|Susan Napolitano plays with her dog Rosebud. The Lincoln lawyer was |
sexually abused as a child and says it's possible to survive and thrive.
“You’re not doomed,” said Lincoln lawyer Susan Napolitano, who was raped by a relative in Michigan in the 1980s.
“It’s not what you see in the movies. I don’t shoot up. I don’t cower. I don’t feel like it has dominated my life path.”
It's possible to process and heal, she said.
“It’s going to be another brick in your foundation,” she said.
Napolitano remembers summer nights in the Upper Peninsula when she popped the screen off her bedroom window and contemplated jumping.
“(I’d) think about leaving and try to work up the courage to just jump out the window and just go and tell somebody,” she said. “But I didn’t trust that that would work.”
Like an estimated 90 percent of child sexual abuse victims, Napolitano knew her perpetrator.
When she was 8 or 9, she said, he started to make her fondle him.
“Don’t tell,” he told her.
Every kid needs to learn about sex, he said. He'd be her teacher.
She felt something was wrong, but he convinced her not to tell anyone.
The abuse escalated -- ultimately to sexual intercourse, she said.
“I remember telling him that it hurt, and he wouldn’t stop,” Napolitano said. “And that’s when I knew that this guy was not who I thought he was.”
Candy and gifts followed the assaults, coupled with apologies and promises it would stop.
But the promises were empty, she said.
Napolitano kept the abuse secret until she was 11, when she wrote a note and left it out for an adult to find, she said.
The abuse continued for about four years, until he left, she said.
Susan Napolitano at 8 or 9, dressed as Raggedy Ann for a school play. This was about the time the abuse started.
Long-term effects of child sexual abuse vary, but many victims have post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, substance abuse issues and anxiety, said University of Nebraska-Lincoln psychologist David Hansen.
One study found children who are raped are about 12 times more likely to attempt suicide than non-victims.
While researchers believe there's strong evidence a significant number of victims have psychological and behavioral issues, some studies suggest as many as 50 percent of them present no symptoms.
Sexually abused children also tend to exhibit problematic sexual behavior, researchers have found. And they are more likely to continue to engage in inappropriate sexual behavior after an adult tells them to stop -- some into adulthood.
Although there's often concern children who are sexually abused will grow up to be sex offenders themselves, Hansen said there's no causal link.
There is a causal link, just not where you are looking. It is spiritual not biological or psychological.
In fact, researchers estimate victims of child sexual abuse are two to three times more likely to be sexually victimized as adults than people who were not abused as children.
Still, Lincoln psychologist Steve Blum said he saw a common trend at the Lincoln Regional Center, where he evaluated more than 1,000 sex offenders over 15 years as a consultant for the center.
About a third of those offenders reported being sexually abused as children, he said.
That might be higher than was actually the case, Blum said, but in several instances the offender’s abuse of a child mirrored his or her own.
One man arranged his daughter’s room to replicate the room in which he was abused as a child, he said.
When the daughter turned the age he was when he was abused, he molested her, Blum said. At some less-than-conscious level, he said, the man was acting out his own molestation.
Why that happens isn’t clear, he said, but one thought is that the victim was powerless when he or she was abused, and by abusing, is taking back that power -- albeit in a very disturbing and unhealthy manner.
Because of that feeling of powerlessness, it's crucial how adults respond when a victim discloses abuse, Blum said.
“If there isn’t a supportive, protective response, the trauma that the victim experiences is much greater.”
|Layne Armstrong stands with his |
But as he watched the ball drop on TV on New Year's Eve 2009, he thought of another year passing and the potential of more boys being abused by Ballard, who also coached youth basketball.
Armstrong was 19 then, and routinely abused meth to mask the pain of being abused by Ballard for six years, starting when he was 11.
Ballard gained his mom's trust, he said, spending time with him that included overnights at Ballard's home. Eventually, he said, Ballard raped him.
He said he tried to drive Ballard away by having the letters KKK tattooed just below his biceps. It didn’t work.
But Armstrong was homeless by then and using drugs. When he needed a place to stay, he said, he'd go back to Ballard's.
On that New Year’s Eve years later, Armstrong called a former Teammates mentor and opened up about the abuse for the first time.
Then he went to police, who strapped a wire to his chest and sent him to Ballard’s apartment, recording a conversation about a sexual encounter between the two.
More victims came forward, and in October 2010, a judge sent Ballard to prison.
He turned 48 on Friday, and is serving 34 to 50 years at the state prison in Tecumseh. He'll be eligible for parole in 2027.
“It takes just one person to save a life,” Armstrong said. “It takes just one person to save 100 lives.
“I was that one person.”
Now 25, Armstrong is married with two kids. He owns a roofing company, and he's sober. He had the KKK tattoos covered with crosses.
“I made my dreams come true,” Armstrong said. “I fought for them.”
But he's not immune to the past. In August, he was drinking with friends and ended up in the parking lot where Project Youth used to be.
Being there brought it all back, he said. Enraged, he punched the car and broke his hand.
He quit drinking after that, and he's learned to deal with the flashbacks through counseling, he said.
“You’re always going to be a victim until you’re tired of being a victim,” he said. “I’m not a victim anymore."
Bianca is 26 and tried for most of her life to bury the memories of what happened when she was 10.
Her older brother sexually abused her for about six months in their home in rural Nebraska, she said.
“Since it was someone in my family, I felt like I couldn’t tell.”
She distracted herself with school, the drive to excel helping her feel good about herself.
But it also instilled a fear of failure. In fifth grade, when the abuse was happening, she got lesions on her skin, among other physical side-effects, Bianca said.
After that, memories of the abuse surfaced now and then, but she’d jettison them from her mind, she said.
Only when she saw a counselor for an unrelated matter during her freshman year in college did she disclose what happened, she said.
Anxiety and depression stemming from the abuse continued, hitting hardest in 2012. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been happy.
She enrolled in a therapy group for child sexual abuse survivors called Wounded Heart and run by counselor Deb Perrin since 2011.
The faith-based program is based on a book of the same name by counselor Dan Allender, who believes that abuse changes the victim's soul.
Perrin said counseling survivors of child sex abuse is her life's calling, drawn out of her own abuse.
She said she was molested and sexually abused by a relative from when she was 3 until her pre-teen years. Until her abuser died when Perrin was an adult, she said, she wasn't sure she was sexually abused because she was so young when it happened.
But in cleaning out the relative's home, she found items that triggered her memory.
She got into counseling in 1984 and ultimately started the local Wounded Heart group.
"You feel more like supported because you’ve been in such isolation in your head,” Perrin said. "And it’s a shameful secret that you don’t want people to know about you."
Through the 42-week program, she said, the survivors dive into the trauma through group and individual therapy.
Bianca said that hearing other women's experiences helped.
"It just kind of made you feel less alone and more normal," she said.
Bianca's mother eventually guessed the source of the depression her daughter was battling, and the secret came out, she said.
For all her life, she felt she had to protect her parents from knowing what happened because she knew they would burden themselves with guilt.
They know now, and family dynamics are strained, she said. Her brother feels ashamed, and they're not a cohesive unit anymore.
Bianca has struggled with trust issues and believes the powerlessness she felt during the abuse reared its head when she became intimate with a man as an adult.
Despite that, she doesn't wish her brother ill, she said.
“At some point, I would like to have a conversation with my brother, telling him that I love him and forgive him. That I never want our relationship to be destroyed.”
The hope for victims of child sexual abuse lies in processing the pain head-on, Bianca said.
“Even though it’s hard, it’s so much richer and more meaningful,” she said. “I feel like I’m seeing the power of God in ways I never would have.”
Susan Napolitano remembers a turning point in her teenage years.
She drank, smoked pot and hung out with older boys. Her self-esteem was low, and the abuse hadn't stopped. One night, her parents grounded her after she sneaked in late.
She swallowed half a bottle of aspirin and went to sleep, she said. Instead of dying, she awoke wired, her heartbeat audible in her ears.
"Just get through this s***, and you're gonna make it," she thought to herself. "This is your trial."
She took refuge in art and English, feeling empowered by teachers who she felt saw the good in her, she said.
"If I did not paint and write and color, I don't think that my mind and heart would have been able to gain the peace to move forward."
In college, Napolitano went through counseling, confronted her abuser in a letter and made peace with the trauma, she said. She took her case to authorities in the 1990s, but Michigan's statute of limitations had run out.
So she moved forward, became a teacher and later fulfilled a childhood dream by becoming a lawyer. She opted to pursue a career in real estate law instead of locking up criminals, she said. She didn't want her abuse to define her career, she said.
Her life isn't perfect, and trust will probably never come easy.
But the mother of three is not ashamed of what happened to her, and she doesn't want others to ignore what happened to them or be afraid to speak up.
"You discover your character," she said. "You find out who the hell you are."