Editor’s note: This is the third and final part in a series of stories about ‘Cleo,’ a young girl who was sexually abused during her early childhood. The previous stories were published in the April 2 and April 9 editions of The Itawamba County Times.
While nine-year-old ‘Cleo’ may be physically safe from the man who allegedly abused her for years, emotionally it’s a different story. In a way, her abuse will define the rest of her life.
“Think about it,” her stepmother, with whom Cleo lives along with her father, said. “Her first kiss has been stolen. When a boy tries to do something this intimate it could cause her to have flashbacks and nightmares. She lost her virginity in a forced way, so her first consensual sexual encounter could very well bring back flashbacks. There are lots of things that could lead to flashbacks and nightmares. Those are what we call ‘triggers.’”
Every victim’s triggers are different, she said. It depends on the type of abuse, the location where the abuse occurred and whether or not the victim still comes in contact with his or her abuser. No matter how much time passes, these triggers may never go away.
“We deal with the emotional effects daily,” Cleo’s stepmother said. “Honestly, some days it is just minute-to-minute, hour-by-hour. She has come a long way, but she still has triggers.”
For example, traveling to Fulton, where Cleo’s alleged abuser still lives, is off limits. It almost always causes Cleo to have nightmares. Likewise, Cleo can’t be left in the dark by herself. Instead, she sleeps with the television on.
There are others, too.
“We can’t startle her,” her stepmother said. “I check on the kids each night before I go to bed to make sure they are tucked in, and for a long time if I went to fix Cleo’s blanket, she would come off the bed scared to death until she realized it was just me. So we have to be very careful with how we approach her so that we don’t catch her off guard.”
It’s important, she said, for Cleo to feel she has an outlet for her emotions. Child abuse is never an easy subject, but in order for Cleo to heal, she must feel comfortable talking about what happened to her. The shame doesn’t belong to her.
“We are trying to give her an open door policy to talk about her feelings openly and honestly without fear of repercussions. This doesn’t only apply to the abuse, but to anything that may be going on in her life. If Cleo needs to talk to one of us or both of us we make the time for that right away.”
One of the most important aspects of the healing process involves surrounding Cleo with support. She needs to know she is loved, safe. There are horrible things out there in the world. She’s seen them. But they can no longer harm her … at least not physically. Part of that support involves emotional counseling. Cleo has been attending therapy sessions for years and will likely have to, on and off, for the rest of her life. She’s also sponsored by the non-profit group, BACA (Bikers Against Child Abuse), who drop by whenever she’s feeling unsafe.
Then, there’s Ending the Shame, the family’s Facebook support page. Founded by Cleo’s stepmother late last year, this page has provided an outlet for Cleo’s family — a way to share their story and allow others to do the same.
The response, she said, has been tremendous. Currently, the page has nearly 2,000 followers, many of whom are parents with stories eerily similar to that of Cleo’s family. It is both a comfort and a shame that Cleo’s story isn’t unique, and her family isn’t alone in their struggle.
“People have rallied around sweet Cleo, and I get tons of messages from moms going through the same thing,” her stepmother said, adding that many share similar stories of struggling with the law enforcement side of child abuse.
“We can talk back and forth sharing things that have helped us cope and have helped us make it through the anxiety of court dates,” she said. “Ultimately we share a bond of fighting for our children, and sometimes you need someone to say, ‘Hey I know you’re tired and feel defeated, but pick up that phone and make one more call to that lawyer. Make one more call to that investigator or attorney general. You are not allowed to give up today; that baby needs your voice.’”
That, she said, is perhaps the biggest struggle of all. For a family, living through the aftermath of abuse can feel like an attack on all fronts. While trying to work through Cleo’s deep emotional scarring, the family is also struggling to seek justice for their daughter … a battle that has been uphill since it began. Some days, it takes everything not to wave the white flag.
“Sometimes, I come off as strong and tough, but there are days I feel beaten down by the system,” Cleo’s stepmother said, speaking of her family’s attempts to put Cleo’s alleged abuser in front of a grand jury — an effort that’s failed twice. “But that’s when I look at the background picture on my computer; I see Cleo’s beautiful smile and I say, ‘Mama Bear, you got this. That baby needs you to fight today.’ Then I write those emails, I make those phone calls and, if need be, I will go sit in an office until someone will talk to us.”
So, are there any answers to all of this? How can child abuse be stopped? How can people work toward a world in which there are no more “Cleos?” First things first: People have to be willing to accept that child abuse happens every day, in every community. In order to stop the sexual abuse of children, people have to be willing to start talking about the sexual abuse of children. Sugar-coating the truth does nothing but make it easier to ignore: Right now, an adult is forcing sex upon a child. If it’s going to be stopped … if there really is to be an end to the shame … people have to be willing to report it.
“Sexual abuse is not a taboo or controversial topic as many want to call it: It is real,” Cleo’s stepmother said. “Get knowledge of how to prevent it and how to spot it. Help families that you know are going through it. Be there for the parents to cry to when they need it.
“But the most important thing is you report it every time you see it,” she added. “You could save a child. Too many children are dying from abuse. We need to start saving our children by making that phone call. I would rather be wrong than right. But if I am right, then maybe that child will get the help he or she deserves.”
It’s also imperative to accept that not everyone is who he or she claims to be. Trust can be misplaced or abused.
“Don’t assume you know anyone really well,” Cleo’s stepmother said. “If your child comes to you and says, ‘Mike scares me,’ take note of that and get to the bottom of that comment. Children will test you to see if you are listening and hearing them before they reveal the big secret in their heart. When they do reveal it, believe them. Don’t miss a beat with those words: ‘I believe you.’ They are life changing for that child.
“Be the hero for your child,” she added. “They deserve no less.”
If you suspect someone you know is a victim of child abuse, report it. Don’t stay quiet; don’t mind your own business. Report it. Call in any tips to the national child abuse hotline 1-800-4AChild (1-800-422-4453). All reports are anonymous and will be investigated.