STAFF WRITER, Cape Cod Times
September 23, 2007
The Yarmouth girl had a secret about her stepdad.
He molested her, as he had other kids. Yet he seems to haunt her more than ever, years later, even after she finally came forward and helped send him to prison for the abuse.
Now an older teenager, she is running wild, her mom "Sandy" recently told the Times.
"She just doesn't understand, because we had such a perfect life, why he did it," Sandy said. "She wants to know why, and there's not an answer."
Young, female and now having nightmares about a man she thought she knew — it's the most common profile of a sexual assault victim in Massachusetts and throughout the country.
While you might not hear much about them — media outlets don't cover as many sexual crimes as actually occur, in part because of issues with victim's privacy — survivors are out there.
Lots of them. More than you might want to know.
High-profile cases make national news and frightening local instances of stranger rape put communities on alert. But perpetrators are more often hiding in plain sight. They're often acquaintances, partners and family members.
About a third of criminal cases in all the Cape and Islands' superior courts combined — Barnstable and the smaller Nantucket and Dukes courts — involve sexual assault, according to Brian Glenny, Cape and Islands first assistant district attorney. Allegations range from threats to horrifyingly violent or grossly perverted abuse.
And the cases that make it to court, or get reported to police at all, are only a portion of all the sexual assaults that likely occur, according to experts. "The number of victims that I've worked with personally, who have not reported, is stunning," said Sheridan Haines, executive director of the Governor's Council to Address Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence, which Gov. Deval Patrick re-established in June.
Most sexual assault victims are women, they can also be men or boys, old or young, of any ethnicity, of any sexuality.
The same is true for perpetrators. Children attack children, men attack men, mothers assault daughters. Men break into homes or rape a woman in the bushes as she walks down a dark street. Any scenario you can think of has probably happened, here on the Cape.
But more often than not, victims are young women whose perpetrators are men they already know. A date or boyfriend or husband. A father. A grandfather.
Someone she trusts. Someone she loves.
Most victims know attackers
"When people think of sex crimes, they think of strangers. They think of streets. They don't understand that the majority of sex crimes happen behind closed doors, committed by parents and siblings and partners," said Jack Levin, professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University, "not by the stranger our mothers warned us about."
That's what happened to the Yarmouth girl, and it ripped the man she trusted out of her life and the lives of her family.
He had touched her body, her buttocks and vagina. He raped her, forced her to give him oral sex and touch his genitals (he was later cleared on some charges, convicted on others). She was 7 for much of the abuse, which happened repeatedly, at home.
But that's just what happened to her. After the girl, now in her late teens, came forward, her mother lost a husband, her siblings a father. And she lost a caregiver she loved. She feels his loss, and she feels guilty for taking him away from his new baby when he went to prison, even though the teen knows she may have stopped him from assaulting other kids.
"She doesn't believe there's a God," Sandy said. "She believes if there was a God, he wouldn't have allowed this to happen to her. To the family."
"You ruined my life"
Sandy and her now ex-husband didn't exactly start out on the right path together, and they've both had brushes with the law.
She already had children, was on welfare and battling cancer. He was dealing drugs. But they both started working, built careers and earned a good living, she said.
All the while, his family was keeping his secret. A niece disclosed sexual assault after Sandy refused to continue paying out what she later realized was hush money. One of Sandy's younger children said that he had been molesting her, too. "Daddy gave me boo boos," the 3-year-old, his biological child, told Sandy at the time.
Violence was also part of the family's history. Five years before they married, Sandy took out restraining orders against him — one lasted for a year — for physical abuse, including an attempt to push her off a balcony, according to court documents.
When Sandy told her then-husband's father about the sexual abuse, she said the older man put a gun down her throat lest she go forward with the allegations.
But when Sandy confronted her husband, tears rolled down his cheeks, she said. He didn't deny it. They were on the beach.
"I just started poundin' on him," she said. "People came to break us up."
Sandy later tried running over him with her car and beating down his door with an aluminum bat, she admitted, her anger still palpable years later as she related the incidents.
Sandy's been in therapy for years and her kids have gone in and out of counseling. Sometimes, she said, she had to physically drag them to the therapist to get help. "I just couldn't do it no more."
Not that they couldn't use it. "She's gone buck wild," Sandy said of her teenage daughter, a round-faced, curly-haired girl who used to get good grades.
"I tell her, 'Don't let this ruin your life,'" Sandy said.
"'No, you (expletive deleted), you ruined my life,'" she said her daughter yells back.
Sandy admitted to once hitting the girl after she spat out a string of obscenities at her at the breakfast table in front of the other kids.
The teenager's cell phone was disconnected and the girl did not attend an interview the Times scheduled through her mother.
The girl has post-traumatic stress disorder and may be suicidal, her mom said.
Rape victims are six times more likely to suffer PTSD than non-victims, and three times more likely to suffer from major depression, according to a 2003 survey of adult female rape victims in Massachusetts. Rape victims also show substantially increased risk of suicide attempts and use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin and other drugs, studies show.
"I had this sweet little innocent girl at one time," Sandy said. "I thought the trial was going to help (my daughter). It didn't. It really made matters worse."
Cape family nightmare
A Marstons Mills girl was just 3 when she asked her mother the question that would later divide the family: "Mommy, when will I get a tail like Uncle D?"
"I froze," her mom, "Kristen," said in a recent interview.
She asked her toddler questions, but the girl kept repeating everything she said. Crying, Kristen called her husband. Neither one knew what to do.
The couple sent their daughter to Kristen's mother's house for the night so they could talk to Uncle D, who was just 16 and staying with them to try to improve his schooling.
"He was really good with (my daughter). Really good," Kristen said. "You thought, wow, what a great uncle."
That night, they confronted him. Kristen asked him, "What have you done to her?"
"He just started crying and crying, saying that he loved her and, you know, he would never hurt her. And I felt bad that I was accusing him of something," Kristen said. "I was in denial. I was young. I was 21. You didn't really hear much about sexual abuse. You saw it on the TV, you thought that it was everywhere else but here. So we believed him."
Uncle D told them the girl could have walked in on him while he used the restroom. They bought it. Everything seemed fine. He later moved out.
In truth, he had been molesting the girl while he played hide and seek with her outside, while her mother was in the house. "That's how quick stuff can happen, and I had no idea — at all," Kristen said.
Three years later in Tennessee, the girl suddenly refused to say goodbye to Uncle D after a family vacation.
"I can remember being embarrassed," Kristen said of her daughter's behavior. Again, he had molested her, following her into a bathroom while everyone was outside the home they were visiting. The incident triggered old memories, her mom said.
Still, the shy girl didn't tell her parents.
Finally, later that year, Kristen was driving her daughter to ballet practice and told her that Uncle D would be there. "And she just started screaming, 'No, no, no! Don't you remember? Don't you remember? He showed me his privates,'" Kristen recalled. "So I had to keep myself together, and I told her he would never come. I brought her into dance and then just kind of lost it. I still had no idea where to go, what to do."
The next day, she called a guidance counselor at school, who gave her numbers for Children's Cove in Barnstable.
Then she had to fill out a police report.
"That was scary. I thought, 'Oh my gosh, are they gonna take the kids? Is this it? Did I do something wrong?" Kristen said. "I was going back to when she was 3. I didn't do anything, so I totally put the blame on myself."
Fair or not, blame and guilt are frequent companions to disclosures of sexual assault. Victims and their loved ones blame each other, police, the legal system, school teachers, social workers. Blaming the perpetrator doesn't seem to provide solace to many whose lives are ravaged.
Uncle D had also molested another cousin, and Kristen called the parents — her husband's brother and his wife — to let them know. They stopped talking to Kristen's family. Eventually, Kristen's husband's side of the family stopped talking to them altogether.
"She blamed herself for daddy losing his parents," Kristen said of her daughter's perception of the family discord. "We turn that around and say because she told, she saved (our) other two kids. As much as we tell her that, do I think she really believes it? No."
Kristen is now worried that her timid daughter won't speak up if something bad happens to her again. In part, that's because despite Kristen's police report and personal sleuthing to track down Uncle D, who is likely in another state, he's never been interviewed or charged by officials, Kristen said.
"Why would she say anything? It's hard work to deal with bad stuff. It causes a lot of turmoil, and then nothing happens. I don't think in a child's eyes, she can see that, 'Oh, I've had therapy and I've moved on,'" Kristen said.
How sexual assault survivors fare after their ordeal depends on a complicated mix of factors, said Lysetta Hurge-Putnam. As executive director of Independence House, which provides free services for sexual assault and domestic violence survivors on the Cape, she has dealt mostly with adults. "There's a whole range of responses," she said.
Victims may have flashbacks or nightmares, and many have difficulties working, studying or sleeping. They may develop a lack of trust in themselves. Others can't differentiate between rape, which is forced or coerced, and intimacy, in which the person makes his or her own choice about their sexual acts.
"But all survivors describe feeling very violated, betrayed," Hurge-Putnam said.
Kristen wonders how much the abuse has molded her daughter. But time, at least, seems to
"Well, when I was younger it was in the front of my mind. And I was more sad," the gangly girl, not yet a teenager, said quietly in an interview with the Times.
"But now that it's in the back of my mind, I'm happier."