VICTIMS OF SEXUAL ABUSE BENEFIT FROM COMPASSION AND SUPPORT
STORY BY Elizabeth Heubeck PHOTOGRAPHY BY Mary C. Gardella
Shari Hammond, a 45-year-old Ellicott City resident, is a successful entrepreneur who is married and has three children. She speaks with authority and conveys confidence. But when she was a young child, an adult sought to control her in the cruelest way.
When Hammond was 10 or 11 years old, she stayed at home from school sick, sleeping in her mother’s bed. Her stepfather entered the room and lay down beside her, and began stroking her hair. Then, his hands were on her. At first, she thought his touching was an accident, but she soon realized it was not. Hammond recalls that all the lessons she’d learned from school—good touch versus bad touch and what to do when someone touches you in a “bad” way—flooded her mind. But fear overwhelmed her, and she froze.
When it was over, and Hammond retreated to her own bedroom shaking and crying, her stepfather knocked on her door. He apologized, saying he felt bad about what he’d done. He asked if she’d like him to call her mother at work and confess. She said yes. He picked up the phone, then put it down. “What do you say if I don’t call your mom and I won’t tell her about the cigarettes in your drawer?” he asked. Again, she felt powerless. He didn’t call. The abuse continued over the next three years. But it has taken far longer for Hammond to heal.
Recently countless prominent men have been publicly accused of sexual misconduct, harassment or assault. Most of the victims were adults when the misconduct occurred. Still, in many cases years went by before they came forward. The courage to discuss a personal experience of sexual abuse is difficult under any circumstances, whether you are a professional adult, a child or the victim of a sex trafficking operation.
For local victims of sex abuse ready to seek help, resources are available. Howard County-based HopeWorks, which Hammond helped to found, is one. Founded as Shari’s Promise, the organization provides support and advocacy for area residents affected by sexual and intimate partner violence, with a 24-hour helpline, residential services for victims who cannot safely stay in their homes, trauma-focused therapy, legal assistance, and comprehensive prevention and wellness programs. In 2016, HopeWorks served 3,900 people—mostly women and primarily residents of Howard County. The county is also home to a child advocacy center called The Listening Place. Considered a national model in managing child sex abuse, it utilizes a trained multi-disciplinary team of professionals under one roof, thereby limiting the number of times a child has to tell his or her story. But to take advantage of these resources, victims must first recognize and admit the abuse. And that’s not easy.
WHY VICTIMS REMAIN SILENT
Acknowledging abuse is the first step in healing, but it can be hindered by confusion, self-doubt and fear. That’s particularly true when a family member or trusted authority figure sexually abuses a child. According to the National Association of Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, 90 percent of victims know their abusers.
This, of course, exacerbates an already confusing situation. “When you’re abused as a kid, the abuse becomes your normal,” says Jennifer Pollitt, executive director of HopeWorks. “You’re having to untangle, possibly as an adult, how the world works, based on the abuse you suffered.”
Such was the case with 54-year-old Baltimore resident Betsy Schindler, who first began suffering sex abuse at the hands of her step-grandfather as a 5-year-old living in Pennsylvania. It continued with regularity until she was about 12. Her abuser died suddenly when Schindler was 15—long before she was ready to confront the abuse.
“He made me feel special,” Schindler says. “As an adolescent, I used to wonder why my uncle and my dad weren’t doing (sexual) things to me.”
At the same time, her step-grandfather said hurtful things. “He told me I would never be normal and that, basically, no one would want me,” words that would have deep and lasting effects on Schindler.
Abusers, whether they are strangers or close, may intimidate the abused into silence. When Hammond was about 12, she opened up to a friend, who shared the information with her mother, who in turn contacted the police. That proactive mother probably assumed justice was about to be served. But Hammond’s stepfather— who continued to live with Hammond and her mother, despite the charges against him—interfered.
Hammond vividly recalls the morning of the grand jury meeting. Her mother called her to the dining room, asking her what she planned to tell the grand jury. Her stepfather interrupted and said, “If you don’t want to talk about it, all you have to say is that you don’t want to talk about it,” Hammond recalls. The unwitting 13-year-old stayed mum and her stepfather pled not guilty. The case didn’t go to trial (Hammond did accuse him of a later sex violation, for which he served 10 years in jail.).
SILENCE AND TRIGGERS TAKE A TOLL
Sex abuse stirs anxiety, which can provoke or exacerbate mental health and behavioral problems. Often the resulting anxiety can result in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), according to The American Academy of Experts in Traumatic Stress. Not surprising, Schindler suffered severe anxiety attacks, flashbacks and nightmares years after her abuse—particularly when she was exposed to reminders, or “triggers.” The most disturbing trigger proved to be the Jerry Sandusky scandal, in which the long-time Penn State football coach was arrested and charged with 52 counts of sexual abuse against young boys.
“Jerry was ‘nice’ to the victims and made them feel special, just like my grandfather,” Schindler observes.
After the Sandusky story broke, Schindler—a Pennsylvania native who grew up in a town she says reveres Penn State football—was at a holiday party where family members were expressing their support for the football team. Unable to cope, she retreated to an upstairs room, curled up in the fetal position, completely overwhelmed.
Triggers, even years later, like the one Schindler experienced, can take victims back to their darkest memories. Adverse effects can also surface sooner. HopeWorks’ Pollit points to increased suicide rates, eating disorders, mental health disorders, and drug and alcohol abuse. “They’re coping mechanisms,” she says.
Both Schindler and Hammond suffered abuse later, by different perpetrators, trauma that led to mental health problems. After a group leader at her youth church group assaulted her, Schindler took control of her body in the best way she knew how—by controlling the food that went into it. Anorexia eventually led to hospitalization.
When Hammond was 14, she narrowly escaped an attempted rape by a stranger at the mall where she was employed. Not long afterward, her boyfriend’s older brother raped her in a secluded part of the woods while her friends partied nearby. This time, Hammond says, “I just went away” emotionally. She attempted suicide and ended up in a psychiatric inpatient program. In intensive therapy, Hammond says she found her rage. “I really tapped into my innate power,” she says.
Childhood sex abuse is tied not only to subsequent mental health issues, but also to disproportionately high rates of teen pregnancies. A recent meta-analysis, published in the Journal of Pediatric Psychology, suggests that almost half of all pregnant adolescents have a prior history of child sex abuse.
Hammond became a teen mother. She married her daughter’s dad right out of high school, and though the marriage didn’t last until their little girl’s third birthday, they shared custody for years. Hammond did everything she could to prove she was a strong mother—like starting a college savings account for her daughter and opening a thriving hair salon. But her efforts couldn’t protect her daughter from suffering a fate similar to her own.
One day, when her daughter was about 9, she asked Hammond what happened when the police had arrested her stepfather. She wanted to know if they put handcuffs on him. Hammond didn’t recognize the red flag. About five years later, her daughter told her that her biological father had been sexually abusing her for years.
“I lost my mind,” Hammond says. What she didn’t lose was the intensity she’d found since confronting her own abuse. She closed her styling business to focus on “doing something bigger,” she says. Around that same time, in 2009, after Hammond’s moving victim advocacy speech on behalf of her daughter, the Howard County police asked her to speak to the judiciary committee in Annapolis in support of funding child advocacy centers throughout the state. The request, she says, was eventually granted. In 2010, Hammond and her daughter launched the Howard County-based nonprofit Shari’s Promise, with a mission to prevent and end child sexual abuse. (It has since been absorbed by HopeWorks.).
Today, Hammond is remarried and has two young sons with her second husband. She is in the process of launching a new business, Shari Renee, which will center on spiritual coaching. Her daughter, a local school teacher, was also recently married.
Despite the trauma of her early years, Hammond is in charge of her life and happy with her accomplishments. Is this possible for everyone? She responds with an emphatic, “Yes.”
“But,” she adds, “You’re going to fight for your life.”
As for Schindler, time and years of therapy have helped her overcome anorexia and bouts of anxiety. She married a dear friend. Her husband is a psychologist who also endured sexual abuse as a child, so understands Schindler’s background. Schindler is a social worker who has worked with children for most of her career.
While she still has scars from her early years, she says, “They don’t have to ruin a life. The human spirit is so resilient that you can move forward.”