Perspective

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Did you hear our Perspective this morning on WNIJ?  If you’re not a radio listener, check it out at this LINK.

 

Outgoing Kentucky governor Matt Bevin is using his final days in office to make a powerful statement. On Nov. 22, Bevin announced he was pardoning Paul Hurt, a man serving life in prison for sexually abusing his six-year-old stepdaughter. If there is one thing I thought we could agree on, even in a country as divided as ours seems to be, I thought we could all agree that the abuse of children is a heinous crime for which people should be punished.

The facts around Hurt’s case are complicated and the pardon seems to rest on the activism of the judge in the original 2001 conviction who later worked privately to convince the victim to recant her testimony. The issues when you start digging into the case are far beyond what can be managed in a short Perspective.  But what isn’t complicated is this: we as adults have the ultimate responsibility for protecting our children. How we respond when a child discloses abuse and how we support them after that disclosure makes all the difference for how they will heal and whether that abuser will face consequences.

I believe the victim in Hurt’s case has had justice snatched away from her. I believe Matt Bevin has sent a message to child abusers that they will not be held accountable for harming children.  I believe our world is a more dangerous place for children because of this pardon.  And I believe that is completely unacceptable.

I’m Lynnea Erickson Laskowski and that’s my perspective.

Bevin, Bye.

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Content Warning: discussion of sexual abuse, sexual predators, and the legal system. No descriptions of sexual acts.

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As one of his final acts as Governor of Kentucky, Matt Bevin has taken it upon himself to pardon a convicted child abuser. (LINK) The case is a highly unusual one that hinges upon a retired judge who became convinced of the innocence of the man he once convicted.

In 2001, Paul Donel Hurt was convicted of sexually abusing his six-year-old stepdaughter. The child reported the abuse at the time to her stepmother who contacted police. The child was able to describe in graphic detail what had been done to her.  She also exhibited many of the red flags typically associated with sexual trauma. Her behavior, her knowledge, and her testimony helped a jury convict Hurt of criminal sexual abuse and he was sentenced to life in prison.

The judge who oversaw the case, Stephen Mershon [and no, I’m not giving him an honorific here on purpose], began to correspond with Hurt in prison and eventually became convinced that Hurt was an innocent man.  He then began to communicate with the victim to try to convince her of the same. In 2015, after contact from Mershon, the victim recanted her 2001 testimony, saying that she had not actually been abused by Hurt. Mershon went so far as to assist the victim in writing a letter to a previous Governor asking to pardon her stepfather.  That attempt failed as did Hurt’s many appeals of his conviction.

Even after Mershon’s intervention and the victim’s 2015 recanting of her testimony, judges still refused to overturn Hurt’s conviction. The judicial opinion (LINK here) written at that time states that the victim only recanted her testimony after interference from Mershon and that her recantation was much less compelling and much more inconsistent than her original testimony. The appeals court ruled that Hurt’s conviction should stand.

Despite the overwhelming evidence of Hurt’s guilt, Mershon felt compelled to interfere and Governor Bevin felt compelled to do the same.  When Hurt was released from prison after his pardon, Mershon was the one to pick him up and drive him home.

Now, you might be asking yourself, if the victim recanted, why am I so upset by this? From the outside, this might look like an innocent man finally receiving justice. But as an expert working in the movement to end sexual violence, this case is all too familiar and shows the failings of our society to understand trauma and victimization.  There are a few important lessons we need to learn from this miscarriage of justice:

  1. Children RARELY lie about being sexually abused.  If a child has disclosed abuse to you, believe them.
  2. Children will often feel guilt over loved ones or trusted adults who face consequences for abuse. Given that 90-93% of child abusers are someone the child knows, this guilt is common.  It is not unusual that a child might later recant a disclosure of abuse because they are worried about a loved one.  It is also not uncommon that community members or family will make that child feel guilty if they are not very careful about consistently reminding the child that the abuse and the consequences the adult is facing are not their fault. Children who feel guilty will often recant abuse, even years later, to try to safe a loved one or a family relationship.
  3. Trauma is confusing and those with power should be mindful that they can alter or impact a victim’s memory by gaslighting them about what really happened.
  4. When we don’t hold offenders accountable, they will continue to abuse.  When we publicly don’t hold offenders accountable, we give the green-light to other abusers that they will not be caught. A pardon like this undermines justice for one young victim and empowers countless other predators who feel secure that they, like Paul Donel Hurt, will not face consequences.

The key is this: when any survivor of abuse tells you about their experience, believe them. That is the most important thing we can do. This is even more important for children who will look to us for how they should feel about what happened to them. Tell children you believe them, tell them it isn’t their fault, and fight like hell to keep them safe.

If you’ve been a victim of child sexual abuse, now or in the past, Safe Passage is here and we will believe you.  Call us 24/7 at 815-756-5228.

 

 

There is no such thing as other people’s children.

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Do we really trust that our children are safe in immigration detention camps?  Do we look at a tent city full of babies and think we’ve done the right thing?  Can we ignore the lifelong trauma our children will face from this enforced separation?  Are we sure our children are being protected from predators and abusers?

There is no such thing as other people’s children.

When we see the allegations of abuse and assault our children are facing, we must be enraged.  We must speak out.  We can’t afford to stay silent.  Our children’s lives are at stake.  Our humanity is at stake.

Contact your representatives.  Call their staff, send letters, show up at their offices.  Donate to organizations like the ACLU that are fighting for our children.  Don’t give up until we know ALL our children are safe.

(Information on what is happening in immigration detention centers for children: ACLU).

Child Abuse Prevention Month

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We’ve been spending a lot of time preparing for April’s Sexual Assault Awareness Month, but did you know it is also Child Abuse Prevention Month?  Read our article in DeKalb’s Daily Chronicle to learn how we are working with our community partners to prevent child abuse and support child survivors. (LINK TO ARTICLE)

Our Erin’s Law education is a critical component of child abuse prevention.  We are in the schools in our county helping kids learn about body safety, body autonomy, and their rights to safe and healthy relationships.

If you’d like to learn more about our services for children and teens, visit our website (www.safepassagedv.org) or call us at 815.756.5228.

le consentement

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France has recently proposed a new sexual assault law which includes a provision for the country’s first ever minimum age of consent.  Set to go into effect next year, President Macron and other leading French politicians hope to see the law establish the minimum age of sexual consent at 15 years old.  This would mean that any adult caught having sexual contact with a child younger than 15 would be charged with rape, regardless of if the courts were able to prove that violence or threats were involved.

A number of recent court cases involving adult men preying on young girls have prompted the recommended changes.  Adult men have been been acquitted of sexual crimes against children or convicted on lower charges due to the ambiguity in current laws.  Many sexual predators have had their relationships deemed consensual, even with children as young as 11 and 13.  When the courts can’t prove that physical violence or threats were involved, they cannot currently convict an adult of rape.  This planned legal change is obviously long overdue.

We know in cases of child sexual abuse that many abusers do not use threats of violence or physical violence to facilitate abuse.  Many abusers trick their victims.  Many abusers groom their victims into believing that they have a special relationship that allows that abuse.  Many abusers use bribes or gifts.  Some children may not know that what happened to them was abuse.  Some children may believe they are too blame for the abuse because they allowed it to happen or because they didn’t fight back.  Some children will crave that attention and affection, no matter how unhealthy.  None of these things make it a child’s fault when they have been abuse and none of these things make that relationship consensual.

It is important to educate children on their rights, especially their rights to safety and bodily autonomy.  It is also important to have a legal system that can adequately protect and provide justice for these children.  We applaud France in these initial steps and look forward to seeing new laws that protect and promote child safety in every country.

If you’ve been a victim of child sexual abuse or if your child has been affected, there is help and support available.  Call our 24-hour crisis hotline at 815.756.5228 for more information.

If you’d like information about our educational programming for children, contact our Prevention Department at 815.756.5228, x106.

If you’d like to know more about this story, consider listening to the NPR interview from December 18th’s Morning Edition (LINK) or reading the recent article on the BBC (LINK).