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Mike Terry, Deseret Morning News
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.
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."

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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.

In toddlers, experts see terrible stomach aches, depression, nightmares, acting out and problems concentrating, says Doug Goldsmith, director of The Children's Center and its therapeutic preschool.

The acting out includes a whole world of adult sexualized behavior that can get passed on to other young people.

"A lot of these kids don't know it's wrong," said Sandy police detective Jeff DuVal. Perpetrators make it seem like a game, he said. The child victim will then play the "game" with a friend. So the abuse can get passed on and on.

DuVal said he may interview the child as a victim and years later as a suspect.

Children go through a variety of emotions but take on an added burden if the perpetrator is a relative or someone they trust. They see their world dismantling because what happened to them may pit family members against each other.

"It polarizes families in an amazing way like nothing else does," said Lori Frasier, a University of Utah Safe and Healthy Families pediatrician. Children feel a sense of responsibility. They blame themselves.

"That betrayal of trust really damages the core of an individual. They're powerless," said Susanne Mitchell, director of the Salt Lake County Children's Justice Center.

Parents of victims bring their own set of issues: guilt about how they should have known, and sometimes a reliving of their own childhood abuse.

Parents also often feel a sexually abused child will never regain their innocence. "That's a myth we want to dispel," Mitchell said. "We don't want that to define the child."

But sometimes, Julie says, it does define the child.

Her teenage stepbrother continued his abuse, then as she got older, invited other teenage neighbor boys to watch her in other sexually inappropriate behaviors with her other siblings.

As is often the case as child victims grow to be adults, Julie faced bumps with her spouse and family as she's tried to confront the abuse.

"I think the worst part is feeling like I've had a problem."

· · · · ·

As she looks back at those first introductions to abuse, Julie stays away from specific details. She remembers everything, but random sidenotes of the abuse are gnawing at her today — like the fact that her 7-year-old brother was watching ... and that her family kept the sleeping bag where the abuse first occurred.

She says she is done being mad at her mom, who knew about at least one incident of abuse. The teenage boy actually went to juvenile sex offender treatment after Julie's parents reported this incident to officials. But the two children continued to live together and were often unsupervised.

Julie says she's been so angry at her parents at times. "Why didn't you take me out of the house?" She's wondered of her mother. "Why didn't you take him out of the house?"

At Christmastime last year, Julie says she lost it. Her husband was away, and she was staying at her parents' home. The stepbrother who'd abused her wanted to come to stay at the house, too.

"I told my dad that was fine, but that my baby and I wouldn't be there," Julie said.

Her dad told her to get over it.

A family drama ensued that took some time to work out. The young man never came over. Julie stood her ground. Her father threatened suicide over it. But in the end, her father apologized for everything, which is really what Julie says she wanted.

"I do think it's something I need to deal with," she said. "I just need to get over it. But I honestly don't see how therapy is going to help."

Gordon, of the Office of Crime Victim Reparations, might disagree. "Left unchecked, this can have really long-term consequences."

· · · · ·

Many say the state is failing victims of sexual abuse.

"I think the biggest issue is that we are too 'offender focused' in our approach to sexual violence," said Heather Stringfellow, director of the Rape Recovery Center and former detective in the Salt Lake Police Department's sex crimes division.

The bulk of Utah's time and money is spent on housing and treatment for sex offenders after the crime happens. Local and state government need to be focused on preventing sexual violence in the first place, she said.

"The state is responsible to protect its citizenry from sex offenders and crimes," Stringfellow says. "Although holding convicted sex offenders accountable and providing treatment is critical, the system needs to work to incorporate victims' rights as well."

And the state must make services accessible to victims when an assault does occur and maintain a system that encourages victims to report the crimes and prosecutors to follow through with locking up the offender.

"In my opinion, the state continues to spend too little time and money training peace officers across the state to respond effectively to rape and sexual assault, too little money making the community aware of the public services that are available if they are victimized, and lastly too little — no — state funds are directed toward victim treatment."

The prevention of sexual violence is an area where Utah is "severely lacking," said Alana Kindness, Utah Coalition Against Sexual Violence executive director. Her coalition hopes to change that next year. Kindness said it plans to submit a proposal for money in next year's state budget.

"It's an incredibly important public health issue," she said. "It's an incredibly important public safety issue."

· · · · ·

Julie is trying to change her language and her outlook toward herself. It is still a struggle.

"I used to say all the time, 'I'm messed up,' and I try not to say that anymore," she says. "I'm not messed up. I just have issues, and who doesn't."

E-mail: lucy@desnews.com; romboy@desnews.com