“There are things worse than death,” said a friend who has worked with children along the Gulf Coast for over 20 years. “Being sexually abused is one of them.”
She described sexual abuse of children in Mobile and Baldwin counties as “rampant and widespread. It is the most equal opportunity thing on the planet, but no one in our communities wants to talk about it.”
Count the men, women, boys, and girls around you. At the grocery store. In cars on Government Street or Highway 98. At the beach. In the barbershop. In church. On ballfields and on playgrounds. The neighborhood or location doesn’t matter. The story behind the numbers is the same.
One out of four girls will be sexually abused by the time they turn 18, according to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC). One out of six boys.
Some surveys say one in three girls.
The NSVRC also reported that 12.3 percent of women were age 10 or younger at the time of their first rape victimization, and 27.8 percent of men were age 10 or younger. Only 12 percent of child sexual abuse is reported to the authorities. In 93 percent of the assaults, the abuser knows the victim and it is unlikely he will go to jail. Out of 1,000 rapes, 995 perpetrators won’t serve any jail time according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.
April is National Childhood Abuse Awareness month, bringing attention to horrible acts easy to hide, dismiss, and ignore. Kids in our communities are going through hell at home, but we don’t want to know about it. There are approximately 500 children in foster care in Mobile County and 200 in Baldwin County — almost 700 children removed from their families by DHR because of abuse or neglect.
One in four. One in six. 500. 200. The numbers don’t tell the story of a father who is a predator, not a protector. Of a toddler raped because she was born into a family passing abuse down from generation to generation. Of an uncle stroking his nephew’s penis saying, “This is our secret.” Of a mama letting her boyfriend have his way with her daughter so they can have a place to stay. Of the stepdads, neighbors, friends, stepbrothers, brothers, cousins, boyfriends, teachers, coaches, priests, and preachers stealing the innocence of a child. Of grooming and seducing boys or girls too young to understand what bad touch means.
Families teach what happens in this house, stays in this house. Speaking out is betrayal. Silence allows the abuse to continue and family members to pretend it is okay. Mothers say nothing because the same thing happened to them.
The crime is cruel and never okay. There is a victim, even if the victim is voiceless. The secret that destroys childhood, stunts development, causes learning disabilities, shatters self-esteem, and rewires the brain is a devastating price to pay for a man’s sexual desires. It is a reason children give for running away from a home that is not safe.
Over the past year, I listened to the stories of victims and survivors of domestic violence, sexual exploitation, and sex trafficking. Almost every woman in those stories was sexually abused as a child, many raped by a family member. Women who knew what I was writing about shared their stories in motel bathrooms, at the park, and between classes at the gym. Friends told of abuse that happened 20 and 30 years ago. All were relieved to share their story and to know they weren’t the only one.
“I was two years old when my father grabbed my diaper and pulled me to him.”
“My stepdad raped me from when I was seven to 15. He said if I told, I would be taken from my mom. I believed him. My best friend in high school told me that her real father was doing the same things to her. We made a pact to tell someone.”
“I was abused for as long as I can remember by my uncle. He took me to church every Sunday because my parents didn’t go. He lived next door, and the abuse happened every day for decades. It was my normal and I came to expect it. My family knew about it. The adults said I should get over it and forgive and forget. I begged to go to therapy but they wouldn’t allow it. I knew this wasn’t normal, and I had a plan to kill myself. I begged my dad for years to talk to me about this. Why didn’t you protect me? How could you allow this to happen? Finally, he said, ‘What did you expect me to do? He is my brother?’ I said, ‘But I am your daughter.’ I moved out the next day.”
“I was almost nine years old. My stepbrother was 13 and played Enter Sandman by Metallica every time he raped me. If I hear that song now, I get sick to my stomach. He would wrap his hand around my long, blonde hair and say, ‘If you breathe a word of this, I will kill you.’ I kept quiet because I didn’t want anything to happen. I was very innocent and naive. I am 40 years old and still don’t comprehend my childhood.”
The perpetrators have often been abused, too. Ronnie was in Metro Jail for domestic violence. Handcuffed hands on the table in the interview room, he cried as he told of his uncle raping him for years starting when he was four years old. “I could not tell anyone,” he said. “Who do you go to with that?”
Ray lay in a hospital bed at Mobile Infirmary wearing a yellow wristband that read “At Risk,” praying doctors could get his seizures under control. A registered sex offender who went to prison for sexually abusing his six-year-old stepdaughter, Ray told of his childhood and moving with his mom, aunt, and sisters into his grandfather’s house. His grandfather raped all of them and his mother did nothing to stop it.
“Even If I had spoken out, no one would have helped me,” he said. “My mom should have done something. Drinking is the only way to relieve the pain and let go of the memories.”
“If a child is kidnapped and raped by a stranger, we go after him with a vengeance. Why do we look the other way when the abuse is by someone the child knows?” my friend asked. She questions if her work has made a difference because the problems are growing and society is paying for it with the consequences of drug and alcohol abuse.
“I have met very few women who have drug and alcohol addictions who were not raped as a child,” she said.
An interview with Marie for Our Southern Souls began with stories of getting sober. She started sneaking into her parents’ liquor cabinet when she was eight years old. Removed from her family and adopted before she was old enough to talk, she has few memories of her life before the adoption. There was no more contact with her birth father, but he left scars in places no child should be touched. “I was so young, with no memories of what happened to me, but the emotional pain remained. That is why I started drinking.”
Children not protected from adversity will suffer, said Dr. Teena McGuinness, Professor and Chair, Department of Family, Community and Health Systems at the University of Birmingham.
“Physical and sexual abuse in childhood have the greatest negative impact on adult health,” she said. “It is traumatic, and most keep the secrets inside and never get help. They have increased risks for depression, suicide, and drug and alcohol abuse.”
The Child Advocacy Center in Mobile provides that help to childhood victims of sexual and severe physical abuse. Children and their non-offending family members are provided counseling and preparation for the criminal justice process.
“Bad stuff happens to these kids, and it is not their fault,” says CAC Director Andy Wynne. “They didn’t choose their parents. Kids come in here as basket cases because of what happened to them. Six months later, there is more peace and happiness as they go into the therapist’s office. If they get the right help and support, they can make it through this. It’s the ones we don’t see who keep me up at night. We need to do more to reach them.”
If you are a “one in four” or a “one in seven,” know that you are not alone. Abuse is not normal, and it was not your fault. Talk to a therapist. These secrets are too heavy to carry on your own. The first step to your healing is telling someone who is equipped to help you through this.
If you are a family member aware of abuse, step in and say something today. The child may be young, but he or she already knows what hell is. We have to fight for our kids. All of them.
My friend keeps fighting because she believes in a life of healing and recovery for abused children. She fights to stop the abuse from passing to the next generation because accepting the abuse of children is unacceptable.
No child should live a live worse than death.
Rape Crisis Center, a program of Lifelines Counseling Services offers assistance to any survivors of sexual abuse. If you or someone you know needs to talk or receive counseling our 24 hour hotline is 251-473-7273.