No Longer Keeping Silent

Headline after headline about reality tv star Josh Dugger sexually abusing his four sisters and family friend last month combined with a recent visit to the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center to hear about the work they do with child abuse victims prompted me to reflect on my own past of child abuse at the hands of my stepfather. He abused me, my mother and brother across several years.

We are far from unusual, sadly. It is estimated that every year, six million children experience abuse and neglect in the United States and in Texas more than 65,000 cases of child abuse were confirmed in one year. There are very real and lasting consequences of child abuse. Although the abuse I experienced happened over 20 years ago and while it hasn’t stopped me from achieving my educational or career goals, the emotional scars remain. I tend to be hyper-sensitive and wrestle with my self-image, for example.

Researchers have discovered some of the long term effects of child abuse can include low self-esteem, depression, substance abuse, anxiety, and difficulty establishing positive long-term relationships. These outcomes are exacerbated by the fact that only about 1 in 10 children tell anyone about their abuse. Abused children are often threatened with more and intense abuse and physical harm if they ever tell or they may not know who to tell if an adult they trusted is their abuser.

It is also common for victims of child abuse to stay silent due to guilt and shame. When I was a child, I was unsure if the abuse was my fault, even though now I know it was not. These feelings of guilt and shame may be even stronger if, as was the case for me, the abuser is not a stranger to their victim but is very close to them.

The shame of child abuse can and often does follow you into adulthood. I have kept silent about my experiences for most of my adult life because I did not want to shame myself, my family, and oddly enough, the abuser. I also have had a fear of being labeled or treated differently because of the abuse. In fact, this is my first time sharing my story of my abuse in such a public way, and even now it’s difficult to do.

During my visit to the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center and hearing about the over 4,000 children and family members they serve I was both saddened and hopeful for the work they are doing to serve children experiencing abuse and neglect. They provide services including therapy, family assistance including access to school supplies, clothing, and financial assistance if necessary. The center had an impact on me, too. It made me realize that letting fear and shame overpower me is a way for the abuse to continue to take up residence in my present day thoughts and further affect my life. I know that it can be hard and scary, to speak out, but it’s important and for that reason, I am slowly breaking my silence.

To those survivors who’ve never received therapy, including myself, I say it’s never too late to get on the path of healing. At minimum, talk to someone you trust. Share your story. Allow yourself to remove the weight of abuse, shame, and fear. Not only can it help you, but if we all come forward with our stories, we can help people be aware of warning signs of abuse, like unexplained injuries and drastic changes in mood or behavior.

To those who were not victims of child abuse, I ask you to be present and be involved. We are all responsible for the health and welfare of the children in our lives. If you suspect a child close to you is being abused or has experienced abuse, speak up for that child and report the abuse to the local authorities.

Like most other advocacy centers across the nation, the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center website says, “Every adult in Texas is required to make a report when child abuse is suspected. You do not have to investigate or be certain that abuse has occurred — you only have to suspect.” They provide the contact information for how to report, reminding visitors that “Children in abusive situations cannot speak on their own behalf; you must act for them if you think abuse is occurring.”

It is never too late to make a difference in a child or an adult survivor’s life.

Joli Angel Robinson works in the Office of Community Affairs at the Dallas Police Department and is a participant of the OpEd Project Public Voices program in Dallas.