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The Worst Day of My Son's Life

Sometimes in Jaynie Campbell’s journal, she’s yelling – at least internally – at her teenager.

You cannot be blamed for what happened to you. You believe you entered into that sick encounter fully in control of yourself and mature enough to comprehend all it would mean when over and done. You have not begun to feel the impact of your molestation. You will have emotional scars for the rest of your life. Scars I wish I could erase, but don’t have the power to do for you.

Sometimes her sadness is palpable as she asks questions her teenager can’t hear.

I feel like you’ve died. In a way, you have. What’s missing? What has died? Your spirit, the fun we always had together, laughter, optimism, faith, and your ability to accept love and give love. Kindness has been swept away. Pure joy is gone. You’re not able to be young at heart and appreciate the memories of simple things in which you delighted as a child. You are dead to the things that children carry into their adult lives, memories that sustain us and remind us of the love and joy we’ve experienced in our lives.

Campbell’s son Jack (not their real names) was molested when he was 15. The events that led to the molestation started when he was 14 in an Internet chat room. Over Thanksgiving recently, as the Dallas family discussed the news of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal, Jack mentioned how he’d “been there.” That’s progress, his mother says, as Jack hasn’t wanted to admit his innocence in what happened to him.

The man who molested Jack – we’ll call him Frank – worked for a youth leadership organization. Jack was not involved in the organization but met Frank online. Frank died of carbon monoxide poisoning in November 2008, three months after the molestation and three months before Jack’s family would find out about it. Beyond that, Campbell doesn’t know much about this man who would radically change the trajectory of her family.

Frank sat in chat rooms – her son would never say which ones – where Jack visited, quietly following the conversations. Apparently, this isn’t uncommon for sexual predators. They may pick up, as they did in Jack’s case, that a child’s older brother is starting college and that Jack was starting high school. Once the predator does engage the child, he does so in a way that makes the child think they’ve met before.

“They sit there and they listen,” Campbell says. “Frank was able to gather enough information over nine months of listening that he figured out there’s a lot of stress in the house, a sibling is leaving for college, the child is getting ready to start high school. In the case of my son, it made some sense to us that his behavior was starting to change. And you just don’t read the signs. It just doesn’t enter the realm of thought that this is what has happened.”

Predators often go after children who are vulnerable because of their life circumstances, which makes it more difficult for family members – even well-educated, attentive parents like the Campbells – to see the signs of abuse. When a child’s family is going through a transition or a child is in a developmental phase such as puberty, parents often expect odd behavior and don’t assume it’s related to something like abuse.

Frank, who was in his early 30s, convinced Jack to meet him on a remote side street across from a local YMCA, where they had a sexual encounter in Frank’s car. They never saw each other again – Jack kept his distance, although Frank continued to contact him – but this was the beginning of the new Jack his mom has come to know.

Previously quite involved in his church, Jack started saying he hated God. He began drinking, doing drugs, sleeping with lots of girls, staying out all night. The process that led up to the molestation – which included texting, sending photos back and forth and eventually sexting – is called “grooming.”

I cannot be alone with my thoughts for very long. The sadness is so deep. Your innocence wasn’t lost; it was stolen. Not just from you, but from all of us who love you. Your stolen innocence has separated you from my love and from those who know and love you.

This is the state – separated, sad and angry – in which the staff at the Dallas Children’s Advocacy Center often finds its clients. The Center’s average client is a 10-year-old girl sexually abused by someone she knows and trusts. In addition to its own staff, the Center houses the child abuse unit of the Dallas Police Department, a special investigative unit of Child Protective Services and an assistant district attorney. A member of the Center’s staff interviews children in a child-friendly setting, asking age-appropriate questions, while others who need to be involved watch on the other side of a two-way mirror. The Center also offers a curriculum for parents and professionals on recognizing and reporting the sexual abuse of children.

“As parents, we can help our kids learn how to trust their gut,” says Ellen Magnis, who, as chief of external affairs, is responsible for the Center’s educational outreach. “In our society, we tend to do things like say, ‘Go kiss Uncle so-and-so.’ We need to maybe not do so much of that. We need to teach our kids from a very young age that this is your body. You can choose who to hug and choose who to kiss.

You have personal space, and if somebody invades your personal space or makes you feel uncomfortable or icky, these are things I want to know about.”

Warning signs parents should look for include acting out sexually or in a sexually inappropriate way; having a knowledge of sex and the parts of the body that is advanced for their age; not wanting to visit or be with a certain adult (or sometimes any adult) or go to, say, soccer practice; signs of regression – for example, a child who was no longer wetting the bed but starts again; a change in personality (your normally outgoing child now would prefer to be alone in her room); a significant change in your child’s weight; and being overly protective of siblings.

“If parents see some of these things, it doesn’t mean their child has been molested,” Magnis says. “It just might mean something is going on. We want to drive open communication with our kids and make them understand that no matter what, we’re going to be there for them, stand by them, and we’re going to believe them.”

Children are vulnerable simply because of their age. But predators look for additional vulnerabilities: a child needing a father figure, a chaotic home – all part of the grooming process, as Campbell discovered a few months after the molestation occurred.

After one of Jack’s all-night outings in February 2008, Campbell took her son’s phone away and started looking through his text messages. Jack, 15 at the time, had kept the texts from Frank, dating back more than a year, as well as some from other predators.

For five hours in the middle of the night, Campbell looked through nude and provocative photos of men who were trying to hook up with her son (Campbell assumes Frank gave them Jack’s information), sexual messages from the men describing what they’d like to do with Jack, and Jack’s brief responses – “can’t,” “not sure,” and “Do I know you?”

When she confronted her son the next morning, he burst into tears.

“Jack was very much in denial that he had been victimized,” Campbell says. “That’s what all the grooming is about, convincing that 14-year-old that he’s not a child, that he knows exactly what he’s doing. He systematically went about convincing Jack that he was interested in sexual exploration, that it was only natural. He met him, molested him, and I believe passed his name around to other convicted child molesters who started texting Jack.”

The family set about dealing with what had happened to Jack. He started therapy immediately, as did the entire family. They contacted the police and went about trying to put the pieces of their lives back together.

They told a few very close friends, but generally their community was left to wonder what was going on. Police took Jack’s phone and computer and said he shouldn’t be alone or visit social media sites while they investigated the people who had contacted him after his encounter with Frank.

One of the most difficult aspects of going through this as a child, as a parent and as a family is the isolation. If the family’s house had burned down or they’d been robbed, if a family member had died or been seriously injured, the Campbells would’ve had their community around them for support. But the shame and secrecy surrounding the sexual abuse of children generally keeps all involved quiet.

Now your dad and I are put in the position of painfully restricting your privileges in an effort to protect you from yourself and help you gradually acquire/restore healthy habits and appropriate relational skills. It seems like we are punishing our child who was a victim of molestation! Is that right? Imagine the conflict in our hearts! Imagine the conflict in our minds. We can’t possibly explain the harsh restrictions to the outside world – your friends, their parents – who have little or no background knowledge of what’s going on with you.

Local resident Paula Felps understands that stolen innocence and separation. Felps, who was molested as a child and a teenager, is a member of the RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network) speakers’ bureau and founder of the Sexual Abuse Resource Network (sexualabuseresourcenetwork.com).

Felps isn’t surprised that what happened at Penn State captured the country’s attention so completely, even though the sexual abuse of children is so common. “Nobody wants to believe it’s happening in their institution or in their family,” she says.

In Pennsylvania, as many of us learned, your legal obligation if you witness or suspect the abuse of a child is to tell your supervisor. Jerry Sandusky, a former assistant football coach at Penn State, is accused of sexually abusing children as young as 10 years old, abuse witnessed by and known to many. When one such witness informed former head coach Joe Paterno, Paterno notified the administration. Legally, that’s all he had to do.

There are moves at the federal level to make it a federal crime not to report child abuse, including the proposed Speak Up to Protect Every Abused Kid Act of 2011.

In Texas, it is illegal to stay silent about such abuses – even if you only suspect them. In some states only police, social workers, teachers, doctors and people in similar positions are required to report possible abuse. In Texas, everyone is obligated.