The Devastating Wake of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Childhood sexual abuse leaves a continual path of destruction long after the crime has ended. Most people acknowledge child sexual abuse is heinous, but when we educate others or use legal terminology to describe the crime, we rarely capture the devastation it brings. Many avoid reckoning with the long-term impacts of sexual abuse because it is uncomfortable, frightening, and a reality they do not want to believe. It is a lot easier to dismiss a victim’s story when you do not think about what the future holds for them.

Through counseling, medication, and most importantly, my faith in Christ, I have experienced brighter days and I have rebuilt many parts of my life that I initially believed were permanently compromised. Each time I find places mutilated by my abuser’s crimes; it feels like I die another death. Because of Jesus, I am still here. It is through the assurance I have in God and His promise of redemption and goodness, that I press on, using this space and my voice to fight for greater awareness of the dynamics of abuse and its impacts, stricter laws, more victim-centered judicial processes, and for others to know that their voice matters and deserves to be heard.

I hope you will read the rest of this post, despite the discomfort it may cause. I hope when you hear about childhood sexual abuse occurring in your community, you will think about what the victim’s healing will involve before you think about what the perpetrator may lose. I hope you will have greater insight into why we cannot simply “get over it.” We did not choose this path- our perpetrators chose it for us.

I will never forget the day I realized my imagination had been broken, destroyed. I loved playing with Barbie dolls as a child. I could spend hours with a hundred different narratives to play out. When my abuser forced me to do things that a child should never know exists, it altered the lens through which I saw the world. The world was no longer a safe place. My playtime was interrupted by the new reality of what I believed (step)daddies and daughters were to do. When I looked at the barbies after the abuse started, I did not see a safe, loving, Barbie and Ken doll to take care of and nurture the little Kelly doll. That narrative was no longer my reality. Children need to engage in imaginative play for healthy cognitive, relational, and language development. Abuse steals imaginations.

I have shared in several previous posts about my experience of a man exposing himself while I swam in a hotel pool, and he was in the nearby sauna. I keep sharing it because it so clearly demonstrates how abuse destroyed the way I saw myself and my responsibilities. Though I was still in elementary school, I wholeheartedly believed that it was my duty to enter that sauna to do the same things with that man that my abuser had done to me. Had it not been for my younger siblings in the pool with me, and my desire to protect them, sweat and tears would have poured from my face in that sauna. I struggled to see a future beyond what abuse required of me. Abuse defaces self-image.

As I moved into my teen and young adult years, it became evident that the rules I lived by because of the abuse dismissed my desires in relationships. It is without question that childhood sexual abuse causes difficulties in trusting others, but it also causes difficulty in trusting oneself. I was taught not to trust my gut. My gut instinct as a child told me that what my abuser did to me was uncomfortable and maybe wrong. But the prevailing belief was that adults do not hurt children. The only way I could reconcile these conflicting experiences was to reject my gut feelings. In later relationships, I did not trust my gut instinct because the abuse narrative would hijack my cognitive processes and pressure me to yield to the desires of others. I did not believe I had the right nor the authority to reject what others wanted from me.  Abuse maims autonomy.

I think one of the most disheartening impacts of childhood sexual abuse is the sensory triggers that we literally cannot control. Over the years, many of the triggers that once plagued me daily have been desensitized- thanks to time, distance, therapy, medication, and God’s mercies. I can remember the days in high school and college when I would experience multiple triggers in a single day. Trauma triggers activate our sympathetic nervous system resulting in the perception of danger. Our fight or flight response takes over and our sense of safety evaporates. It sometimes feels like the abuse is happening again. Over time, I have learned to identify many of my triggers, but I am not always able to prevent them and I discover new ones each year. Triggers can disrupt a seemingly normal day at the most inopportune time. It is hard not to feel defeated because, in some ways, my abuser’s choices still impact me. Abuse dismantles felt safety.

I could continue with more examples of the long-term impacts of childhood sexual abuse but I do not like for these posts to be too long. I hope this post has provided a greater understanding of how childhood sexual abuse affects a person long after physical freedom from the abuser has been granted. I believe when we think about the future of survivors and the path they will travel toward healing, we are more likely to hold abusers accountable for the choices they make that leave such a path of devastation. Maybe then our courts will wield heftier consequences for this crime. Maybe then perpetrators’ futures will not be considered more highly than victims. Maybe then, more disclosures will be met with belief and support.  

Photo by Jim Richter on Pexels.com

The Call That Stole My Breath

Four years ago, I received the phone call that stole my breath. It was a call that I had agonized over for years prior, from the time I learned I may one day receive it. This call informed me that my abuser had filed a petition to be removed from the sex offender registry. I wrote about receiving this call back in 2018- you can read that post here. In that post, I asked for friends to pray that I would have peace with any decision rendered in court. Though I knew the judge could rule in my abuser’s favor, I truly could not imagine a world in which my abuser would be deemed “not a threat” to the public.

You can read more here and here about the judge’s decision and what the court experience was like as I delivered a victim impact statement and fought with all I had to protect others from future abuse by my abuser. It is still hard to always feel at peace with the judge’s decision. Often, I do not feel like it was the right one. I have questions that were not answered, and likely will not be answered for my case. But, these questions and the feelings of injustice motivate me to keep fighting and advocating so others might have a different fate.

In June, I served as a juror on a criminal trial. It challenged me to evaluate my views on a side of the judicial system I had yet to see so close up. Part of my journey has included seasons of questioning whether at 15 years old I made the correct decision in accepting a plea deal instead of going to trial. At 15, it was clear to me that going to trial did not guarantee a conviction and punishment; the plea deal would, though it meant significantly lighter penalties. After serving as a juror, I better understand what is meant by the burden of proof and what guilty beyond a reasonable doubt requires. I thought back to my own case as a victim and whether a jury would have looked at the evidence available and concluded my abuser was guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. As a child, I thought if you were telling the truth, people were supposed to believe you. Going through the judicial process for felonious crimes exposed me to the harsh truth that so often more is needed when you are the victim. I do not know the answers, but I do long for the day when the judicial system feels like a more just place for victims of childhood sexual abuse.  

Making Room for Grief

I was not prepared for the losses I would experience as a result of my disclosure of the abuse I had endured. I do not recall what I believed would happen after I told a teacher at school about my life at home. Disclosures are not often accompanied by a long-term plan, most of the time, we are just hoping we survive breaking the chains of secrecy. If I had known what loss would include in the aftermath of my disclosure, I am not sure at 13 years old, I would have had the same courage to tell. I only share this thought because I still see in media and hear in people’s stories how negligently disclosures are handled. Disclosures are costly, but they are worth it.

Many emotional responses manifested before grief showed up after my disclosure. It was not until probably a decade after my disclosure that I realized there was grief in my healing. Sure, I recognized the sadness, anger, confusion, and fear. But I did not recognize the grief that accompanied the losses until much later. It is vital that anyone who works with trauma survivors creates a space for grief as part of the healing process.

On November 9, 2004, I had a large extended family. I never considered them my step-family. They were my aunts, uncles, cousins, grandma, and neighbors who were more like family. Before I closed my eyes to go to bed on November 10, 2004, what felt like an enemy line had been drawn. In a single day, fifteen close relationships were severed. The magnitude of the loss did not hit me all at once, thankfully. But I quickly learned that I would never again ride four-wheelers or hang out with the cousins or take the boat out on the river for water sports with an aunt and uncle. When I would see my former cousins at school, there was an unspoken understanding that we would no longer interact. At 13, I struggled to understand why the people I grew up with now seemed to hate me. All I had done was tell the truth. Throughout my healing journey, there have been many times I wished I could have one more conversation with the people who played a significant role in my childhood. Someone does not have to die for you to grieve the loss of the relationship you once had with them.

Grief after trauma encompasses much more than the loss of relationships and people in our lives. In previous posts, I have discussed some of the different types of losses, so I am not going to go into detail here. Instead, I want to share what has helped me make room for grief.

1. Gain an understanding of grief. It was not until I was an adult that I learned what grief looked like outside of experiencing death. Understanding the emotions and thoughts that often accompany grief helped me put a name to what I noticed within me. I found that many of the beliefs I had about grief were simply myths and expectations people typically hold about what grief should look like and how long it should last. Grief is often much more complex than we imagine.

2. Identifying the losses. I do not believe grief can properly begin until we are able to name exactly what has been lost. Relationships. Homes. Pets. Material items. Dreams. Safety. Naivety. Wellness. Economic status. Self-esteem. Trust. Job. Faith. Identity. Hope.

3. Identify what can be reclaimed. Some of the losses may be temporary or time-bound. Some losses may be reclaimed through counseling, time, and God’s provision. Some losses are permanent, and we move towards acceptance. There are some relationships that will never be safe or healthy to pursue reconciliation. My pets that were left in the care of my abuser are likely no longer living. While thoughts sometimes try to sneak in and convince me that my pets suffered in his hands, I choose instead to believe an alternative narrative that they all found loving homes in my absence. In this situation, I have no way of knowing what happened and I do not see any harm in choosing a more comforting narrative of what likely happened to them. The feeling of safety took a while to re-establish in my life. Trust has taken years to rebuild and often takes me longer to form in new relationships as a result of the way my abuser shattered my trust. My faith in Jesus Christ took years after my disclosure to establish.

4. Acknowledge grief when it shows back up and leave room for the ambivalent feelings. I was driving back to New Orleans after the holidays and was just a few miles from the house I lived in with my abuser when I passed a potbelly pig in someone’s yard. While it did not look like my sweet Petunia exactly, I was quickly hit with a wave of grief, wondering what happened to her and wishing my story with her could have ended differently. I have learned that if I recognize those emotions that arise in the wave, allow myself to feel them without judgment, acknowledge the thoughts that surface, and challenge any unhelpful cognitions, the intensity of that moment of grief relieves itself more quickly than if I try to shut the grief down. It does not mean the grief does not hurt, but it does not get to control the narrative of my life.

By providing space for the grief as it showed up, I noticed over time it no longer took up as much room as it once required.

A 2021 Reflection

We have reached the final day of 2021. I have not found anyone who has described this past year as the best one ever. There are so many words I could use to describe this past year, but difficult seems to sum up most of my experiences. While I celebrated various feats and joyful moments throughout the year, they were not without challenges. We are not promised comfort and happiness in this life. We are shaped and molded through our responses to the difficult experiences we face. As I write my last blog for 2021, I just wanted to reflect on what God has taught me this year and what my hopes and prayers are for 2022.

2021 started with grief, trauma, and one of the greatest losses I have experienced. For the first eleven days of this year, I watched my aunt’s physical life deteriorate and eventually die from cancer. The days and nights were long. Everyone was so weary and heartbroken. The pain was palpable. At times, I found myself gasping for air. But in those moments, friendships were rekindled, and I witnessed the power of a family’s love. My aunt’s life and legacy are celebrated. The grief journey continues- it does not end, it just changes. One of the things God has made most evident through my grief is the importance of grieving with others. It is important to be able to talk about my aunt with people who knew her and to be able to share about her with those who did not get the chance to meet her. While she is not physically here, the memories and the impacts she had on so many remain.

The experience of loss was profound this year. In September, our BFH staff and volunteers lost a dear friend we had the opportunity to minister to for a couple of years. His death was tragic and unexpected. As we looked for his family and tried to understand exactly what happened, I was heartbroken by the reality that there are many people experiencing homelessness in our nation who will die, and their family and/or loved ones may never know. Thankfully, we were able to find our friend’s family and notify them about his death. God granted us the opportunity to minister to our friend’s family which allowed us to experience a greater level of closure as we mourned this loss. We were able to show his family recent pictures and give them an account of his recent years and they were able to share photos from when our friend was younger before he ended up on the streets. In the midst of sorrow, God is my great Comforter.

Less than two weeks ago, I received a call that another dear friend had died completely unexpectedly. I do not think the shock has worn off or the reality sank in that when I return to New Orleans this weekend, I will not get a text asking if I have made it back yet. As I anticipate the grief from another loss, this year, God has shown me that we can and do survive the loss, and the pain will not be insurmountable every single day.

When I look at the year as a whole, I believe there is a collective loss that we are all facing. We may not recognize it as grief, but I believe that is part of what many of us continue to feel. Most all of us have lost someone we cared for deeply this year, whether to COVID-19, terminal illnesses, or tragedy. Our lives have not looked at all like what we anticipated. We have had hopes that things were returning to “normal” dashed as new variants of the virus emerge. There is much for us to grieve. I hope as we enter this new year, we can hold a space for this grief. Extending grace to one another, treating each other with kindness, and loving our neighbors are needed more now than any other time I can think of in my lifetime.

I am not a stranger to hurricanes, even major hurricanes, having grown up on the east coast and having lived in New Orleans for almost twelve years. But this year, I experienced my first extended evacuation when my return home was not easily predicted. While I am so grateful to have only been minorly impacted by Hurricane Ida, the uncertainty of what I would return home to and the feeling of helplessness as I watched the storm from afar were difficult to process. While the rest of the world seems to move on, those who have been impacted by any natural disaster operate in survival mode for weeks and months. In ways I had not quite experienced before on a personal level, I saw the body of Christ respond to a need in tremendous ways. I had the privilege of watching Southern Baptist Disaster Relief and other volunteer organizations show up in unpleasant conditions to be the hands and feet of Jesus. I am so grateful for the people who prayed, donated, and served in the aftermath of Hurricane Ida and who continue to support the recovery efforts.

Despite the chaos of 2021, God opened amazing doors for me to share my testimony and empower people to respond in life-changing ways to victims of childhood sexual abuse. I never imagined this platform would exist and that I would be invited to step onto it. From virtual conferences for local child advocacy centers and churches to national conferences alongside my heroes, God continues to redeem my story and use it to hopefully make a difference in the lives of children and those who serve them today.

In 2020, through only what I can describe as a divinely orchestrated encounter on Twitter, I learned about the SAFE Child Act that was passed in 2019 in NC. While I technically knew about the Act prior to it being passed, it was not until a fellow advocate on Twitter messaged me that I realized this piece of legislation actually applied to me. As a result, I had the opportunity to pursue civil action against my abuser which reached a settlement this year. The process was lengthy and painful- exposing unhealed wounds and revealing new wounds. There was a huge toll on my mental and emotional wellbeing. There were moments when I wanted to quit- which was certainly an option. But it was more important for me to seek justice while I had this opportunity and to do anything possible to protect future victims. My hope and prayer are that we will continue to see statute of limitations reform throughout our nation that better reflect the science/data and reality of the impacts of childhood sexual abuse.

This past year, I was reminded of the importance of flexibility and adaptability in the context of ministry. Through the changing protocols and guidelines due to COVID, we were able to continue to find creative ways of serving our community at BFH. Whether it was doing case management at a picnic table outside, reorganizing events, or re-assessing the greatest needs in our area, we found a way to keep the ministry going.

God has continued to provide the opportunity for me to pursue my PhD in Counselor Education and Supervision. Some days I believe I am ready to close the books, but most days I am so grateful for the opportunity to be stretched and challenged academically. In just a few days, I will be taking my qualifying exams which moves me one big step closer to completing this goal.

I do not know what this year will hold. While there are things I am looking forward to on my calendar, I nearly anticipate them to change- canceled, delayed, or turned virtual. I am resting in the truth that God is in control.

What Survivors Really Want

The song, “All I Want for Christmas is My Two Front Teeth,” popped into my head earlier this evening and I began thinking about what it is that survivors of sexual abuse actually want. Too often, I see news stories plague social media feeds and news stations where people are making assumptions about why survivors take certain actions and the motives that lie behind them. Quickly, I noticed a list of things flowing in my brain that better reflect what we want- and the list, it might surprise you.

Some of the wants on this list are, in reality, needs; but, needs can be wants too. While I am speaking from my personal experience, I believe what I will share reflects the thoughts of a large percentage of, maybe even most, survivors as well. So, let’s get started:

1. BELIEVE: many of us are told by our abusers that no one will ever believe us. The unfortunate reality is that they are often right. Many of us will experience the trauma of not being believed when we disclose our abuse. Some of us will experience this disbelief on more than one occasion. When the abusers are truthful in one statement, it makes their other statements seem more truthful as well. So, when they have threatened to harm or kill us and those we care about, the reality of that happening as well, seems more apparent. However, if our disclosure of abuse is met with belief, that challenges what the abuser has said, and it makes us question the truthfulness of other threats that have kept us quiet for so long.

2. JUSTICE: think of a time when you or someone you love has been sinned against, harmed, or threatened. Did you want that person held accountable for the pain they caused? There is nothing different about a survivor of childhood sexual abuse. We want to see justice served. As a Christian, I rest assured in the fact that my abuser will have to answer for his sins against me (I will also have to answer for my sins) and that is the ultimate justice that I can imagine. However, that knowledge did not diminish my desire to see earthly justice as well. Unfortunately, most of us will not see what we (as humans) perceive as adequate justice. Many times, it will feel like a slap in the face when our abusers are handed out meager penalties for their crimes. Others will never see an ounce of criminal justice take place. Please avoid chastising us for fighting for justice.

3. ADMISSION: more than anything, I wanted to hear my abuser say, “I sexually abused Kendall Marie Wolz for multiple years on a regular basis.” I wanted to hear my abuser admit his guilt. While his admission is not a requirement for my healing, it is something that I believe is important to include on this list of wants. In a majority of the situations where I was abused, the two people physically present in the room were my abuser and me. Therefore, he and I are the two people who know what happened. When we (survivors) are not considered credible, or our cases are labeled as “he said, she said,” the desire grows for us to hear our accusations are truthful.

4. HUMANITY: we don’t want to be seen as a case number or referred to as some victim in a news story. Despite the crimes we have had committed against us, we are still humans, just like you. See us as more than a victim. Help us see ourselves as more than a victim. Remind us of our worth and our wholeness.

5. COMPENSATION: this is probably the “want” that we receive the most flack for wanting. In many states, survivors of sexual abuse have the opportunity to file a civil suit which will typically involve financial compensation. Too often, I hear men and women filing civil suits for sexual abuse labeled as “money hungry” or “greedy.” But, when someone loses a limb due to malfunctioning equipment or someone loses their life due to another person driving drunk, we don’t ascribe those titles to them. So, why do we call survivors names and accuse them of having malicious motives when they have lost something too- some things you cannot see. Being a sexual abuse survivor is expensive. Many spend hard-earned money on therapy visits and medical expenses that they would not need if they had not been abused. I’m not saying we wouldn’t ever need therapy or have medical expenses, but we have these expenses that are directly related to the abuse we experienced. It is not wrong for us to want compensation for our losses. For many of us, this is the only place we will ever see justice through a judicial system. For many of us, the motive isn’t even the compensation, it’s the opportunity for justice to be served where it hasn’t been previously.

6. HEALING and FREEDOM: I am finally at a point in my healing journey, seventeen years later, where reminders of my abuse are not ever-present. I’ve been able to receive many of the “wants” on this list, but it has taken seventeen years to receive them. I recognize that I am one of the few who will receive these things. There is no timeline for healing. Perhaps the things survivors want most, after belief, are healing and freedom from the pain the abuse causes. We don’t just hurt during the time we are abused. The pain doesn’t end when our disclosure is believed. Too often, we are hurt again and again, by individuals, institutions, and systems, that don’t care well for survivors of abuse. I have always considered my journey of healing as lifelong because as I reach different developmental stages in my life, I recognize new ways the abuse impacts my thoughts, emotions, and behavior. But, there does come a day when the pain begins to subside, it dulls; though, in a moment’s notice, the throbbing can return. We long for the days before we knew abuse, for some, there are no memories of the before. We desire freedom from the trauma triggers. We desire a life filled with hope, joy, and trust- don’t you want those things too?

I’m sure there are more “wants” than this, but I hope this gives you insight into what survivors typically desire and the motives behind them. I hope you will challenge others when they spread false narratives, particularly when it involves civil suits. I hope you will support the survivors in your lives.

She wanted more than her missing teeth.

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.

What You Should Know About Sex Offender Petitions

In my home state of North Carolina, there are several criteria that a registered sex offender must meet before they are able to seek removal from registry requirements. In this post, my hope is to raise awareness of one criterion that needs to be specified at the state level and enforced across jurisdictions.  If you find yourself stunned those individuals on the sex offender registry even have an opportunity to get off it, you are not alone. Unfortunately, many survivors of childhood sexual abuse may find themselves receiving a call like the one I received in July 2018.

A victim advocate introduced herself when I answered the phone. She called to tell me that my abuser had filed the necessary paperwork to petition for removal from the sex offender registry and a court date had been scheduled one week later. Thankfully, I had requested a meeting with an ADA when I learned, years earlier, my abuser would have the opportunity to petition for removal. In that meeting, the ADA explained the elements my abuser would have to prove to be eligible for removal from the registry and how the prosecutor’s office typically approached these hearings.  

Item 6 of the Findings of Fact on the AOC-CR-262 “Petition and Order for Termination of Sex Offender Registration” states: The petitioner is not a current or potential threat to public safety.

A couple of questions come to mind: how does one determine whether a person is a current or potential threat to public safety? What professional is qualified to make an assessment? What tools or research supports this type of assessment? Can anyone really say someone is not a current or potential threat to public safety? Is someone who committed sexual crimes against a child ever not a current or potential threat to public safety?

I am a provisional licensed professional counselor. I understand and appreciate the usefulness of assessments that help me track my clients’ progress and growth. Some assessments require additional training to administer. I have studied a couple of evidence-based assessments that are used to determine an offender’s risk of reoffending. While I do not think I would ever be willing to sign my name to a statement regarding a person’s potential threat to public safety, I can appreciate the science behind the assessments available for use. On most days, I am even okay with these assessments being utilized when offenders petition for removal from the registry. I am not okay when the evidence to support Item 6 comes from a professional opinion when no assessment has been conducted.

In my abuser’s petition hearing, his attorney produced a statement (regarded as an assessment) from a clinician that read “It is my professional opinion that (my abuser) does not pose a threat to children or to society.” The judge in this hearing initially pushed back against the gravity of this statement because there was no indication of a new assessment; instead, it appeared the document produced for evidence was a treatment completion report from 2009 (remember, this hearing was taking place in 2018). The clinician also wrote, “Without a doubt, (my abuser) showed re-assimilation to society, excels in the place of work and his family systems.” This is a very frightening statement, because my abuser did all those things during the time he was abusing me. He was not some creepy man on the fringes of society. He was a father figure, he was a husband, he maintained work, and he cared for the family- but during that time, he was also a child abuser. Those items cannot be our basis for measuring a person’s risk of reoffending. Following the judge’s pushback, a recess was granted so my abuser’s attorney could reach out to the clinic.

When we returned to the courtroom a few hours later, my abuser’s attorney relayed the information he gained from a phone call with the clinician. The following was reported to the court:

“Your honor, I can tell you I called (clinic), and was put in touch with the counselor or the doctor who did this evaluation – what I thought was an assessment. He advised me that because they had done the treatment over the years of (my abuser) [I think they meant the years 2006-2009], it’s their standard policy, unless specifically a new assessment is requested, to use their records, review those records, have a conversation with (my abuser) in May, to reach their conclusion. So they say based on that, they did not technically do a full assessment, even though that’s what we call it in scheduling. When he got there, what they did was review his records and have a conversation with him, but ultimately concluded that it is their professional opinion that he does not pose a threat to children or society.”

Did you know that your neighbor could have received one of these “assessments” and was granted removal from the sex offender registry, that’s why his/her name doesn’t show up when you visit the map of sex offenders’ addresses in your community?

This is why it is imperative that our courts ensure the safety and wellbeing of our children by requiring evidence-based assessments conducted by trained clinicians. While assessments are not foolproof, I am a lot more willing to place some faith in their results than I am a clinician reviewing records that are nine years old followed by a conversation with someone who is a master manipulator.

We must do better. We can do better. Our children deserve it. She deserved it.  

My Body Remembers Before My Brain

When I woke up this morning, I noticed that I just did not quite feel like my usual self. I had my coffee, dropped PJ off at the groomer and jumped into a busy morning of work. I initially chalked it up to left-overs from the migraine I had yesterday or the congestion I began feeling over the weekend. It was not until I looked at my Facebook memories for the day that I figured out why I felt off.

3 years ago today, I was packing my suitcase to fly to North Carolina the next morning as I prepared to face my abuser as he petitioned for removal from the sex offender registry. When I think about the moments before I left, I can still feel the anxiety and fear that filled me. The two days I spent in court for the petition hearing revealed brokenness in our judicial system. My breath literally escaped me and I gasped when the judge granted my abuser’s petition for removal from the sex offender registry. In shock, I turned to the victim advocate to ask “he’s off?”  

I broke for a moment. But I did not stay broken. During those two days in court, the same amount of time my abuser spent in jail for his crimes, my voice and my presence was unavoidable. I cannot imagine having to face that battle without the support which surrounded me. People across the United States and maybe even the world prayed for me and left words of encouragement that helped strengthen me. Benches were filled by “my people” who had walked this journey with me for nearly 12 years. When I took the stand, I looked in the eyes of those who believed me and were willing to sit with me on an uncomfortable bench in a crowded court room for two days and I knew I could continue with what I flew to NC to do- to have my voice heard. I am forever grateful for each person who was me with in person and in spirit.

While the pain still cuts deep when I think about the moment the judge made his ruling, the pain has largely been transformed into advocacy. 3 years ago, I had no idea the SAFE Child Act would be passed in my home state which would later allow me to pursue civil action against my abuser. I could have never imagined the opportunities to speak to audiences across the US and internationally that would be presented to me. If I had let the judge’s ruling and my abuser’s petition defeat me, I would have missed out on a lot of beautiful blessings in my life.

If you are in that broken place, please find a way to keep fighting, to keep healing. For me, my faith in God has been the ultimate source of healing; however, counseling has played a huge role in my life as well. It has been important for me to have safe, healthy people within my support system that I could turn to on days that were harder than others. I have learned to be patient with myself when I have days like today where everything feels off. I have learned that healing continues if I keep the momentum moving forward.

Exhale.

Yesterday marked the end of a nearly one-year long quest for justice made possible by the passing of the North Carolina SAFE Child Act in November 2019. It was not until I exhaled yesterday that I realized in many ways I had been holding my breath for the last year. It is so refreshing to breathe again.

In what I can only describe as divine intervention, I learned in July 2020 about how the NC SAFE Child Act directly affected me. On Twitter, I commented on a tweet about a person’s experience with their abuser petitioning for removal from the sex offender registry. I received a reply from an individual I had no other connection to on Twitter except this one comment I had posted. She informed me that my home state had passed a “revival window” in which any individual who experienced abuse in NC could pursue a civil suit before December 31, 2021, even if their statute of limitations had previously expired. This information created an opportunity for one last shot at justice through the judicial system. Armed with a recommendation for an attorney, I began a new fight.

I had no clue how difficult this fight would be. There were multiple times where I considered just dropping the effort and money put into the process because of how painful the work became; however, each time I considered quitting, I thought about the children my abuser has regular access to now, and I knew I had to keep fighting- if not for myself, for them.

You may be asking the question I started with- what exactly is a civil suit? You can google it and find all kinds of definitions and websites that will explain it to you with legal terms. For me, pursuing civil action meant I would have the opportunity to make the effects of the abuse I experienced known and to once again hold my abuser accountable for his crimes. Some people may ask, why now? Why did you wait until fourteen years had passed from your disclosure to pursue civil action? I had no idea this option was available to me. If you have followed my blog, you may remember a post from July 2019 when I met with a NC Senator to discuss my concerns about some of the legislation regarding the sex offender registry. In that meeting, he provided me with a copy of the draft of the Safe Child Act- it had not yet been passed. I read through the bill which included the information about the revival window for civil claims; yet it still did not register in my brain as an option available for me to pursue. It was not until my Twitter turned IRL friend told me directly, you can do this if you want and here is how you get started that I realized this bill was for me.

I am going to be sharing more about this journey in the coming weeks. Tonight, I wanted to leave a message for anyone who has experienced childhood sexual abuse in the state of North Carolina. If an individual abuse you or if an institution failed to protect you, there is a possibility that you can file a civil suit to recover some of the damages you incurred as a result of the crime you experienced. For many of you, the time to pursue civil action is limited. While I am going to be fighting to get the “revival window” extended, if that does not happen, your time will expire on December 31, 2021.

If you are considering pursuing civil action against your abuser or an institution, please do not hesitate to reach out. I am willing to answer any questions you may have, and I can connect you with an incredible attorney, and others who have chosen to walk this path as well. Follow my blog over the next few weeks to learn what the process was like for me. Ask the questions now to determine if pursuing civil action is the right step for you at this time in your life because time is running out.

Recently, I returned to the swamp outside of New Orleans and got to spend some time in one of my favorite locations in the world.

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