Speaking As Parents

by Tom & Gail Harsh

When Are You Going to Get on With Your Life?', (Annie Nelson's article in the last issue of Survivors & Friends) prompted us to write an update on how we are 'getting on with' our lives. Last year we wrote 'In memory of Amy' (Survivors & Friends 93/94 Vol. II #4). Regarding survivors of child sexual abuse, both of us have some understanding of the recovery process'and it is a process. We are friends of survivors and parents of a survivor. That is, our daughter survived childhood sexual abuse, but she did not survive life.

Looking back, within a year's time our lives went from 'perfect' to 'a living hell' and we began the first of what was to become a variety of grieving processes. We were grieving that Amy was a victim of childhood sexual abuse, that she had been victimized, threatened, and shamed into silence, and robbed of years of her life. Having been traumatized by the abuse and the threats, Amy had repressed the memories for years. Amy came to us, her parents,for help.

Painfully, and over a period of months, Amy told us how she had been molested from age 4 to 8 by a relative. The bedrooms Amy slept in at the relative's house during those years were connected by walk-through closets. Amy shared vivid memories of seeing her middle of the night abuser quietly slipping out of the bedroom via the walk-through closet door.

This early victimization put Amy at risk for what followed. A year later Amy was targeted by a volunteer teacher in her private school. The man was given a small office off her 4th grade classroom. Typical of older school buildings, high windows prevented visibility into the room. When this volunteer teacher took individual students into the office to 'help' them, he closed the door to 'block the noise of their classmates in the next room.'

Amy was saved by our move to Redmond, but not before this volunteer teacher abused, exploited, and traumatized her. The police report states that this teacher was allowed to resign months later from another school after multiple allegations of 'inappropriate touch' were made to the administration. He is currently teaching in a Washington State public elementary school.

It is known that many victims of sexual abuse are hurt as much from seeing their offender go unpunished by the system as from the abuse itself. This was true in Amy's case. For months we honored her request for silence and privacy regarding her disclosures. As Amy's memories returned at home, she journaled and shared what she chose with us and with her counselor. Amy finally asked us to turn to her extended maternal family, to tell them of her disclosures and work with them for support and healing. Amy's favorite aunt embraced her with love, faith, loyalty, and prayers.

The remainder of Amy's extended maternal family betrayed her. Amy's grandfather insisted, 'The truth must not get out!' and demanded that as her parents we were to 'silence her' and 'make her lie to the authorities.' In spite of Amy's grandfather and extended maternal relatives' attempts to discredit and silence her, Amy would not be silenced. Like E.S.A.C.C. (Eastside Sexual Assault Center for Children), Amy felt 'Children should be seen, and heard, and believed!'

Caught off guard, we stood firmly with Amy but were shocked at the support systems and organizations ready to help and protect the offenders instead of the victims. Amy's extended maternal family gravitated to these organizations. (Where were the organizations for parents and supporters of victims?)

Amy was suffering from bulemia as a result of her post traumatic stress. She was plagued by nightmares, frequently awakening us in the night with her crying. She was tired, weak, and heartbroken at the abandonment of grandparents, aunts, and uncles. Her immune system began to fail. She contracted mononucleosis and we stood by her hospital bed as Amy became the first girl in the world to die of mono. For the two of us, and our two remaining children, the heartbreak seemed unbearable. Our unresolved grief of her childhood sexual abuse was now overshadowed by the grief of her death.

As parents, it will always be a comfort to us that we believed our daughter, and she knew we believed her. But we could not keep her alive. To our surprise, we have found that as PARENTS, we were unique in supporting our daughter as a victim. We knew of no parent support group. Instead we found that many parents and adults fail to report the victimization of children for various reasons:

  • Parents may not want their child to be exposed as a victim.
  • Children may not want their parents to expose them as a victim.
  • Parents may have been victims of abuse themselves and fear the experience of exposing their own emotions or past secrets.
  • Parents may fear the behavior or loss of their spouses or family members.
  • Parents may have shame and guilt at not protecting their child and are afraid of how their friends, relatives, and neighbors will respond.

This kind of thinking protects a whole host of sex offenders. These unidentified, unexposed, unajudicated, and untreated sex offenders are victimizing our children on an ongoing basis because few have the courage to fight the system to intervene and expose them. Every child that they subsequently offend becomes our victim, too, because we have protected them with our silence. When an offender is exposed, a child'possibly many more children'may be saved from the trauma and torture of sexual exploitation and secrecy.

As parents, we trusted our perceptions and knew Amy needed to trust us. We did all we could to make her feel safe. As parents, we struggled to let her, as the victim, have all her feelings'not just acceptable, comfortable ones. We could understand her feelings of fear and anger, but we could not really understand her feelings of shame. After all, she had been a child, an innocent child!

We have learned that perpetrators show no shame, can boldly lie, and having convinced themselves that they have done nothing wrong, they usually pass polygraph tests. (We now know that the American Psychological Association considers polygraph tests unethical in child sexual abuse cases.) Sadly we saw, as Annie's article said, 'There is a lot of shame attached to each memory of abuse, and that has to be worked through.' For Amy there was not enough time left to work through her abuse.

With our pain, it would be easy to give up, to hide from the world and from feelings. A grieving person resolves pain by acknowledging the loss and reconnecting with others. The stages of grief must all be experienced before resolution. Helpful to us has been our faith in God, our friends, our counselors, and journaling. Both of our remaining children frequently journal through poetry. This summer we will celebrate our 24th anniversary.

It is also our legacy to Amy to continue to believe and support victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. We do not want her suffering to be in vain. We recently read a paraphrase of Proverbs 11:14''Where there is no guidance from those who have experience, the people will fall victim to the victimizer, but there is a way to avoid such a fall, and that is to heed the words of the many counselors who warn of the evil.'

Many counselors, educators, parents, and pastors are warning of the evil of child victimization by the sex offender. With our warnings and preventive education comes the advice to our children''TELL someone! TELL a parent, a counselor, a teacher, a pastor.' What we are missing in the prevention of child sexual abuse is that once the child TELLS, or the survivor who once was a child TELLS, they must be believed!!!

What do survivors need in the way of support from their parents? Our counselor advised us that we needed to make our daughter feel safe and to feel that we were trustworthy. We believed Amy and we honored her feelings and requests, but we will always wish we could have done more. As parents, we feel that part of our own healing will be to connect with other parents who want to help survivors heal as they journey through the recovery process. As parents, we needed an organization, support group of parents of victims/survivors, guidance to know how to support and protect our daughter.