Recent attention has surrounded sexual assaults on college campuses. In April, Yale University came under scrutiny for failing to respond appropriately to sexual violence and harassment claims.
Vice President Joe Biden said in a speech last April, “No means no, if you’re drunk or you’re sober. No means no if you’re in bed, in a dorm or on the street. No means no even if you said yes at first and you changed your mind. No means no.”
Earlier this year, the Obama Administration sent out guidelines to help colleges deal with assaults. The government, however, failed to address actions some victims face long before their college years.
A study funded by the Justice Department found that one in four women will be assaulted during their college years, and 95 percent of sexual assaults on campuses aren’t reported. If legal adults aren’t reporting such illegal activity, then why would a child?
Personal injury attorney Joseph Klest has represented more than 500 victims of sexual abuse over his 29-year career. Just like sexual assault cases in college, Klest thinks less than five percent of child molestation cases are reported, so he encourages survivors to come forward.
“There are very few false allegations of abuse because it’s a very embarrassing issue for the victim,” Klest said. “Victims will be surprised at how society will rally behind them. It’s never too late to share the truth.”
Largest Sexual Abuse Settlement Handed Down
In general, sexual assault cases are “he-said, she-said.” Klest thinks child molesters forge strong relationships with victims families to gain trust. Furthermore, they have their own families and want to save themselves if accused. Without any witnesses or hard evidence, cases can go nowhere, and many times, they are settled in a civil procedure.
In May, a revolutionary verdict was delivered in the Illinois case of Snyder v. Kenny. After six years of abuse from family friend Michael P. Kenny, Lawrence Snyder overcame a crippling drug addiction and life on the streets before bringing his disturbing past to light.
Running away from the abuse (and his home) at the age of 18, Snyder started experimenting with heroin and begged on the streets for money to feed his addiction. Six years later, he learned that Kenny was coaching children sports. Afraid for the kids’ well-being, Snyder filed a lawsuit to prevent Kenny from getting near kids ever again.
“It’s very common for survivors not to talk about it until they’re in their later years of college,” Dr. Walter Afield, Founder and President of the Neuropsychiatric Institute and former head of John Hopkins’ child psychiatry department, said. “They still have problems relating to the opposite sex and maintaining relationships. They feel very embarrassed, so it’s important that society continues to talk about the issue.”
The $28 million settlement represents the largest single-victim, civil sexual abuse verdict in history. Snyder’s lawyer was Klest, who said after the verdict that it looked like a great weight was lifted from his client’s shoulders.
“These lawsuits are an important part of the healing process and a way for victims to get justice,” Klest said. “Large settlements send an important message to sex offenders.”
Big Names Come Forward
In February, Senator Scott Brown (R-MA) and actress Ashley Judd shared their personal experiences as survivors of child abuse. Recently, CNN Anchor Don Lemon and rapper Missy Elliott did too.
A prominent member of the media, Lemon came out of the closet in his newly released memoir “Transparent.” He chronicles his tough upbringing, once believing his sorrows were a direct result of his homosexuality. After intense therapy and self-reflection as an adult, he realized the abuse he sustained as a child stunted his emotional development.
“I wouldn’t wish this on my enemies, so it’s terrible for it to happen to children,” Lemon said in an exclusive interview with USA Today College. “For a long time, I just pushed it to a part of my brain where I didn’t have to think about it. Getting the therapeutic help I needed earlier in my life would have made things smoother.”
Lemon said his CNN platform has allowed him to make a far more powerful impact than he could have imagined.
Missy Elliott’s story was featured in a recent edition of VH1’s show, “Behind the Music.” When she was eight, her 16-year-old cousin abused her every day after school.
“It became sexual, which, for me at eight years old, I had no clue what that was, but I knew something was wrong,” Elliott said. “Being molested… it don’t disappear. You remember it as if it was yesterday.”
Senator’s Brown’s story is particularly noteworthy. He flew under-the-radar to win Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in 2010, giving hope to the Republican Party and – at the time – solidifying the Tea Party. Now, conservatives consider him a strong candidate for the 2016 Presidential Election.
Brown faced encounters with sexual predators as a child, evidenced by the abuse he sustained by a camp counselor. Like Lemon, Brown, 52, didn’t tell anyone of the incidents until he came out with his autobiography, “Against All Odds” earlier this year.
“I’ve had a lot [of people] pull me aside and say, ‘Thank you, it either happened to me or I know somebody, my family or friend who had been the victim of sexual abuse,’” Brown told USA Today in February. “It’s something that made me who I am.”
13-Year-Old Takes Action against Perpetrator; Wants Survivors to Punish Their Molesters Too
The psychiatric impact on a victim with haunting memories from his or her childhood can be debilitating.
“The consequences are unfortunate,” Dr. Afield said. “I have one patient who’s almost 40. She’s been molested since she was one or two. The only way she knows how to relate with people is through sex. It worked for her when she was younger and was making money off it, but now she’s struggling. Some victims will sexually act out with everybody and become promiscuous. That’s not because they have a great sex drive – it’s because something happened in their childhood. The majority of survivors, though, suffer in silence.”
Star Melody Terrell of Waco, Texas, was a victim of incessant molestation suffered at the hands of her grandfather during her early years. Star, 13, isn’t afraid anymore. And she doesn’t want anyone else to be either.
Star accused her paternal grandfather of molesting her eight years ago, and she faced off with her alleged molester on April 18, taking the witness stand and testifying for justice. Unlike other minors whose identities are protected by the media, Star went public with her story, reaching out to me as I began the process to write this story. Her mother, Suzanna Terrell, said her daughter did not want to hide her suffering.
“She feels that other young children who have been victimized in this manner should know that what happened was not their fault, and that people who commit those acts against them deserve to be punished,” Terrell said. “She also thinks that facing the man she has accused will be part of the healing process. It’s a type of courage that I have never seen before, and I hope that people who see what she’s doing are half as inspired by it as I am.”
The accused molester, John Ray Edward Terrell, was charged by the state of Texas with child molestation, and upon further investigation, was additionally charged with production and possession of child pornography and human trafficking.
“It’s in every religious and social order,” Dr. Afield said. “It’s in every place you can think of: boys and girls in schools, homes, prisons, places of worship. It’s happening today, and it happened in the prehistoric times. Some cultures feel this is a normal way of growing and relating. Areas such as Uganda, Rwanda and the Middle East – some guys are busy raping people to show their control and power. In our culture, sicker people will abuse a bunch of kids, but it’s still seen as out of context. The bottom line is, it’s a bad thing to happen because it causes scars and major problems for perpetrators and victims. Getting help is important, and college could provide resources and support to facilitate a recovery.”
Star is a 13-year-old putting herself on the line for those who are afraid to, and she’s hoping her story will motivate others to do the same.
Steps to Take if You are a Survivor of Sexual Abuse:
1) Tell your immediate family and close friends. Counselors believe dealing with a sensitive issue like this during college can be viewed as more favorable than having to manage it while working or being married.
2) Seek psychiatric counseling and psychotherapy. Most colleges have Women’s Centers that offer free counseling services for both males and females.
3) Ensure your personal safety. If necessary, tell campus police to keep yourself safe from perpetrators.
4) A suit is something you do not want to instigate in the heat of the moment. The decision concerning appropriate actions should be made slowly and carefully with your family. Contact a personal injury lawyer and other proper authorities. They will fill you in on statutory limitations. It could take years to build the courage to take this step, but it’s important to remember that other people could be at risk too.
“There are people who enjoy sexual relationships with children,” Afield said. “That’s a genetic problem, so there’s no known cure. Even if the perpetration stops, the feelings are always still present.”
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