The woman seemed to have it all — beauty, talent, a show business pedigree, a high profile loving spouse. A few years ago she chose to disappear from public life and seek the answer for her unhappiness. She has emerged as an ambassador, spokesperson and hero to victims of sexual victimization of all kinds and with a degree from my alma mater, Harvard’s Kennedy School.
I saw Ms. Judd on TV as part of the book tour for her new autobiography, All That Is Bitter and Sweet. Judd shares her journey though awful memories of repeated sexual victimization. I become breathless with fury to learn that her pleas for help from the adults in her life were ignored.
One of the most difficult things a child victim can do is speak out. It is an act requiring bravery beyond imagination. The majority of perpetrators are known to or part of the family and the child knows at some level that relationships will forever be altered. Almost universally, victims feel as if they are to blame for some aspect of the abuse. These are among the huge emotional barriers a child must cross to seek help. It seems cruel beyond words to imagine a child taking that leap of faith only to find nothing on the other side.
Decades after child protective services became a routine part of public service in our country, after every state passed laws requiring people to report abuse, we are STILL living in a world where children have salt rubbed into their wounds of abuse by adults who look the other way.
I recall going into a school decades ago to interview a young girl who had called the sex-abuse helpline that I staffed. When the school secretary heard the name of the child we were looking for, her response was to ask if this was because of what her uncle had been doing to her. I could not then, and cannot now comprehend the cruelty of an adult sending a child home from school each day knowing she faced sexual assault.
Ashley Judd said that she learned an important lesson; to give the shame back to the abuser. I say shame on every adult who sees a child in pain and turns a blind eye.
Things are a little better now than they were all those years ago when I walked into that school; many schools do a great job helping their personnel know the proper response when they believe a child is a victim. I had hoped by now that we could spend Child Abuse Prevention Month focused on REAL prevention, like supporting community norms that do not tolerate the sexualizing of children, or ensuring that parents have access to good information about how to teach their children about healthy sexuality and keeping lines of communication wide open, or promoting evidenced based prevention strategies.
But if you know a child bearing the pain of abuse, honor Child Abuse Prevention Month by helping him or her get help. And then support efforts in your community for real prevention programs.