23 Oct “Kids First: Fighting Back from Sexual Abuse: Kayla’s Story,” by Andrew Malekoff, Blank Slate Media, October 23, 2018
I recently attended a seminar led by Dr. Cynthia Kaplan, director of Trauma Training & Consultation within the Child and Adolescent Services at McLean Hospital of Boston.
Dr. Kaplan addressed the issue of childhood sexual abuse. She incorporated the story of a young woman, Kayla Harrison, a survivor of CSA and a two-time Olympian Gold medalist in judo for the United States.
Many years ago CSA was only heard about in whispers as opposed to in-depth reports by investigative journalists. Today reports on CSA perpetrated by what seem like otherwise model citizens – religious leaders, coaches, teachers, seem commonplace.
Dr. Kaplan made a strong point about how we caution children in the strongest terms to “stay away from strangers,” yet 90 percent of children and adolescents, who are sexually abused, know their abuser.
Kayla’s book, “Fighting Back: What an Olympic Champion’s Story Can Teach Us about Recognizing and Preventing Child Sexual Abuse – and Helping Kids Recover,” co-authored by Drs. Kaplan and Aguirre, contains excerpts from Kayla’s personal journal.
She wrote about her experiences throughout the course of her abuse, including about how she was groomed by her coach.
“By the time I was nine or 10 I started traveling with the team to local tournaments. At night when the whole team would watch movies I would snuggle up next to him. He would put a blanket over us and then one day things went further and he guided my hand to touch him.”
About one in 10 children will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday.
The impact of CSA can be felt by survivors throughout their lifetime.
According to Dr. Kaplan, what complicates the healing is that CSA is not visible, not transparent. Consequently, survivors may not get the support they need and are often left to struggle and mourn alone.
When film director Steven Spielberg created the Shoah Foundation, which strives to capture the testimony of Holocaust survivors, he discovered that many of them had never told their stories before.
They often avoided doing so because they had a deep sense of shame and distress which they often believed could or would not be understood by others.
After the filming they reported feeling a sense of relief at finally having told someone. They finally felt heard.
Being truly heard requires another person to bear witness. Living with the hurt in silence can compound traumatic stress and lead to destructive and even fatal behaviors including drinking, drugging, self-harm and suicide.
Disclosures of CSA require professional support. When survivors lose their ability to control disclosures, the emotional impact can be devastating.
Even in the best of circumstances, says Dr. Kaplan, following disclosure individuals often feel more distressed and have trouble managing emotions. They may begin to lose faith in the world and can feel re-traumatized by the disclosure experience itself.
It is significantly more likely that a child will disclose if they know they are likely to be believed and do not feel blamed and also if they are helped to anticipate the potential legal repercussions of breaking their silence.
Believing that they will be protected by the adult they disclose to goes a long way. Particularly when they are able to maintain at least some control over the disclosure process, preserve their anonymity to the extent possible and sustain a level of confidentiality.
Surprising as it may seem, children also need to feel free to express their concerns about what will happen to the offender, as it is a complicated relationship with the victim having mixed feelings that survivors need time to process.
There is hope. As Kayla said, after many years and support from her new coaches, parents and mental health professionals, “I began to see my way out of the darkness and towards the light until I could again see the flame of the Olympic torch shining with my very own eyes.”