By Ben Meiklejohn
BIDDEFORD – A man who grew up in Biddeford has turned to social media to begin a dialogue with city leaders about how to prevent child sexual abuse and provide resources to victims.
Please look into Erin's Law. It has been adopted in about 21 states and is on the slate for about 2 dozen more. It's a great way to educate kids on how to identify CSA, threats, and how to speak to someone about it. Excellent program, inexpensive to apply.
Matt Lauzon, who now lives in Boston but grew up in Biddeford, said he was sexually abused by a former Biddeford police officer nearly two decades ago, but felt too afraid and ashamed of his experience to speak out about it to authorities. Lauzon is now the CEO and co-founder of Dunwello, a free online service that allows people to review individual professionals.
|Biddeford is an old city of about 21,000 in southern Maine|
It was visited by Europeans in 1616 and settled in 1631
In recent weeks, Lauzon started to publicly engage Police Chief Roger Beaupre and Mayor Alan Casavant on Facebook about how the community can prevent child abuse and support victims – while articulating details of an experience that left him struggling his whole adult life.
“I feel guilt and shame that I didn’t speak up sooner and that he’s never been convicted and now lives free and clear in Florida,” Lauzon posted, “and now that numerous people are telling me similar stories, I have nightmares about staying silent and letting this abuse happen to other young women and men, or letting silence lead to young women or men taking their own lives.”
Lauzon shared publicly on Facebook his experiences growing up in Biddeford and always feeling like the officer was watching him.
“I have nightmares about where he took me in the woods.” Lauzon wrote. “I have nightmares about his home on Dearborn Avenue. I have nightmares about him sitting in his SUV in the parking lot of the nursing home behind my home. Every time I see flashing blue lights, I think about him pulling up to intimidate me and tell me he was watching. A prominent police officer in my town was watching and as a mid-teenager, that was scary and extremely intimidating.”
Lauzon has asked Beaupre and Casavant for an assessment on what programs or resources have or haven’t worked in protecting young people from sexual predators. Lauzon has also offered to help victims build the confidence to speak out about their experiences.
“I’m appreciative that sexual abuse and child molestation is starting to be discussed mainstream. One in six of us experienced it and that ratio will reduce if we talk about it more openly,” posted Lauzon. “It took me nearly two decades, many bouts of deep depression and lots of therapy to come terms with it, and I’m not sure I’ll ever get over it.”
Lauzon said two detectives who suspected he had been molested came to his house to investigate, but as a child, he didn’t have the courage to speak up.
“They were right, I had been molested by a man who lived across the street from the Little League field I played at,” Lauzon said, “but sadly, I was scared and confused and embarrassed and I didn’t have the courage to tell them what happened. I didn’t want to let my dad down and I just felt scared. I believe those officers were doing their best and I wasn’t able to work with them. I wasn’t ready. And I believe they were both doing their best to make a positive impact.
“I appreciate their effort and wish I could have given them the information they needed, but in retrospect, I realize that the nature of these crimes is that the young girl or boy finds themselves feeling so bad, even guilty, that absent more open discussion, those officers have an extraordinarily difficult job because our current culture of shame prevents victims from speaking up.”
There is a good place to start overhauling the system. Do not send uniformed policemen to question a child about sex abuse - you need someone less intimidating and you need some degree of privacy.
In a response to Lauzon from Beaupre, obtained by the Courier, Beaupre wrote, “Law enforcement’s primary role is to investigate and bring forward to prosecutors all potential criminal charges that are supported by victims’ statements and the evidence necessary to support arrest and conviction of the perpetrator.
“Police officers are sensitive to the challenges that victims face and make referrals to professional help and advocates. However, our focus must remain on the process pertaining to the offenders. Victim support comes from their families, friends, churches, victim support organizations and those specially trained experts in helping to deal with the emotional traumas of abuse.”
Beaupre said the police department has formal relationships with local support organizations. One sex crime investigator works closely with Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine, a 24-hour crisis and support group that has been operating since 1973. Another officer works with a local branch of Community Partnership for Protecting Children. Beaupre also said he will provide the newspaper with more specific procedures about how officers handle sex assault investigations.
Beaupre, who has been police chief since 1980, said he would be willing to work with Lauzon to increase awareness about child sexual abuse, but would not want to sponsor an independent effort without involving the professional organizations the department works with.
“A community dialogue in an organized fashion, spearheaded by one of those organizations – I would absolutely participate in,” Beaupre said. “Those guys are trained. We work with them to help the victim as best we can and to recognize traits so we can refer them.”
According to the Maine Sex Offender Registry, Biddeford has 73 registered offenders, the seventh-highest number of any municipality in the state. Beaupre said he has a greater concern for the ones who aren’t registered, “the ones who are out there that haven’t been convicted.”
Beaupre said society has become more open and accepting of discussing sexual abuse over the last decades, but more efforts can be made to support victims who speak out.
“Fifteen or 20 years ago, to even broach the subject with family, you would be spoiled goods, you wouldn’t get support,” Beaupre said. “It’s like they’re victimized twice – once by the perpetrator and then (a second time) by the community that shuns them. At least today, there seems to be more tolerance and support.”
Beaupre said Lauzon is raising issues that commonly plague victims of sexual abuse.
“When people are victimized with a sexual offense, unfortunately, they get intimidated into not reporting it, get discouraged from reporting it,” Beaupre said.
“It’s kind of an embarrassing thing to admit to begin with.”
Casavant said Lauzon’s correspondence has compelled him to reach out to Superintendent Jeremy Ray to discuss what can be done to educate students and provide a more supportive environment in the city’s schools for sexual abuse victims. Casavant, who taught for 35 years, was a teacher at Biddeford High School when Lauzon attended.
“I was a teacher, that was my student, and I never knew,” Casavant said. “How many other kids are out there that have been abused and kept quiet about it? How do we create a culture that makes those students feel secure and comfortable coming forward?”
“If you harbor those feelings for years, I can’t imagine the emotional toll it would take,” Casavant added.
“(Lauzon is) pretty brave coming out and talking about it, and it seems some like sort of a catharsis for him.”
Lauzon said it wasn’t until he read an article last year by Ruzwana Bashir in The Guardian, that he felt inspired to share his story. After reading Bashir’s piece, Lauzon reached out to her and the two are now working on a global project to help those who have experienced sexual assault.
Lauzon said he didn’t go public with his experience until he first talked to his family because he didn’t want them to think that it was somehow their fault.
“My mom is my hero, I admire my brothers, and my extended family has always been there for me,” Lauzon said. “They were all shocked when I told them.”
Beaupre said he is prohibited by law from talking about the officer being investigated by the attorney general, but takes seriously any criminal activity by the city’s police officers.
“There’s nothing worse than a criminal cop,” Beaupre said. “It puts a black eye on the whole agency.”
Beaupre said when he first became police chief, the department did not have an adequate screening process for police officers. During his tenure, Beaupre said he instituted higher standards for screening applicants during the 1980s and 1990s, long before those standards became mandatory under statute in the mid-2000s.
“The department rejects substantially more applicants as a result of those screenings than ever,” Beaupre said.
About 90 percent of applicants are rejected by the department, Beaupre said. The application process to become a police officer includes physical examinations, background checks, a psychological evaluation and a polygraph test.
“We’ve weeded out people with previous sexual experiences, not necessarily illegal, but that raised concerns,” Beaupre said. “The advantage of a psychological exam is to get an idea of who we’re hiring. It’s a difficult process to determine if someone is being honest and up front with you.”
In terms of social media, Lauzon said the forum has helped him to be more transparent about his experience and to help others.
“We can talk openly about topics like sexual abuse to help make sure we’re protecting young women and men from sexual predators and also to help survivors,” Lauzon said. “Hearing people share their stories online has helped me tremendously, in toughest moments and deepest bouts of depression. The fact that we’re getting this going openly is already inspiring people.”
Lauzon commended Casavant for responding to his Facebook engagement, and wrote that initiative by city leaders is an important component in changing the cultural climate around child sexual abuse.
To victims of abuse, Lauzon writes in a personal blog, “I know how impossible it probably feels to take that next step and how nervous you might feel about how people will react. I felt the same way and I can tell you that all the assumptions I made about how I would feel or how others would react (were) wrong … I can assure you that when the time comes you will be blown away by the love and support. And you will also be blown away by how many people you know have shared a similar experience.”
On Facebook, he offered similar advice:
“If you’re a fellow survivor, please continue to feel comfortable to reach out to me confidentially, but please know I will ultimately want you to speak directly with investigators, with the attorney general or FBI,” Lauzon wrote. “I will listen and be there for you no matter what, but ultimately, you need to make a choice to talk to authorities or not. I’ll surely connect you if you want, but I also will not pressure you.”
Lauzon said there are two important things for survivors of sexual abuse or people who discover that a loved one has been abused to understand.
“It’s so important to remember it’s not your fault,” Lauzon said. “It’s natural to feel guilt, shame and embarrassment, but you need to work through it and recognize it’s not your fault.”
“The best step you can take is to talk to someone,” he added. “It’s best to talk to a professional and I always encourage survivors to seek professional therapy, but talking to any person that you trust is a great step.”
For those who support survivors of abuse, Lauzon said it is important to listen and be patient. The healing process can take years, and each survivor heals at their own pace.
“It’s definitely not a process measured in days or months,” Lauzon said. “Allow yourself and the survivor to go at a natural pace.”
For more information and resources, contact the Sexual Assault Response Services of Southern Maine at 1-800- 313-9900 or visit Matt Lauzon’s blog at: http://mattlauzon. tumblr.com/post/105454240679/surviving-abuse.