EL PASO – She fidgeted, playing with her hands and biting her nails, making very little eye contact as she sat on the sandy ground of the park piling the sand as if making a small castle. Before today, she had never told anyone what had happened so many years ago.
“Walking through the front door I knew it was going to happen again. I knew I had to stand there and feel his wrinkled cold hands with that one stiff finger, waiting for me.”
Catalina, now 23, was molested as a child starting at age seven by her grandfather. She asked that her real name not be published.
“I didn’t know what was going on. I really didn’t. All I knew is that I didn’t want to go visit him because I dreaded the first few minutes when it all happened,” said Catalina. “I never told anyone because I was more afraid of my family not believing me than of him touching me.”
One in every six girls in the United States and one in four boys is molested during childhood, according to the National Institution of Justice Report. In addition, three out of four adolescents who have been sexually assaulted were victimized by someone they knew well, and one in 10 cases of child assault are unreported.
Catalina was raised in a Mexican household with parents who were very conservative. “My mom never even spoke to me about my period. When I got it she sent my older sister to help me and she couldn’t look at me for days.”
Sitting there in an open space with the wind blowing and trees branches flowing, Catalina’s eyes darted everywhere without finding a focus. She stood up suddenly and walked toward the swings. She swung back and forth for a few minutes and stopped abruptly remaining silent for a long time and then continued.
“I never knew it was wrong, but in my heart I knew it was. I never liked to go to his house. I loved my grandma dearly but as soon as I would think of stepping into the kitchen by myself I would throw a tantrum because I didn’t want to go.
“One time, I remember, I forced my dad to go say ‘hi’ to my grandpa with me. He didn’t want to but I made him. That day I thought I had escaped from him. But I didn’t. He called me into the kitchen later and the minutes of him touching…” she paused “…touching me began.“
Susan Olivas, head coordinator at the Advocacy Center for the Children of El Paso, said that her organization provides counseling and support to about 40 cases a month; 85 percent of the cases they handle each year involve sexually abused children between the ages 6 and 12.
“I believe we have that age range because it’s the kids who are interacting in school and learning what’s right and what’s wrong and the teachers are paying attention and reporting any abnormalities with the kids,” said Olivas.
The center was established 16 years ago so that child victims of severe physical or sexual abuse don’t have to repeat their stories over and over again, according to Olivas.
“There was a case not so long ago that really hit home for me. It was a case about a five-year-old girl. On a Monday morning she told her mom that her father was touching her. She didn’t pay much attention to her daughter and sent her to school. The little girl told the teacher ‘well gosh my dad is touching me and it’s making me uncomfortable’ and the teacher called the counselor,” said Olivas.
“The five-year-old told the counselor her story again. The counselor brought in the nurse, and she had to explain the incident again. She was taken to see the vice principal, and again explained what had happened. Then she had to tell the principal. The school was obliged by law to report the case. So the police went to the school and picked up the girl and brought her to my front door. By the time she got here she refused to tell anyone what had happened.”
Olivas said that in this case and others the system inhibits a child victim of sexual abuse by having them repeat the story many times before they get help. “She told the story so many times before she got to the Advocacy Center that when asked, she refused to speak out,” said Olivas.
There are three facts people should know about sexual abuse, according to the Child Molestation Research & Prevention Institute: The first is that today, 95 percent of child molestation can be prevented. Most people now have the knowledge to stop it. Second, in the United States today there are 39 million adults who have survived child sexual abuse. And third is that more than 3 million American children are victims, most of them children struggling alone, believing there is no adult who can help them.
Catalina was one of the unreported cases of sexually abused children.
“I never held anything against him. I just knew I didn’t like him,” she said, staring at the sand beneath her feet. “The minute I knew what was going on, the minute I was old enough to know the difference is the minute I stopped saying hi. I was 12 when I began to avoid him. I couldn’t do anything for the previous five years, but I knew I didn’t have to go through it anymore. Not one more day.”
Catalina graduated from the University of Texas at El Paso and is working with a law firm, planning to go to Law School.
Remembering her accomplishments, she looked straight at me and with confidence in her voice she said, “I forgave him. After everything, I forgave him. On his deathbed four years ago he looked at me and just said ‘I’m sorry.’ I knew right away what he was talking about. And I forgave him.”