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At first glance Alex looks like any other young adult. But if you sit with her for a while you can see the little girl she was. There is a slight tremor to her fingers as she swipes back her bangs, a self-protective hunch to her shoulders. Her dress is a fabric garden planted with hundreds of tiny, perfect daisies. What she has to say is shocking.
"My dad started sexually abusing me when I was 4 years old," says Alex, now 18. "I was terrified of him my whole life."
She smiles as she speaks - partly out of old habits, partly out of newer, hard-won empowerment. For a long time she couldn't talk of these things at all.
"It was the most embarrassing thing ever," says Alex. "I just felt so ashamed and so dirty about it. I felt gross. And it had gone on for so long, like, why would someone believe me now?"
Alex was 13 in 2006 when she finally spoke up. She credits her ability to speak out today to Safe Harbor, a private nonprofit organization in Madison where law enforcement, attorneys, social workers, healthcare workers and other professionals convene to build cases against child abusers. Safe Harbor then works to reconnect the children with their non-offending parents.
Approximately 175 children between the ages of 3 and 16 are referred to Safe Harbor by law enforcement and human services each year as part of ongoing investigations. About 62% of Safe Harbor cases are victims of sexual abuse, 31% of physical abuse; the remaining 7% include cases of neglect, children of domestic violence, and witnesses to violent crimes.
Founded in 1999, Safe Harbor is one of nearly 700 nationally accredited Child Advocacy Centers in the United States, including 14 others in Wisconsin. There are between 5,000 and 6,000 cases of child abuse reported in Dane County every year; those that come to Safe Harbor are filtered first through human services and law enforcement protocol. Certain types of cases are screened out before arrival, including assaults by non-caregivers, babies under the age of 3, and unsubstantiated cases.
The purpose of Safe Harbor is to spare child victims from having to endure painful, redundant interviews in multiple locations for multiple agencies. Instead, the child comes to Safe Harbor - and everyone else comes to him or her. A forensic interviewer talks to the child while a multi-disciplinary team watches, listens and participates via closed-circuit television from another room. The testimony is preserved on a DVD, admissible in court.
"Before Safe Harbor, it was not unusual for kids to be interviewed anywhere from six to 10 to 12 times, plus they had the trauma of testifying in all of the pretrial court proceedings," says Safe Harbor director Brenda Nelson. "This way is much more child-friendly, saves money and time, and frees up cops and social workers to work on other stuff. It also allows the families to stabilize a lot sooner."
For Alex, "stabilized" isn't a strong enough word. She puts it like this: "I would be dead today without Safe Harbor."
'My dad touched me'
Alex's life was bumpy from the start. Her parents divorced in 1993, when she was only two months old. According to Alex's mother, Sheila Johnston, the marriage was abusive. Still, the couple legally agreed to 50-50 custody when they split. Johnston lived then and still lives in Middleton; the father lived in a trailer near Stoughton.
"Just because he abused me doesn't mean that he would abuse her," says Johnston. "He also told me that if I wouldn't let him have her half the time, he would take her and I would never see her again. And I believed him."
It wasn't long, though, before Alex started resisting going to her dad's, though she didn't have the language or wherewithal to tell her mom exactly why.
"The only reason I could come up with was, 'Oh, my dad is mean,'" says Alex.
And he was, according to both women. Johnston was aware of his temper from her own experience, but didn't believe he was harming Alex - until one day in 1997 when 4-year-old Alex called her mother crying, saying her dad had pushed her down. Johnston says she called the Dane County sheriff at 3 p.m., but when the officers arrived at 9 p.m. the deputy questioned Alex in front of her dad.
"And of course I was like no, my dad didn't push me down," says Alex. "Because I knew if I told them the truth I'd get beat afterwards."
Johnston says the deputy asked if Alex could have fabricated the incident. Johnston replied that, had she thought that, she wouldn't have called. "Then in the police report it stated that I said I believed she made it up," says Johnston, who consulted an attorney. "I had to call three times to have the report amended."
Though warier than ever of Alex's father, Johnston found there was not much she could do.
"Throughout the years I tried going to mediation and working through the court system," says Johnston, "but without something really egregious that you can absolutely prove, there is not a lot that you can do."
Moreover, she never suspected what was actually going on between Alex and her father.
In the early years, says Alex, she simply didn't know the sexual abuse was wrong. She "felt gross," but "he always said this is what fathers and daughters do." Later, as Alex aged, she said her dad threatened her and told her no one would believe her if she told. She describes him as a "raging alcoholic," but one who appeared to be an "all-around great guy" to the rest of the world.
"It was a really trapped feeling," says Alex. "It was incredibly scary, and I was incredibly trapped."
By age 9, says Johnston, Alex was suicidal. By 13 she'd begun cutting herself and had developed a full-blown eating disorder. Alex says her father was molesting her, forcing her to touch him, and eventually raped her on several occasions. The abuse went on for seven years.
Alex was spending less and less time at her father's, and he didn't push - she suspects he knew she was getting stronger, and closer to telling. In June 2006, bolstered by a conversation in her eighth grade health class, Alex did.
"She said, 'Mom, I have to tell you something. My dad touched me,'" says Johnston. "She just kept saying it over and over. But she wouldn't say anything more."
Johnston called Alex's eating disorders therapist right away. This time, the system worked.
At the therapist's urging, Johnston called Dane County Human Services. It was a Tuesday. On Wednesday a social worker and a Dane County detective were at Alex's house, and by Friday they were all at Safe Harbor.
The Safe Harbor building is tucked back on East Main Street, in the same parking lot as Rainbow Project.
The doors lock soundly into place upon entering; Alex says that's the first thing that put her at ease when she arrived. The second was the cheery main lobby, which is brightly colored and filled with toys, books, board and video games, and other kid-friendly fun.
"I was expecting it to be like on TV, like Law & Order, like how it's a big cold steel room," says Alex. "I wanted to jump out of the car the whole way there. But when I saw all that stuff for kids I was like, okay, if little kids can handle this, so can I."
With every Safe Harbor case, the team arrives before the child and meets in a small room next to the main lobby. It has several chairs, a TV screen and a control panel with a microphone. The team monitors the interview in a third room next door.
It's a fluid team, depending on case details and jurisdiction. There is always a member of the prosecuting team and a social worker, and sometimes a translator - generally anywhere between five and 10 professionals.
"We all agree to work together in the most effective way to get good outcomes for children," says Safe Harbor director Nelson.
After the child gets comfortable in the lobby, he or she is led to a room down the hall to meet with the forensic interviewer. The room is brightly lit and sparsely outfitted with a couple of tiny chairs, a large easel pad of paper and a fat Sharpie.
The child is made aware that people are watching through cameras, and the interview begins with a lengthy discussion on the differences between truth and lie. Kids over 10 take an official oath. If members of the team have questions, they are able to communicate with the forensic interviewer through an earpiece.
This interview is often the first time the child gives all of the details of the abuse. The initial interview, conducted in the field by a member of law enforcement and a social worker, is purposely minimal. These professionals - who Nelson says are trained to be "supportive but not leading" - seek only to determine whether a crime may have happened.
The interviews at Safe Harbor are recorded on DVDs, which preserve the child at the moment in time the abuse is first reported, rather than years down the road when a case works its way through the court system.
"What the judge gets to see, what the jury gets to see if it goes to trial, is the words of the child about what happened," says Nelson. "Their affect, their demeanor. If a 10-year-old girl is abused, we want them to see her at age 10, not three years down the road when she looks like Hannah Montana."
More than three-quarters of charged Safe Harbor cases result in plea agreements. For each case settled in a plea agreement instead of going to trial, taxpayers save an estimated $6,000 to $18,000 in reduced court costs.
"Most of the time defense attorneys [after viewing the DVD] will say to their client, 'If you want to go to trial on this you're probably going to lose,'" says Nelson. "It's the ones who don't listen to their counsel that don't fare very well in court."
That's exactly where Alex's case was headed, a year and a half after she initially disclosed. The prosecutor, former Assistant District Attorney Doug McLean, "was absolutely not willing to plea bargain," says Johnston. "Not based on the evidence."
In the end, Alex's father was never convicted of the charges against him - Repeated Sexual Assault of Same Child, a Class B felony - and is therefore presumed innocent. The charges were dismissed at McLean's request when Alex's father shot and killed himself on Jan. 2, 2008, just days before his trial was set to begin. He was facing up to 40 years in prison. He was 48 years old.
Alex says her father's family does not speak to her today. They believe she made the whole thing up to help her mother spite her father. But Alex chooses to interpret his suicide as the closest thing she'll ever get to an apology.
"I think he was afraid because he knew he was going to be convicted," says Alex. "He knew what he did was wrong, and he just couldn't take it anymore."
It's a family affair
For the first five years Safe Harbor was in operation, from 1999 to 2004, it focused solely on the child and the case at hand.
"We would watch people walk out our door and just knew there was a gap there," says Nelson, who feared for the ability of these families to cope.
This concern prompted Safe Harbor to create Safe Step, an aftercare program for children and their families. Now, as the child's forensic interview is being conducted, the non-offending caregiver is taken to the "family room" by Safe Harbor's family advocate, who provides emotional support and case coordination services.
Afterward, the team consults on specific needs - of the family as well as the child. It may schedule an immediate medical exam, or a mental health trauma assessment. In cases where families lack health insurance, Safe Step pays for short-term treatment. Aftercare is provided by four area agencies: Rainbow Project next door for younger children; Mental Health Center of Dane County for teens and preteens; Canopy Center for individual and group therapy; and private provider Jennifer Wilgocki for individual trauma-focused therapy.
Nelson says the non-offending parents of abused children were often physically or sexually abused themselves, and the process their children go through brings it all to the surface. They are forced to deal with their child's trauma as well as their own.
"The guilt is overwhelming," says Johnston. "My primary role as a mother was to protect her, and I failed."
Safe Harbor arranged for individual and group counseling for both Alex and her mother. Alex was connected with a Dane County Mental Health counselor, who used trauma-focused cognitive behavioral therapy to help Alex process her abuse. The counselor also worked with Alex's mother to create a dialogue with Alex.
"I was in therapy with her for about three years," says Alex. "I wasn't able to say the word rape before at all or anything. She helped me deal with my dad's suicide. She's why I'm able to talk about all this now. She's the woman who saved my life."
This collaboration between the mental health community, social workers, law enforcement and prosecutors was arguably unprecedented when Safe Harbor first opened its doors in 1999.
"Cops didn't necessarily trust social workers, and social workers didn't necessarily trust cops," says Nelson. "DAs didn't want to give over control, and all of these entities just sort of worked in their own arena and were very independent." Now these various professionals are united in their support. "They say, 'This model works. You need to embrace it.'"
Jill Karofsky, a former Dane County prosecutor who now works for the Wisconsin Department of Justice, says Safe Harbor has made the system much more effective, both for kids and for her colleagues.
"There was nothing before Safe Harbor," says Karofsky. "There were lots of kids who had to come to court and testify. It was horrible."
But now the DVDs, besides preserving powerful evidence, allow prosecutors to get a read on the victims in their cases, early on. Says Karofsky, "It used to be we only saw the kids through police reports."
Will it survive Walker?
Safe Harbor is a relatively small operation, with only six employees, three of whom are part time. Since it's not technically part of any governmental agency - but utilized by so many - it's unclear to what extent the program is threatened by Gov. Scott Walker's budget cuts. Its $500,000 annual operating budget draws from a wide variety of sources including city, county, state and federal dollars, plus private and corporate donations.
"It will be a while until we see how the new budget changes things for us," says Teresa Kazmerzak, Safe Harbor's office and data evaluation coordinator. "But it's a fair assumption that we will feel the pinch because of our collaboration with so many different agencies."
In other words, as various units of government have less money to spend, they may be forced to cut spending on non-mandatory programs, like Safe Harbor. This even though the program saves more than it costs - in time, money and maybe even lives.
Nelson and others hope to call special attention to Safe Harbor in April, National Child Abuse Prevention Awareness Month. She says the program offers a powerful message to victims of abuse - that they can trust the system.
"[Our goal] is to say, it's okay, there are people here to help you," says Nelson. "If you report, it's going to be okay."
Safe Harbor is fiercely protective, both ethically and legally, of the children and families it serves. That's why Alex and her mother's speaking out is so rare, and so valuable.
Alex wants other kids to share her sense of hope, in stark contrast to what she felt the first part of her life. She also wants to be the one in control of her story.
After Alex's father killed himself, a handful of news agencies ran stories that didn't name her, but that she said made her identity clear. The aftermath, according to Alex and her mother, was devastating.
"We started getting calls from the school, from friends and family," says Johnston. "The kids at school were, frankly, horrible."
"They were so mean," agrees Alex. "I would have panic attacks. After it was in the paper, one person said to me, 'At least my dad loves me.' They just didn't know how to handle it."
Johnston removed Alex from school her sophomore year, and she's been home-schooled ever since. Alex made new friends from her group therapy sessions, and recently applied to volunteer at the Rape Crisis Center. She plans to go to college to be a trauma therapist.
Perhaps more important, Alex no longer worries what other people will think of her for speaking out about her abuse.
"Now I feel like I have nothing to be ashamed of," she says. "Before I was like, Oh my god, but now I know it doesn't make me a bad person. It wasn't my fault."
Alex credits her Safe Harbor experience and subsequent therapy with not only saving her life, but making it worth living.
"I feel like I'm bubbly again," says Alex. "I can stand up for myself. I have more ambition. I'm more happy. I feel like I'm finally the person I should have been such a long time ago."
Alex says she'll continue to speak out, for the one in four girls and one in six boys who will be abused in their lifetimes.
"I just think about when I was little," Alex says, her voice breaking. "If I could just go back in time and kind of scoop up my little self and just rescue her? That's what I want to do for all the girls out there who haven't been able to speak out about it yet. All the girls that are hurting. They need to be okay.
"And if me telling my story, even though it's hard, can do that for some other girl? Then I'm going to do it."