth the expense). Families may no longer have extra Children may not be able to participate in extra-curricular activities due to the loss of income. Eating at a restaurant may become a rarity when before the disclosure it was a regular occurrence. Birthdays may not be as extravagant anymore. Clinicians may consider offering a sliding fee for families seeking counseling after a sexual abuse disclosure. Even if the discounted rate is for a limited time, it will significantly help as a family begins rebuilding their lives. Churches can offer financial assistance to the family or sponsor a child’s fees for an extra-curricular activity. Churches can hire counselors or sponsor sessions so families can access mental health services without the additional expense.

Environmental Changes: the non-offending caregiver and children may have to move from the home once shared with the perpetrator. If the non-offending caregiver is unable to care for the children, they may be placed in state custody, potentially separated from one another. Children may have to change schools, sports teams, churches, etc. My siblings and I went from each having our own bedroom to all living in one room with our mother for about a year. We were incredibly blessed to remain together and live in a home full of love; however, it was a major adjustment for us during a very stressful time. The part I grieved the most was the loss of my pets due to the environmental change. We left home one morning for school and never saw our pets again. We went from having way too many cats (in excess of 20, though they all had names and were loved dearly), bunny rabbits, and my sweet potbelly pig, Petunia (pictured below), to praying they would survive without us. To this day, I still refuse to let my mind wander about my Petunia because the pain is too great. Clinicians can help kids and families explore how their environment has changed and what impacts they notice. Churches can support families with supplies to make the transition smooth. Providing families with care kits that include hygiene items, clothes, food, toys, and other basic necessities can lift some of the burden. Sponsoring a month or a couple of months rent for a storage unit so the family can retain some of their belongings that can be retrieved when stability is established.

Clearly, this is not an exhaustive list of the losses experienced by families after a disclosure of abuse. However, I hope it provides a starting point for how you consider supporting families in need. The prevalence of false accusations among children who disclose abuse is minimal. Most children who make a disclosure realize there will be a cost associated with telling the secret. This post reveals a glance at some of those costs.

Petunia loved birthday cake, potato chips, and mudholes