Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Conference will offer safe space for dialogue about childhood sexual assault By Jackie Bussjaeger/Staff Writer

Conference will offer safe space for dialogue about childhood sexual assault

  • By Jackie Bussjaeger/Staff Writer

STILLWATER — Sexual abuse is a subject that many think of as difficult to talk about, but a conference in Stillwater this November will tackle the topic head-on in an attempt to remove the stigma and promote healing for survivors of childhood sexual assault.
The conference is hosted by Stillwater-based EmpowerSurvivors. The nonprofit’s mission is to provide safe spaces for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse in the St. Croix Valley and surrounding areas by reducing isolation, mitigating feelings of shame, rebuilding trust and providing empowerment through peer support groups.
The conference, which is entitled “Giving Voice: EmpowerSurvivors 2016” will take place Saturday, Nov. 5 at the Grand Banquet Hall in downtown Stillwater. The keynote speaker is Matthew Sandusky, the son of Penn State assistant coach Jerry Sandusky, who was sentenced for sexual abuse of underage students in 2012. Matthew will discuss his own abuse by his adoptive father and later share the ways he recovered from his trauma and launched a successful career. 
The program will also feature presentations from representatives of Cornerstone,  a sexual violence-prevention organization based in Bloomington. The speakers will offer a basic definition of childhood sexual abuse, including its damaging effects that can and often do persist. They will also discuss trauma and PTSD and ways of managing these conditions. The day ends with a panel discussion composed of panelists who are local survivors of child sexual abuse. 
Stillwater resident Elizabeth Sullivan began EmpowerSurvivors in 2014 as a way to provide resources to other survivors in the community. As a survivor herself, she began educating herself about the psychological trauma and other long-suppressed effects that adult survivors endure. She said it’s common for adults to reach middle age before the negative effects of psychological damage even begin to show. 
“The kids who are lucky enough—and they are lucky—to have somebody pick up on this, they are way better off than the child who never told or who told and wasn’t believed,” she said. “These adults who never had that chance are now dealing with this as an adult, and they may be married, and all that stuff will affect how they raise their kids, how they deal with an employer, how their medical health is. This isn’t something that just affects the survivor; it affects the community as a whole.” 
Contrasting it with the public alarm raised surrounding the threat of Zika virus, for example, Sullivan pointed out that many of the most dangerous threats to children are much closer at hand. One in every four girls and one in every six boys are subjected to childhood sexual abuse sometime before the age of 18. And though schools and parents vigilantly warn of “stranger danger,” Sullivan said more than 90 percent of assaults are committed by someone who is known to the victim. 
“There are things that we can be doing to reduce this and it happens in every neighborhood, every ethnic group, and in every family,” she said. “In every family, there’s going to be someone who’s sexually abused. They may not know it, but it’s there.” 
The statistics are shocking, and part of the reason is because the pandemic of childhood sexual abuse is so widespread, but discussed so rarely.
“Sexual abuse is so prevalent in our society, yet it’s really, really hard for people to talk about because it makes them uncomfortable,” Sullivan said. “It’s a struggle to get people, whether it’s a school board or local churches to talk about this, and I want to kind of help people feel more relaxed about talking about this.”
Sullivan said that the statistics — already as high as they are — likely do not represent an accurate picture of just how extensive abuse is because many children do not report their abuse, whether it’s out of fear, guilt, shame or for some other reason. They often suppress the feelings and memories associated with abuse, and Sullivan said that the suppression often comes to a critical point during middle age in adult survivors. 
“Them not dealing with that has a way of coming back in adulthood,” she said. “The average age is 42 that these kids actually start to deal with it. Something will happen in their present life that triggers all this stuff from the past. It might be something like all the abuse coming out from the Archdiocese; that might trigger a lot of people, or it can be as simple as having a baby, or your children get to the ages that you were when you were sexually abused and you get triggered. So all of a sudden these kids that took all that in and also took in a lot of lies due to that are all of a sudden at 42 being reduced to a 10-year-old or 13-year-old.”
Trauma may manifest in adulthood in the form of flashbacks and intrusive thoughts, or serious disorders such as anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, fibromyalgia or any number of chronic conditions.
“We have kids who are sexually abused at an alarming rate,” Sullivan said. “And it goes on generation after generation because people don’t talk about it. The more I started to realize this, I realized we have to do something and support these adults.” 
EmpowerSurvivors’ mission is to provide a safe space for those conversations to take place, especially by creating a support group of fellow survivors. The organization recently became a nonprofit, and Sullivan hopes this will enable her to offer more wellness events for survivors and education for the community at large. She wants all parents, teachers and community leaders to know the warning signs, which are often written off as juvenile delinquency. Even medical professionals have more to learn about trauma and the way it affects the mind and body, Sullivan said.
Sullivan also hopes that the conference will become a yearly event. In the meantime, she plans to continue her educational and support services for adult survivors in the St. Croix Valley and beyond.
“If they are a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, it wasn’t their fault,” Sullivan said. “The shame keeps you silent, but there is healing that can be had and you can heal from this. It’s important they get support, because the majority of survivors don’t get support from family or community. It’s really at a pandemic level. Worldwide.”
EmpowerSurvivors meets every Thursday 6-7:30 p.m. at Joseph H. Roach Hall (208 Third St. S., Stillwater). Each meeting begins with a 15-minute topic discussion, such as grounding techniques and ways to deal with the various symptoms of trauma. The rest of the meeting consists of whatever members care to discuss. New members are always welcome and there is no fee to attend an EmpowerSurvivors peer support group.
Sullivan can be regularly heard on the radio show hosted by NAASCA (National Association for Adult Survivors of Child Abuse), where she has discussed her own survivor story. She also recommended to resources RAINN, 1in6 for male survivors, Cornerstone and NAASCA. To learn more about the conference and EmpowerSurvivors in general, visitwww.empowersurvivors.net
Jackie Bussjaeger can be reached at 651-407-1229 or lowdownnews@presspubs.com

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