Katie’s long nightmare of sex abuse began when she was 8. It started with a great-uncle and continued another eight years with two more males well known to the family.
While it’s not her real name, “Katie” — now 33, married, in college and mother of two young sons — is breaking her long silence to tell other victims of child molestation that help is close at hand.
“Even certain smells bring back memories,” Katie said in a 91.3 WCPI interview airing this week. “It’s like a picture show with all the flashbacks.”
Katie, who is majoring in psychology at Motlow State Community College while holding down a regular job, said she kept the dark secret of abuse to herself until she was 18, then telling her aunt, wife of the first perpetrator.
“She just laughed it off. She didn’t believe me for nearly 15 years,” Katie said in the radio interview coinciding with the last week of the nationwide month of media emphasis on child abuse and neglect awareness and prevention.
“If abuse starts early in the lives of victims they think it’s normal,” said Martha Phillips, director of the Children’s Advocacy Center of the 31st Judicial District and another of the interview guests on WCPI’s “Focus” program this week. “The majority of cases are never reported,” she continued, noting that perpetrators often bully their victims into silence by convincing them no one will believe their complaints of victimization.
Also, a sense of shame and embarrassment prompts families to “handle these cases internally” without involving authorities, Phillips stated.
But District Attorney General Lisa Zavogiannis, the third member of the interview panel, warned that serious penalties await not only the criminal perpetrators but also those who know about, or have reason to suspect abuse, but who fail to report it. Tennessee criminal law puts responsibility on a wide range of people, both inside and outside the victim’s family, to share their knowledge or legitimate suspicions with law enforcement and child-protective services.
Among those outsiders are school employees and health care providers. “It’s a crime not to report it,” the Zavogiannis said.
On a national average “90 percent are victimized by someone they know,” Phillips observed. “In our community, it’s been 100 percent.”
The common image of an ominous stranger lurking around a playground to target a victim is often exaggerated, as sex abuse is almost always a homegrown crime, said Phillips and Zavogiannis. That’s not to suggest, however, that parents and caregivers need not be constantly vigilant in all places and at all times.
Signs of sexual abuse are often subtle, but parents should be alert to them. Unexplained changes in personality, study habits, relationships with friends and daily routines might signal hidden distress over sex-abuse victimization, Phillips said.
Even a vague sense of unease might be a caution light to parents. And children should never be urged to show affection to relatives or others if there are indications of resistance or aversion, Phillips said. “Don’t force your children in an affectionate relationship with a relative,” like hugging or giving a kiss, she urged.
Zavogiannis takes sex-abuse education programs into the elementary schools of Warren and Van Buren counties. The current awareness campaign includes gradually scaled-up instruction, from an instructive puppet show for the earliest grades to a more direct and explicit program for fifth-graders, she noted.
Reaching out to other unnamed victims of molestation and abuse, Katie stresses that professional and community help is available. Harboring the resentments, fears and hatred arising from abuse experience can be self-destructive, Katie said. Keeping those horrible memories inside, she said, is “explosive bottling up. It’s no closure. It’s an ongoing battle every day.”
Over time, and with help from friends, family and mental health professionals, victims can work toward some adjustment and even healing, Katie concluded.
Broadcast of the half-hour “Focus” interview will air Wednesday at 5:05 a.m., Thursday at 1 p.m., and Friday at 1:05 a.m.