What If I Told You?

 

What if I told you that I was a victim of child sex abuse?

Ingrid Cockhren, M.Ed

As a survivor of child sexual abuse, I have a clear understanding of the importance of addressing stigma and shame as it pertains to sexual abuse, sexual assault and rape. Victims, especially young children, often do not disclose sexual abuse. Those who are witnesses of child sexual abuse, or who are trusted by survivors enough that they confide in them, are often ill-equipped to handle the responsibility.  And, many times, parents are not aware of the best way to respond when their children disclose sexual abuse, especially when the perpetrator is also a family member or family friend.  

I'm deeply invested in addressing childhood trauma, especially child sexual abuse. I was 4 or 5 years old (my memories are fuzzy) when I was sexually abused. I disclosed immediately, but nobody believed me. Not being believed led me to repress my memories until I was 19. 

My memories were triggered while I was watching the film Sleepers with a friend. The scenes depicting the abuse of children in a juvenile detention facility caused memories of my own abuse to instantly come flooding back. I spent the rest of the day crying uncontrollably. The return of my memories helped me to understand the root cause of the many problems that I was having as a young adult. However, feelings of shame and the stigma associated with sexual abuse quickly replaced any sense of understanding that I had gained, and that prevented me from seeking my healing for another decade. Thankfully, despite waiting years to seek treatment, counseling still saved me.  And, to be honest, my healing is a journey. 

My healing journey ebbs and flows. And recently, that journey has reached a new plateau with the arrival of my first child.  The new reality is that I have a daughter in a country where 1 in 4 girls are sexually assaulted or exploited before reaching adulthood.  Furthermore, I have a Black daughter in a country where 1 in 3 Black girls are sexually assaulted or exploited before reaching adulthood.  

#whatifItoldyou

Awareness and education are so important when combating child sexual abuse because the atmosphere of misinformation, shame, guilt and stigma that prevents disclosure and action also allows perpetrators to continue to abuse and exploit children sexually. Shining a light on child sexual abuse in our communities is the only way to successfully combat this epidemic. Every time someone shares their story of child sexual abuse, others know they are not alone. Every time a celebrity or prominent figure uses their platform to  disclose their own experiences and how they overcame , someone is moved to seek their own healing because they know resilience is possible.

So, I want to take this time to shine a spotlight on an awareness campaign addressing child sexual abuse while also supporting adult survivors. WhatIfIToldYou.com is a one-stop resource for advocates, adolescents, adult survivors and those concerned about a child and want to report abuse. Although, this is a nationwide campaign, WhatIfIToldYou.com is spearheaded by a nonprofit organization in Nashville, Tn., Our Kids.  Check out the What If I Told You campaign video:

Our Kids Center is a nonprofit organization that provides crisis counseling and medical exams to those affected by child sexual abuse in the Middle TN area.  Find out more about Our Kids, Inc. here. Executive Director Sue Fort White is a colleague of mine.  She is also a fellow Vanderbilt University, Peabody College alumna and a fellow member of ACE Nashville's Leadership Team.  Because of the work that she does, Sue holds a special place in my heart.  I interviewed her to find out more about the What If I Told You campaign.

 Sue Fort White, Ed.D.In the interview, Fort White said that she knew she wanted to serve others at an early age. With a career spanning 30 years, Fort White first became an advocate for child victims and adult survivors of child sexual abuse while attending graduate school at Peabody College. During this time in her life, she was working with adolescent girls at a local YWCA. There, she became aware of the epidemic of child sexual abuse as many of those teen girls shared their personal stories of abuse and exploitation. This awareness drove Fort White to serve those "whose voices are not heard", she says. 

Fort White is now the executive director of an agency that is providing critical support to families who are dealing with child sexual abuse. She loves her work.  She believes it reflects who she is and who she wants to be. She also thinks that her work with Our Kids has taught her how crucial trauma-informed care is when serving families impacted by child sexual abuse. To Sue, trauma-informed care means giving children and families "time and space" to disclose. And it is through her experience at Our Kids that she was inspired to spearhead the What If I Told You campaign. Fort White found that, when treated with care, during visits the parents of Our Kids' clients would often disclose their own abuse. Those adult survivors were still impacted by their past trauma and just as in need of resources and support as their children. The intergenerational trauma associated with child sexual abuse and the lack of resources for adult survivors inspired the What If I Told You campaign. 

The goal of the campaign is to reach as many people as possible with resources for adolescents, adult survivors and others who are concerned for children or want to report abuse. Sue Fort White hopes that the campaign will not just change the conversation concerning child sexual abuse but really begin the conversation. And, to Sue, that conversation should center around these three tenets: "Believe and protect the child, embrace the adult, and it is never too late to heal".  And, as a survivor, I am in full agreement.

To bring attention to the campaign, advocates are encouraged to use #whatifitoldyou when using social media to address child sexual abuse.  

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When someone trusts you enough to share this information, a safe, comfortable, and helpful response is to ask, "Can you tell me how that has affected you later in your life?"  And listen, period.  Then be sure your friend understands that he or she is still acceptable to you, that nothing has changed.  This has been a highly effective and beneficial way to respond to a sensitive topic with which we are all inexperienced initially.

If you want to learn more about this subject, look up <ACE Study> on the Internet and on YouTube.  Childhood sexual abuse is common, concealed and hence unrecognized, and has major long term effects.  Asking, Listening, and Accepting turn out to be a powerfully helpful form of Doing.

Thank you, Ingrid. This is a wonderful post. My specialization is working with adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and early in my career I worked with sexually abused children. Thank you for letting us know about #whatifitoldyou. I'll be sharing this post.

Ingrid:
Thanks for sharing about this campaign, but even more about your own experiences. I read your post when I was on vacation and have thought about it a few times since. 

The part about not being believed is painful to read. I'm sorry that on top of being abuse you experienced that.

And honestly, your healing journey and how it's ongoing, especially the new part as a survivor raising a daughter... that part hit me hard.

It's hard to put words to that knowing stuff we can't unknow, as people who know about stats and facts and reality, but also as people who know more personally... that's a whole different kind of terror and it's so rarely acknowledged, discussed, or even addressed. And the stats and how that fear is hard for all parents with 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys being abused, but also, how race and ACEs intersect and how the stats are worse for Black girls. As a parent, knowing Finally, thanks for talking about being a survivor who is Black and how  "1 in 3 Black girls are sexually assaulted or exploited before reaching adulthood" is all by itself a stressor and that's not only because of how parents pass down ACEs but because racial bias, as well as gender, makes some kids more vulnerable than others (and of course all kids can be hurt and deserve to be safe). 

My daughter is older now but my fears about her safety have stayed with me though more or less intense at various times in her life and mine. But each new big milestone of hers (driving, babysitting, getting jobs, traveling even, etc. etc.) is cause for celebration and a time to cherish. It's also coupled with some anxiety about her being more out in the world, more on her own, and more up against the threat of sexual abuse, assault, and violence. She seems so much smaller than all that I know can be scary in the world.

I worry that my worry is palpable and also that I have tried to check my own issues so much she may not be quite scared or cautious enough... Lower ACE scores are protective, but nothing is full proof.

Anyhow, I don't mean to go on and on and on. I just wanted to say thank you for being honest, open, real and sharing about the campaign and your experience. I don't know if you share online or in general, or if you get "vulnerability hangovers" from sharing (a Brene Brown phrase). I just wanted to say I hope the feedback has been positive and you know how important posts like this are. 

The fact that you are sharing and so openly after writing about how "feelings of shame and the stigma associated with sexual abuse quickly replaced any sense of understanding that I had gained, and that prevented me from seeking my healing for another decade," is powerful. You are helping it so there's less shame and so hopefully others in suffering will not have shame on top of pain. That's powerful. You are changing the world so hopefully it's a safer place for your daughter, and mine, and so there's plenty of ways and access to healing for people and parents of all ages. 

Anyhow, this is a powerful post. I can only imagine how much impact this campaign has had, is having, and will have!

Cis

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