Secret shame: Lifelong impact — Victims, families, society cope with effects of abuse

Published: Tuesday, March 18 2008 12:00 a.m. MDT

Social worker Angela Shields works with a 5-year-old. Shields explains that making a book about the abuse will get bad thoughts out of a child's mind so she can feel better.

Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News

Third in a four-part series.

Is she a victim or isn't she? Julie is 26 now. It's been more than 20 years since the first sexual assault happened, but she still struggles with that question.

Is she a victim or not?

Lately the young woman has been talking to friends about her childhood history — especially since everything blew up with her family and she's been having to relive the details again.

Her friends tell her she needs to get some professional help. "But I don't want to get help," Julie exclaims. "I don't want to be broken."

Julie is not her real name. She has a baby boy now, is married and is really trying to move away from the memory of childhood sex abuse that has continued to rear its head through her young life.

She was a toddler, she says, maybe 3 or 4, when her teenage stepbrother first started his abuse. She remembers it lasted until she was about 5. By then the damage was already done.

"My whole life, for as long as I can remember," said Julie. "I looked at myself as the neighborhood whore."

· · · · ·

"There's probably no form of abuse that's more damaging than sexual abuse," said Duane Betournay, Utah Division of Child and Family Services director. "It seems to take a lot longer for a child, if ever, to get better from that."

Of the 20,340 cases Child Protective Services investigated in Utah last year, 26 percent involved allegations of sexual abuse, second only to domestic violence.

Betournay called the figure shocking. "That speaks to how serious of an issue it is, not just in Utah but nationwide," he said.

Rape is the one violent crime in Utah that has been higher than the national average over the past several years. Yet only one in 10 rapes gets reported to authorities, according to the Rape in Utah survey.

The impact of sexual assault on Utah victims poses a huge concern for officials here.

"It impacts a significant segment of people in our state, and I fear it's a growing problem," said Ron Gordon, head of the Office of Crime Victim Reparations.

It's not just the numbers that are devastating, Gordon said. "It's the impact on the victim and their family and the way people respond to this crime. We are creating a situation where people don't feel comfortable telling others about what's happened to them."

Those who do tell often aren't believed. For a host of complicated reasons, family members who learn of abuse often don't take action, and this further piles on the insult of abuse, victims say.

At a children's counseling center, a mother who agreed to allow a reporter to observe her 11-year-old daughter's recent treatment for sex abuse told the visitor she didn't know her husband was assaulting the girl. But in with the therapist, the girl said she had told her mom, but that her mother hadn't taken action then and was trying to figure out "what to do."

· · · · ·

What is so tricky about this kind of crime, say victims and their advocates, is the insidious ways the consequences of abuse show up.

Adult victims lose their sense of safety. They no longer view the world as a safe place. Those feelings are magnified if the abuse happened at home, work or school. They fear being assaulted again.

Many suffer symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. They experience recurring nightmares, intrusive thoughts, depression, sadness and loss of control.

Julie has had some of these symptoms and has struggled with self-image and eating disorders, too.

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