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January 11, 2012

Dirty little secrets

The hidden reality of child sexual abuse

When Shaya Wimple was 7 years old, a lock was installed on her bedroom door. But it wasn’t a sign of privacy or independence. It was a padlock on the outside of the room, which her mother’s live-in boyfriend used to make her a prisoner.

On weekends, Wimple and her brothers would be confined to their bedrooms. Their jailer would release them for school on Mondays, but leaving the house always came with threats: He’d murder them, he said, if they ever told anyone what was happening. “He was a military guy, and he would just beat the crap out of us if we didn’t sit up straight,” she recalls.

Wimple and her brothers lived in terror. Their mother, who worked at a nursing home, was on duty at night. That was prime time for abuse.

“This guy was very strategic,” Wimple says. “Any bruises he left on us were from the neck down and from the shoulders in.” As a result, there was never evidence for teachers or other adults to see. Wimple and her brothers were markedly introverted in the classroom, but no one made the connection between docile students and homegrown horror.

But there was an even darker side to the torment and abuse for Wimple: Her mother’s boyfriend began grooming her for another purpose. “He was great at making me feel like if I wanted to be a good person — if I wanted to be like my mother — I had to do what he wanted,” Wimple remembers. Then one night, “He told me I needed to get dressed in one of my mom’s nightgowns and not wear underwear because my mom didn’t wear underwear.”

Then he raped her.

As her horror continued — Wimple thinks the sexual abuse lasted for two or three years, though it’s hard to fit juvenile memories into a timeline — her mother’s boyfriend often forced her brothers to watch. Other times, he would leave them padlocked in their rooms, powerless to rescue their sister. Once, Wimple tried telling her mom about the abuse. She got a spanking for her trouble and a command to never mention it again.

With each new episode, Wimple felt utterly helpless — and that’s probably why the abuse didn’t stop. “(Pedophiles) feel like all-powerful beings” when they assault children, Wimple says. “It’s a challenge to them to abuse … Eventually, I stopped fighting and totally shut down when it happened.” If she struggled during the sometimes-daily molestations, her tormenter would smash her head against the floor. She remembers one recurring thought in the prison that was her life: “I didn’t think I was going to survive my childhood.”

Deliverance came only because Wimple’s mother made a mistake. Normally, Mom was very cautious about letting outsiders care for her children (lest her boyfriend’s secret pleasures become known). But for some reason, Wimple remembers being taken to a babysitter’s house one night. There, she had a bath, which allowed someone who cared to finally see her hidden bruises.

The sitter called Child Protective Services. Wimple and her brothers were placed in a foster home. Mom went to treatment; the boyfriend went to prison (though “not for nearly long enough,” Wimple says). The girl who missed her childhood would finally have a chance at something like normalcy.

But Wimple’s imprisonment didn’t really end that night. Nor did it end in the years of foster care that followed, or in returning to her mother (who was, in theory, a better parent after therapy), or even in being emancipated by the state at age 16. In some ways, she still hasn’t woken up from the nightmare.

You might call Shaya Wimple a “typical” victim of child sexual abuse. The victim almost always knows the perpetrator — in Wimple’s case, she had to live with him. There’s often a period of time between the first incident of abuse and the time when the child discloses her torment. For Wimple, now 28, that’s because she was terrified of her torturer. (Other kids may delay speaking out due to confusion and shame, or to spare non-abusing caregivers from pain.)

But there’s one important way Wimple differs from the “typical” victim: Someone rescued her. It’s estimated that for every 10 cases of sexual abuse, only one is ever reported. Wimple is part of the 10 percent who have a chance at healing.

Her recovery began when the babysitter called Child Protective Services (CPS), part of the state’s Cabinet for Health and Family Services. “We are the department legally responsible to investigate allegations of physical or sexual abuse,” says Jim Grace, assistant director of the Division of Protection and Permanency at CPS. Last year, Grace’s agency received 2,600 reports of potential physical or sexual abuse, and 800 were “substantiated” (that is, deemed to warrant further action).

CPS has a reputation of simultaneously doing too much and too little. Too much, because the agency provides what Grace calls “involuntary services.” That innocuous term can include caseworkers dragging a child from the only home she’s known (however abusive it may be) and delivering her to strangers. “If we don’t feel the family is able to protect this child, we might need to petition the court,” Grace says. “(A judge can) temporarily remove a child from the home, until (the caregivers) do something to alleviate the risk.” That’s what happened to Wimple and her brothers.

Yet CPS doesn’t always conclude that intervention is needed — and even when it does, solutions are often less radical than foster care. “Our preference is to keep the child in the home if at all possible,” Grace says. “It’s not just about the incident, but about the family.” CPS can refer kids and parents to counseling, or help the family find safe childcare resources. So a concerned teacher or other adult — who is mandated by law to report suspicions of abuse — may think CPS did too little. That’s especially true because the agency cannot discuss its investigation with the whistleblower. “We have very strict confidentiality requirements,” acknowledges Grace. “That can lead to misunderstandings — and at times, frustration.”

Nonetheless, Grace insists his agency’s social workers are neither home-wreckers nor helpless bureaucrats. “There are difficult days (in this job),” he says. “Any time you’re confronting a situation where children are being hurt, that’s difficult … (Yet our staffers) feel empowered, because we have a statutory charge to protect kids. There are actions we can take to make sure a child is safe.”

Sometimes those actions include a police investigation. “We get the greatest majority of our reports from Child Protective Services,” says Louisville Metro Police Lt. Thomas Dreher, who oversees the department’s Crimes Against Children Unit. “We (also) get reports from the parents of the victim, healthcare providers and counselors.”

The investigation of Shaya Wimple’s abuser began with a CPS report and ended with him going to prison.

Yet moving from investigation to conviction isn’t as easy as it seems on “Law and Order.” In real life, there’s rarely any physical evidence (like pornographic photos or soiled bed sheets). Adults may testify about the circumstances, but most perpetrators are clever and secretive, so finding a witness to the sex acts is virtually impossible.

Complicating Dreher’s job further, victims will sometimes disclose abuse, then recant their testimony. “They get pressured by family members,” Dreher says, “(especially) if the suspect is the breadwinner for the family. Some of the cases we think should be prosecuted cannot be.” The victim’s testimony usually represents the most important — and on occasion, the only — evidence.

Even when her case from LMPD is solid, Sara Farmer, assistant commonwealth’s attorney, is sometimes reluctant to pursue the maximum penalty. That’s because a jury trial will force the victim to face the molester. “One of the first things we take into consideration is the effect going to trial will have on the child,” she says. “(For that reason), most of our cases are settled through a guilty plea.”

Offenders who strike a deal may still do hard time, serve probation, or enroll in a treatment program. They’re often required to submit their names to the sex offender registry (online at nsopw.gov). For those who go to trial, like Shaya Wimple’s abuser, penalties may be even stiffer. Lt. Dreher recalls two cases when a sex offender was sentenced to life in prison.

But regardless of the plea, punishments are not always as severe as the victim’s family would like. And on occasions when offenders won’t admit their guilt, the victim bears the added burden of being called a liar. “There are times when we have good evidence, but to the very end, the (alleged abuser) will deny doing anything wrong,” Farmer says. “They continue saying, ‘This child is lying,’ which makes it even worse for the victim.”

While CPS and the police investigated the case against her mother’s boyfriend, Shaya Wimple and her brothers were placed in a foster home. For Wimple, it was the first bright spot in her life in a long time. “They were absolutely phenomenal foster parents,” she remembers. “They were the ones who instilled in my head that the abuse wasn’t my fault, and I could be anything I wanted.” She stays in contact with them to this day.

After about a year, Wimple was sent back to her mother. CPS caseworkers apparently believed the woman was ready to parent again — she had remarried, after all, and completed a treatment program. But it turned out Mom hadn’t changed; her new husband was another child molester.

In fact, three of the men who “cared” for Wimple during her childhood were abusive. It began with her biological father, whom she says fondled her in bed one night while he was drunk. (Wimple was only a preschooler at the time.) It continued a few years later with her mother’s boyfriend who raped her and threatened her with death. The new man of the house exhibited similar behaviors, and he eventually took advantage of the 12-year-old one night after her mother went to bed.

“I was on the couch,” Wimple recalls, “when he came out and fondled me.” She couldn’t believe it was happening again: “I just froze up.” The next morning, Wimple relayed the story to her mother. “She asked me why I had to mess up every one of her relationships.”

Wimple ran away to a friend’s house. Her mother confronted her new husband with the accusation — he admitted it and agreed to seek treatment. Wimple re-entered the foster care system and never lived with her biological family again.

Over the next four years, Wimple lived with two foster families. At age 16, the court agreed to let Wimple try life on her own — she was declared an emancipated minor. Though she struggled to stay afloat (even living in her car for a little while), she managed to graduate from high school with honors.

Shaya Wimple accomplished what once seemed impossible. Despite adults who did everything they could to prevent it, she survived her childhood. “I knew from the time I was very young — how, I don’t know — that I didn’t want to be a statistic,” she says. “Abusers only win if you allow them to win. If you pick up (the pieces) and move on, then you’ve defeated them.”

Today, Wimple shows no outward signs of past horrors. Wearing a pink dress that compliments her blonde hair and blue eyes, she looks like a stereotypical soccer mom. Wimple works in marketing; she’s happily married with a 3-year-old girl (“my daughter is my world”). Yet beneath the surface, scars remain.

“To this day, it’s difficult to be intimate (with my husband),” she says. As a child, “sex was something violent and painful. If you wanted to hurt somebody, that’s what you did.” When she was a teenager, she didn’t enjoy kissing. For a long time, if her husband wrapped his arms around her, she couldn’t help but wince.

Wimple is also afraid that her former abuser — her mother’s old boyfriend, who threatened her with murder — might come looking for her someday. She gave LEO Weekly permission to print her real name, saying, “I won’t live my life in fear.” Nonetheless, on the day her abuser was released from prison two years ago, “I bawled my eyes out. I’m still scared to death.” She regularly checks the sex offender registry for his whereabouts.

But she does not dwell on this fear. “I’m thankful that I have a husband who adores me,” she says. “He’s the first guy who learned about my past and didn’t leave me.” She also remains grateful to the babysitter who spotted her bruises in the bathtub: “If that woman hadn’t followed her instincts, I would probably be dead.”

Shaya Wimple was abused two decades ago in Michigan. Since then, child sexual abuse nationwide has decreased by more than half due to heightened awareness and reduced tolerance.

But the problem hasn’t vanished. Louisville Metro Police investigates more than 500 cases of molestation each year. If our city mirrors the national statistic that only 10 percent of victims report their experiences, then a new child in Louisville is sexually abused every two hours. The victims remain in desperate need of healing.

“I’d like to work myself out of a job. But sadly, that’s never going to happen,” says John Whitfield, executive director of the Family and Children’s Place Child Advocacy Center (CAC), which provides a single location where children can be interviewed by therapists and examined by medical specialists to learn about the abuse they’ve suffered. Kentucky’s statewide network of CACs supplements the efforts of Child Protective Services and law enforcement. The centers also provide an important first step in helping children heal.

“Before child advocacy centers existed, a child would have to tell what happened to them three, four, five times, re-traumatizing them (each time),” Whitfield says. Victims would be interviewed separately by social workers, physicians, detectives and prosecutors. At a CAC, however, the victim is questioned only once. A lone therapist trained in “forensic interviewing” (piecing together the story of the crime from a disjointed juvenile narrative) speaks to the child. The results are recorded to DVD as a police detective watches in another room. Then an onsite physician examines the child for physical signs of abuse.

The Louisville CAC’s exterior is, perhaps, a fitting symbol of its grim business. The entrance is in a glass-strewn alley behind Fourth Street, and its closest neighbor is a strip club. “(Our facility) is a metaphor for how people want to deal with child sexual abuse — stick it in a back alley behind a seedy adult entertainment facility,” Whitfield says.

Family and Children’s Place is currently wrapping up a capital campaign to renovate and transform the old Salvation Army building at Fifth and Kentucky into a new CAC. That will rescue Whitfield’s staff and clients from their tawdry location. In fact, the new facility will be a national model for CACs, housing the various agencies that collaborate on child sexual abuse investigations under one roof.

But the groundbreaking hasn’t even begun, so Whitfield will be stuck in his current location for some time. Meanwhile, the ominous reality he confronts every day helps him remain focused on his mission. He still remembers the youngest abuse victim he ever encountered: a 6-month-old infant who tested positive for gonorrhea.

Whitfield and his staffers do their best to secure justice and healing for victims. Even more important than the interviews they conduct for the courts, the CAC offers counseling referrals to shell-shocked families. “The prognosis (for abused children) can be very good, so long as intervention begins early and the family stays with it,” Whitfield says. He warns, though, that the longer the problem is hidden, the harder it will be to recover: “It can be pretty devastating.” Untreated victims may struggle in school and suffer from depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. They frequently grow into teens and adults who struggle with their sexuality, abuse drugs, or simply refuse to trust anyone.

In some cases, victims end up subjecting their own children to molestation. “With a lot of the kids we see, the non-offending caregivers were sexually abused as children and never told anyone. (As a result), they find a partner who abuses their own kids,” Whitfield says. “They miss the warning signs.”

Unfortunately, those signs are easy to explain away. A young victim might suddenly become ashamed of her body, or conversely, turn into an exhibitionist. Kids may behave “older” (acting out sexual situations) or “younger” (going back to wetting the bed). A child could exhibit mood swings, nightmares or a reluctance to spend time with a certain adult.

But what child doesn’t exhibit some of those symptoms? Unless there are obvious physical injuries (which are uncommon), parents may struggle to discern the difference between red flags and normal growing pains. Meanwhile, children are imprisoned by horrific secrets while caring, well-educated adults never catch on.

Twelve years ago, therapist Jacquelyn Cooper fulfilled a lifelong dream to adopt a child from Russia. She and her husband brought Laura home when she was 3 years old. The girl had suffered a rocky start in life: “She only weighed 23 pounds after three years (in the orphanage),” says Cooper, whose name has been changed for this story to protect her daughter’s identity. But the new parents believed they got her out of Russia just in time. Shortly after the date of the adoption, Laura was scheduled to be transferred to another facility with a grim reputation. “I promised her, the day I took her out of the orphanage, that nothing bad would happen after that,” Cooper says.

But the girl’s worst troubles were still to come. Two years after she joined the Cooper family, Laura’s adoptive grandfather began molesting her.

Grandpa frequently invited the children over on Saturdays, and Cooper and her husband rarely said no. It’s true that Laura would sometimes ask, “Are my brothers coming, too?”— but what parent would think of that innocuous question as a cry for protection? When her daughter seemed especially happy after returning home from her grandfather’s house, Cooper assumed it was because she’d had fun. She never guessed it was because her daughter once again felt safe.

The abuse happened from the time Laura was 5 until she turned 8. Grandpa would corner her in his car or a deserted room — whenever he got the chance. But it wasn’t until spring 2009 — when Laura was 13 — that her mother learned the truth via a call from Child Protective Services. Laura had just disclosed her molestation to a counselor, and the teen was suffering from severe post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I was standing in the driveway, and I dropped to my knees, crying,” Cooper says. “It was like being swallowed by an earthquake … Ironically, my specialty (as a therapist) is grief and trauma. To live it was a cruel irony, to say the least.”

Cooper faced the difficult task that afternoon of picking up her daughter from school. She had no idea what to say or do, but finally decided to keep it simple: “I want you to know that (although) you’ve felt alone in this for a long time, you’re not anymore.”

Laura didn’t share much about her experience at first, but did ask a question that would break any mother’s heart: “Do you regret adopting me?” Cooper assured her that she didn’t, and said there was only one thing that would change. “Tomorrow, I’ll love you even more than I do today.”

Perhaps the most disturbing truth about molestation is that it’s almost always committed by a friend or family member. That’s why John Whitfield and his staff at the Family and Children’s Place advocate educating kids early about inappropriate touch — even if the “toucher” is someone familiar. “Any school-age kid can talk about ‘stranger danger,’” says Whitfield, yet that’s not where the primary danger lies. He suggests that all organizations working with children adopt common-sense precautions, like never allowing an adult to be alone with a student.

If more parents would educate children about their own bodies, Whitfield thinks it would help, too. He once interviewed a 4-year-old who accused someone of putting “a bug in my bucket.” After further questioning, Whitfield discovered the boy was describing anal intercourse. Whitfield has heard vaginas referred to as “pocketbooks” and “kitty cats” — a boy’s penis goes by names like “battery” or “hot dog.” Whitfield worries that such slang prevents abuse from being detected. What adult would worry about a preschool boy who discusses bugs, or a pubescent girl concerned with her pocketbook?

Shaya Wimple has her own advice for adults concerned about detecting abuse. She encourages parents to form strong relationships with their children and listen well. “Follow your instincts,” she says. “People aren’t comfortable talking about sex, so (abuse) doesn’t get discussed. But it does happen. I’d rather be proven wrong (in reporting a suspicion) than do nothing.”

Jacquelyn Cooper is certainly glad that a counselor built enough trust with Laura that she revealed the abuse in 2009. About a year later, the girl’s grandfather pleaded guilty to a felony. He received five years’ probation and was required to place himself on the sex offender registry. Though justice was served, Cooper wished for a harsher sentence. “(Laura’s grandfather) only got five years of probation. His life really didn’t change. And we are the ones who have to live with that.”

Perhaps the sentence was light because the state only identified one victim. But Cooper sees five victims: her entire immediate family, including her ex-husband and their three children. “I had to tell my boys, ‘You’re never seeing your grandfather again.’” And Cooper divorced her husband when it became clear that he didn’t favor pressing charges. She saw her father-in-law as a monster — to her husband, he was still Dad.

Meanwhile, Cooper sought therapy for her own self-hatred. She was crying constantly as she berated herself for failing to rescue her daughter. “I hated myself more than (the perpetrator),” she says.

Even now, after some measure of healing from guilt, the nightmare comes back in strange ways. For example, Cooper couldn’t bear to serve a meal at the dining room table where she’d once hosted Laura’s molester. She had trusted her father-in-law for 20 years, relying on him and his wife as her children’s only regular babysitters. Now, for her emotional well-being, she replaced the table.

Nonetheless, Cooper did find one unexpected benefit: The tragedy strengthened her faith. “I thanked God that first day for giving (Laura) the strength to talk about it,” she says. “I was never angry at Him. I feel like God said, ‘Give me a minute, because people are already in place (to help you).’ I am so grateful for all of those people. You can’t do this on your own.”

Now, almost three years after Laura disclosed her abuse, the teen is continuing on the road to recovery. She’s a high school sophomore who gets good grades and has grown into a confident young woman. “She’s moved past feeling like all the hurt in the family was caused by her,” her mother says. “She’s determined to be a detective who helps kids who have been abused.”

But nothing can completely heal the scars that remain.

“I wish there was some blatant (warning sign of abuse), so I could say to everybody else, ‘This is what to look for’ — but there’s not. That’s what makes sexual abuse so horrifying,” Cooper says. “(Laura’s grandfather) knew how fragile she was. You and I see her start in life as a very sad circumstance.”

But to a child molester, she says: “He sees her as a good victim.”