Survivors, Not Victims
From a distance, the photo is a sweet portrait of love. A little girl sitting in her father’s lap, smiling as he reads a book to her. Upon closer reflection, however, the girl’s white knuckles gripping the page tell a different story. One that will take years – and many court battles – to finally be revealed.
What do you do if your husband is abusing your child, and no one steps in to help or believes your story?
Natalie lived through that nightmare, and still faces an uphill climb.
Today, sitting in her modest trailer west of Gillette, with a large green binder of court documents, case worker, and medical reports in her lap, the 33-year-old mother worries about her daughter, now a teenager, who was abused by her biological father as a child, possibly beginning when she was less than a week old.
Natalie can still hear her daughter’s blood-curdling scream when she put her in the bathtub with her dad that day while she went into the kitchen to heat a bottle.
“It was bone chilling,” she recalled, “and like nothing I’d ever heard before or since. Looking back, I think that might have been when the abuse began.”
Up until that point, there had been a few eyebrow-raising incidents regarding her ex-husband that had given her pause. The two met in Colorado and married when she was 20. He was eight years older and her first real boyfriend. One night, while she was pregnant, he called to say he was going to be late because he was racing to the hospital to console a 16-year-old co-worker, who claimed to have been raped. Why her husband would be the one that the girl called was her first inkling that something was off, but young and in love, she ignored her gut.
Later, it would it turn out to be a consensual relationship between the two, resulting in charges of statuary rape, for which he avoided being persecuted by moving the family to Wyoming. He said the girl had lied; Natalie believed him. During this time, he also drank heavily and couldn’t keep a job, which was ultimately what prompted Natalie to leave him after their third child was born.
After the split, the stories emerged from friends and former neighbors, claiming her ex had a long history of chasing teenage girls.
Because they had joint custody, the girls would go visit their dad on weekends and vacations. Natalie’s hackles were raised when her oldest daughter, then 5, came home from a visit acting strangely. Normally, her husband returned the girls in dirty clothes with unwashed hair. That day, however, they’d come home in dresses and fancy hair-do’s. At bath time, Natalie noticed the red marks and swelling in her oldest daughter’s genital area. She took her to the ER that night.
The evidence was inconclusive. The doctor couldn’t prove that she hadn’t done that to herself, and the case worker said sexual impulses and curiosity at that age are natural.
Finally, when her daughter no longer wanted to go on visits out of fear of being hurt by “monster daddy,” Natalie once again went to the Department of Family Services.
Natalie’s own history with sexual and physical abuse by her step-father as a child worked against her. The case worker, according to Natalie, was staunchly on her ex-husband’s side, suggesting she was feeding her daughter lines to get back at him for cheating on her.
Meanwhile, her daughter was disclosing stories about “monster daddy” to any adult who would listen, including the mother of a classmate, who reported it to the school. It was mortifying, embarrassing, and scary to watch her daughter openly seeking help from strangers when she could do nothing to protect from those visits.
Natalie snapped. Because her husband wouldn’t tempt fate by returning to the scene of his former crime out of fear of being arrested, she, technically, kidnapped the girls and took them back home. Once there, however, police threatened to arrest her if she didn’t let her girls see their father, so she returned.
The abuse did not stop, and finally, there was enough medical evidence – including the girl’s own testimony – to suggest the possibility of sexual abuse, which led to supervised visits. These visits worked in his favor, however, as the case worker and counselor reported what a loving and kind father he was to his three daughters.
“Of course he’s going to be on his best behavior with them watching,” she said. “What did they expect?
The final straw for Natalie came when he remarried and had a baby girl with his new wife. That drove Natalie over the edge. She turned to Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation (GARF), who went to battle helping her get full custody of her daughters. That fight might have been lost, Natalie noted, were it not for GARF Sexual Assault Program Coordinator Kristi David and clinical psychologist Bill Heineke, who drove across state lines to testify on her behalf.
It worked. A judge declared that her ex-husband had, in fact, abused his daughter and sentenced him to a mandatory treatment program, which, according to Natalie, he managed to avoid. To her knowledge, that was his only punishment.
She has no idea where he is today, and instead focuses on her oldest daughter and helping her heal. She’s dealing with anger issues and unanswered questions. Why was she the only one of the three that he abused? Why does she have to follow rules when her dad broke them and avoided jail? The teen spends a lot of time in her room, showing little interest in socializing with peers or participating in activities with friends or at school.
Unfortunately, Natalie knows all too well what her daughter is going through, and what it takes out of you to survive. In her case, her controlling step-father mentally and physically abused her, until at age 18, she got a job and moved in with a friend to finish high school. She never returned home.
Her mother, who has since divorced her abuser, worked long hours back then with a two-hour daily commute, and wasn’t around to see much of the abuse, or believe when told.
Natalie doesn’t blame her mother, but instead tries to find the silver lining. At least she knows what her daughter is going through and is determined that both of them get the necessary help to work through the deep-rooted issues that she’s worked hard to stuff down.
In Natalie’s own case, there are still lingering triggers. The taste of cayenne pepper on her tongue, her aversion to men – including famous actors – who resemble her step-dad, the feeling of being followed by a man in a pick-up.
“All you can do is look forward and be strong,” she said with a shrug. “I’m not going to use this as a crutch. There is honestly a light at the end of every tunnel. You just have to believe in yourself.”
She talks about returning to school to become a counselor to help others who have been abused. For now, her job is to be there for her daughters and make sure it never happens again. She has no interest in dating or being in a relationship. Her focus is solely on her kids.
Natalie’s story is all too familiar to David and GARF Prevention and Education Coordinator Shawna McDonald, who both have their own crosses to bear.
Like Natalie, their abusers were family members or friends of the family, which statistically speaking, is most common.
In David’s case, her abuser was a babysitter, who her mother never suspected and on whom she never told. As an adult, when David finally confessed to her mother, she was shocked, though not entirely. In retrospect, there had been signs. Like how upset she got when her mother talked about going out and her tendency to be guarded and secretive.
“It’s not what people think,” David said. “It’s typically not a stranger, and more often is going to be family or a family friend or someone you know.”
Looking back, her mother wishes she would have followed her instinct, advice that resonates with David as she works with clients. “If your kid is acting funny, follow your gut,” she said.
Also, don’t just trust anyone to look after your child, she warned. Too many times, David said, she talks to young mothers who go off to work or elsewhere and leave their baby with a new boyfriend.
“He doesn’t love your baby like he loves you,” she said. “The best way to keep your child safe is to spend time with them and don’t leave them with someone you don’t know.”
Likewise, if someone tells you they are being assaulted or abused, listen.
That’s perhaps the best advice both women can give anyone. Believe them, and don’t ignore someone if they choose to disclose their story.
“There’s a reason they’re telling you,” McDonald said. “Who knows? If you shut them down, they may never try again.”
Being believed and not accused of causing the assault or abuse is a huge part of giving a survivor a voice, she added.
She would know.
She lived through it herself. In McDonald’s case it was her first husband who assaulted her. Then after getting the courage to leave him, she married another guy just like him. Instead of physically abusing, his weapon was verbal and mental assault. That she could marry not one – but two – abusive men was a tough pill for her to swallow and would take her years to unpack and comprehend. She grew up in a perfectly loving, normal family; what about her drove her toward abusive men?
Like others in her position, McDonald kept the abuse to herself, until she started working at GARF, where she gained strength to leave her second husband.
“It’s easy to judge from a distance,” she said, “but it’s complicated.”
That’s what people struggle to understand why a victim stays, she noted, or why they return.
On average, McDonald said, it takes someone seven times to leave before they commit to leaving for good. In many cases, that person might not have the resources to leave or the confidence or emotional strength. They might be living far away from any friends or family. Sometimes it’s as simple as a bus ticket home. Others might have a hard time admitting it out loud, let alone to a stranger. Or the victim might be “gaslighted,” where they are coerced into believing they are the ones in the wrong, not their abuser.
The reasons vary but the abuse is real, which is why both women feel so strongly about the services offered through GARF.
Along with providing safe houses for survivors – both male and female – fleeing their homes, GARF also offers victim advocates for children and adults, counseling, and support groups. The crisis line is available 24/7, and they offer around-the-clock help and advocacy (307) 686-8070.
One of the misnomers about GARF, according to McDonald, is that their services are for females only.
“That’s just not true,” she said. “Yes, we’ll turn away the abuser of the victim or someone who has a record of committing fraud.”
Otherwise, both males and females are eligible for services.
And unfortunately, the number of those needing help in Campbell County continues to rise. Once their biggest demographic was single mothers with children, and now, they are seeing an uptick in the number of younger women coming in. Right now, David said, theaverage age of a sexual assault client is 14.
Part of this is due to the momentum of the #metoo movement, and the other part is to the outreach and prevention programs in schools and other organizations.
“The good news is that we’re doing our jobs well to get the word out,” McDonald said. “The bad news is that the prevalence of abuse continues rising.”
GARF sees between 50 and 60 new (unduplicated) sexual assault clients per year. These cases tend to be complicated and ongoing, according to David, meaning that clients need many varied services, such as court accompaniment and advocacy through the process, counseling, support groups, financial assistance, and more.
“Each case is different and has its own set of challenges,” she added. “Clients may continue to come in for years for help in some cases.”
Nationally, the statistics are just as staggering.
According to the National Sexual Violence Resource Center (NSVRC), one in five women and one in 71 men will be raped at some point in their lives. In the U.S., one in three women and one in six men experience some form of contact sexual violence in their lifetime.Fifty-one percent of female rape victims reported being raped by an intimate partner while 40.8 percent were raped by an acquaintance. Of those rape victims, 91 percent are female, and 9 percent are male.
Women and members of the LGBTQ community are most vulnerable to abuse, David said, both nationally and in Campbell County.
As David learned the hard way, sometimes this is a result of putting oneself in vulnerable situations. In her case, that meant drinking too much and going home with a strange guy, who raped and assaulted her.
“Don’t leave with someone you don’t know and don’t let them buy you a drink,” she advised, cautioning that they’ve seen several clients over the years who have complained of being drugged at local bars.
“This happens a lot,” she said.
Not that she or other people in this position are to blame for the assault, she noted.
“Too often we blame people for their bad choices,” she said. “But that person didn’t hurt themselves nor did they deserve it.”
As McDonald pointed out, only the abuser is to blame.
For more information about GARF and its services, see their Facebook page at: Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation.
Editor’s Note: Names and locations have been omitted or changed to protect the anonymity of survivors.