Chances are, the typical person might have doubts about whether the victim can recover. The girl who testified in the Wendy Holland jury trial this week in Baldwin County will need to be surrounded by positive influences and believe that she can recover from years of sexual torment suffered at the hands of multiple adults, experts say.
"She is definitely going to have effects, there is no doubt about it," Debra Nelson-Gardell, associate professor at the University of Alabama's School of Social Work said. "But her life is not over. Lay people will think ... (victims) are forever broken. She is not broken."
Demand for services, not only in Alabama but throughout the U.S., has risen in recent years as statistical estimates show that 1 in 4 girls are sexually abused before the age of 16, and 1 in 6 boys are victimized.
In other words, chances are that you will walk by a victim of sexual abuse the next time you are at the mall or grocery store.
Demand is also rising at the CACs in Mobile and Baldwin counties. At the Baldwin County Care House, 368 children were served during fiscal year 2014 - which ended on Sept. 30 - compared to 341 during the same time period in 2013.
"For whatever reason, there tends to be a lot of sex crimes here," Niki Whitaker, executive director of Care House, said. "It's something that every year, we've increased the number of interviews we've done. Unfortunately, it's one of those things that happen more frequently than we like."
At the Mobile County Child Advocacy Center, approximately 100 to 125 child sex victims are seen each month.
"We have definitely not seen a decrease," said one clinical therapist who wished to not have his name revealed because of involvement with the victims in the Holland case.
Public awareness of child sex abuse has helped, he said, in getting more children to report the crime.
The awareness rose in the 1980s amid the sex abuse scandal involving the Roman Catholic Church and was heightened about a dozen years ago after the Boston Globe won a Pulitzer Prize for its critical look at decades of abuse within the church.
Other high-profile cases, including the Jerry Sandusky sex abuse scandal at Penn State University and recent allegations against comedian Bill Cosby, have kept the issue in the forefront.
"There needs to be even more awareness," the Mobile County therapist said. "There are so many cases where the abuse is not reported. Oftentimes, kids don't talk about the abuse. It's prevalent."
Generations of unreported abuse existed in the family sex ring involving Wendy Holland and her late husband, Donnie. It wasn't until the disappearance of a teen, Brittney Wood, that an investigation ensued and a child victimized by the family came forward to tell her story.
She spoke about the atrocities during what prosecutors described as a "difficult" trial that concluded on Wednesday with a conviction on four counts of sex crimes.
"We have generations of people who were abused and never disclosed," Nicki Patterson, an assistant district attorney in Mobile County who helped prosecute the case against Holland, said. "Their lack of disclosure, unfortunately, allowed the next generation of kids to be abused as well."
She added, "This was the first victim to tell. The good news is that by coming forward, these children ... have put an end to the generational abuse. These kids are in counseling and I suspect they will do fine."
'There is absolutely always hope'
But can a child victimized by years of sexual torment become a productive adult? The answer is a definitive "yes," according to counselors.
Two things are required in the early stages: belief in their accusations and support from family members or guardians.
|"It is courageous for any child to step forward and share what they've gone through."|
- Niki Whitaker with the Care House in Baldwin County
But the victim's story was corroborated by other family members who said that Holland was an active participant in the abuse. The jury convicted her of sodomy, sexual torture, criminal sexual abuse, and endangering the welfare of a child. Holland will be sentenced up to life in prison on Jan. 15.
"Someone believed (the child) when she told," Nelson-Gardell said. "That is the single, most powerful thing that helps people become healthier is when they are believed. When people are told and not believed, it makes it much more difficult."
Patrick Guyton, executive director of the Mobile County CAC, said that counseling is required in order for hope to be realized. Without it, the weight of the psychological baggage will be like an "invisible bag of rocks on their backs" that they'll carry throughout their lives, he said.
"It's a whole process and it's also helping children realize that they are not damaged and they can be OK and heal," Guyton said.
Providing care to victims
There are 27 child advocacy centers in Alabama, including those located in Mobile and Baldwin counties. Almost all of the centers, according to Guyton, are different in what they offer with regards to therapy, investigation, courtroom preparedness, etc.
At Mobile County's CAC, treatment is provided by trauma focused cognitive-behavioral therapy, which is designed to reduce negative emotional and behavioral responses from child sex abuse and other trauma.
The CAC contracts with Lifelines Counseling Services, a Mobile-based non-profit company with four therapists assigned to Mobile County cases involving children suffering traumatic experiences from sexual abuse.
|Bay Minette, Alabama|
One way is through art. The CAC program offers children, ages 3 up to 18, opportunities to "tap into their feelings" non-verbally through drawings and other artistic displays.
"Sometimes they draw out their feelings and sometimes they will elect to draw out the abuse," he said. "It may be a lot easier to draw (than to verbalize the experience)."
Treatment varies from child-to-child. Timelines within the program also vary. Typical sessions, which are free for children, occur weekly to monthly.
Rebecca Washburn, a counselor at Care House for the past three years, said the Baldwin County organization will apply pieces of the structured therapy and utilize them as needed.
"We assess where they are at and what we can use where they are at that particular time," she said.
What Washburn said she finds effective is to address the educational component of treatment first.
"Then we start identifying their feelings and emotions and help them to process that," Washburn said. "At the same time, we work with the parents (and analyze) what kind of symptoms they are experiencing and that lets us know where they should go next."
When the abuse involves family members or someone close to the child, a grieving process must also be incorporated, she added.
"It's the grieving the loss of the family they have and what they believed the people are capable of," Washburn said. .
Counselors say that the children who come forward with their accusations, especially those against adults they have long trust, need to be celebrated and praised as "courageous."
"It is courageous for any child to step forward and share what they've gone through," Whitaker said. "It's absolutely courageous in every way."
Nelson-Gardell said there is always hope for victims, even in the worst of situations.
"One of the things I'll encounter working in this area is that when I tell someone I study child sex abuse, (people) will look at me and (say) 'that must be awful,'" Nelson-Gardell said. "It's not. I get to watch people who have had these terrible things happen in their life to bounce back, grow up, marry and have kids."