15-2648. That was me. That was my case number. It sounds so simple. So innocent. Just a number on a file. You’d never be able to guess the amount of heartbreak behind these insignificant numbers.
My life didn’t start out that way. No one is born a case number. No one is born with a broken heart. I was born, like every child, authentically me. I loved playing games with my siblings and taking my dog to the park. I loved dancing, acting, singing. I was obsessed with Hannah Montana. I remember watching the show, and loving Miley’s relationship with her dad. I loved my dad, and everyone loved him.
He was known as charming and helpful. He coached my little brother’s sports teams, was very involved in our church community and later worked at the church’s school. Everyone loved him.
Growing up, I always wanted to be a “Daddy’s girl” like Miley. I enjoyed hanging out with my dad. But sometimes, when my mom wasn’t home, he wanted to play in his bedroom. I didn’t like his bedroom. But it made my dad happy, so we played. When I left his bedroom, he would say to me, “I love you.” I said, “I love you more”.
However, I was hurt several times while in the care of my dad. To protect us all, my mom eventually filed for a divorce.
During visitations, he would play his game with me again, telling me how much he missed me. He would tell us all how sad he was. How he tried so hard to work it out with our mom, so we wouldn’t be a “broken family”. How our mom was the bad guy for taking us away.
He had custody of my dog, Chessa, who I loved more than anything. He would tell me how much Chessa missed me, too. How much she wanted me to come home. He wasn’t taking care of her but told me if my mom would let me come over more, I could take care of her.
We would want to leave his house, but he told me that it was his visitation time, and if our mom showed up, he would have her arrested.
I would go home to my mom and cry for hours. She filed against my father for emotional abuse. It was a long process, but thanks to my mom, our ad litem, counselors, and a judge who listened, we got a No-Contact-Order and were finally protected from our father.
Slowly, we started to heal as a real family. I was finally safe. But I still suffered from PTSD, depression, and anxiety. Just seeing a truck like the one he drove would start a panic attack. When I was 15, my school counselor asked me a series of questions. “Did your father ever sexually abuse you?” That wasn’t the first time a counselor had asked me that question. I had always thought of sexual assault as violent and being threatened. Automatically, I just said no. Then she asked, “He never made you feel uncomfortable?” I remember thinking, ‘Well yeah I felt uncomfortable lots of times but that was because we were playing. But that’s not how sexual abuse feels.’ She asked, “Did he ever touch your private areas, under or over the clothes?” i thought again,“Well, yeah he did but that’s because we were playing… we were playing” Something started to click inside my brain. I remember stopping and just saying, “Yes…” My mind exploded. Once I had realized the playing was wrong, a floodgate of other memories that I realized were wrong opened in my brain. Suddenly, tickling, spanking, even everyday activities, everything I thought was normal, became a crime. I ended up curled up on the floor of her office, hyperventilating.
I went home that night still trying to separate real playing from sexual abuse. I kept asking my mom if things he did to me when we were alone was normal. She kept saying no. No it was not normal for him to take all my clothes of when he spanked me. No it was not normal for him to feel my body before he spanked me. I looked at those memories in a whole new light. I remembered asking him once why he didn’t just spank me. Why not just get it over with? He whispered to me, it was to scare me. Then he would say 3 simple words that haunted me. “You Deserve It.” I would leave that room, not just aching, but afraid, knowing that it was all my fault, not knowing that I had just been sexually abused.
The next day, my mom and I went to a Children’s Advocacy Center. The nice investigator lead me into a mirrored interview room with a camera and asked me many questions, most of which I had no answer for. I was in so much shock I was still shaking inside. The aftermath of each assault was all hitting me at once. I had no time to process it. I just told the investigator as much as I could remember.
I went to counseling at that Center. I learned about my disorders. I learned about how I dissociated when I would pretend to be different characters to not feel pain, how I would go into another world while the assaults were happening and not be able to remember anything the next morning. As time went on, more memories slowly began to come back.
When he hurt me, it was always disguised as one of two things: playing, or punishment. My greatest fear should have been him. But when I was a kid, my greatest fear was hating him. When we played in his bedroom, and I wanted to stop, he would say, “Don’t you like playing with me? … Don’t you love me?” He would then hide his face in his hands and start to cry. What did I do? I comforted him. I told him over and over again how much I loved him, that the playing is okay as long as he didn’t cry because of me. He trained me to believe that he did what he did to me out of love. He was my Daddy. And I was his daughter. And he used my innocence and love to protect himself.
After my interview, we waited every day to hear if they had brought him in for questioning. 2 months later, we would told that he was brought in for questioning, immediately asked for an attorney, and left. The case was sent to the prosecutor, and we waited to hear if he would be brought in again or arrested. I found out then from my advocate that most sexual abuse cases are not prosecuted. My counselor told me that in the past 3 years, she had treated 150 kids, and only 3 of those kids’ cases were prosecuted.
7 months after I reported, I was told they would not be prosecuting my case. They never even met me.
I thought maybe they just didn’t understand the case, so I asked to meet with them. But they told me that because I had no proof: no physical evidence, witnesses, and/or a confession, no one would believe me. They said that it was my word against his, and juries think children lie. They told me I told too late. They told me that I just needed to move on. I told them I might be able to move on. But what about the next child he hurts? They said to me, “This is just the way it is.” I said to them, “This is the way it is. This is not the way it must remain.” I learned that day that justice is not about punishment, it’s about protection and prevention.
I left that meeting feeling more defeated than I ever had. But least my case was still investigated and was determined as a true finding, and he would be put on a maltreatment list. Only a few employers would see this list, but at least he wouldn’t be able to work in a school again. However, they gave him a chance to disagree, he disagreed. So now there would be a hearing.
I was warned then by my advocate that almost all true findings are overturned if appealed. I decided not to go to the hearing, which would have been in a small room, the judge on the phone, with no protection, and no legal representation for me. It sounded traumatizing and impossible to win. I was hurt. Now they expected me to do this? Another judge had given me protection from him, but now this hearing would have taken that protection away and given him another opportunity to abuse again.
The next time I saw my investigator, she told me, “I’m so sorry, I tried, but he won the appeal.” I wonder now how many victims she’s had to say those words to. She also told me, that my father was given my home address, and a DVD copy of my forensic interview where I described the details of my abuse for the first time.
My depression, anxiety, PTSD, night terrors, all of it got worse. Now that he knew where I lived I didn’t want to stay home, but I didn’t want to go out either. I felt vulnerable and unsafe no matter where I was.
I had always heard, “If you’re being hurt you should report.” I did report. Then my mandatory reporter reported. I did everything I was supposed to do. And nothing happened. I remember wondering why they wanted me to tell. What was the point. Nothing had been achieved except empowering my abuser and weakening me. This process was supposed to protect me. But all it did was hurt.
I took that pain and did what I do best, I started writing. Earlier this year, Natalie read that story that I wrote years ago and asked to meet with me. I was so excited that she, the director of the Benton County Children’s Advocacy Center, wanted to meet with me. I was made to feel so many times like my story didn’t matter, and here Natalie was, asking to hear more.
When I walked through the Benton County CAC’s doors for the first time, I was immediately grateful that a place like this exists for kids who need it. Natalie greeted me with the sincerest of smiles and showed me around the center. I am usually very weary of meeting new people, but following Natalie around the CAC, I knew almost at once that she is someone I can trust. She showed me the different colorful and playful waiting rooms, some of which had families sitting in there waiting for therapy. I thought about how for years I was fortunate enough to get free counseling from a CAC. Natalie told me that the Benton County CAC has provided over 1,800 free counseling services this year. Which is both incredible, and heart breaking.
Before that day, I wanted to be a writer, but remain anonymous. When we sat down in Natalie’s office, she told me that my story was important and that she hoped that one day I would feel empowered enough to tell it as Sarah, and not my pen name. Natalie showed me that there are people out there who do care about what survivors have to say. People, who like me, are done accepting things for the way they are and are working towards the way things should be. People who share my goal of ending child abuse and making sure that every child is defended and protected.
Since that day, Natalie has given me so many opportunities and platforms to speak my truth. She is not only helping me get my voice back, she is teaching me how to use it. Please support her and the Advocacy Center. They not only provide amazing services to children and their families, but they are also experts highly trained to ensure that a case is properly handled, so that true findings can lead to a successful prosecution.
My case number, 15-2648, is closed. It was dismissed. But somewhere right now, a child is walking into a CAC, about to report the unimaginable. Don’t let their story end the way mine did. If you have the power to change even a little bit in this child’s process, please do.
Choose to empower children.