Dawn was barely a teen when she testified in 1999 against the man who took photos of her in lingerie for a child porn ring.
Some details of that day are hazy, but others are crystal clear.
Dallas County prosecutors had said her testimony was critical if her mother’s boyfriend was to receive the maximum sentence.
Wearing a navy suit, she took a seat on the witness stand. “Is the man who took pictures of you in the courtroom?” she was asked.
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Without hesitation, Dawn pointed toward him.
The evidence was presented: photographs, clothes.
“It was OK until Dad walked in. That’s when it really sucked,” Dawn said recently, her composure cracking. “Because, that was kind of the point, that I think for him ... you kind of feel like you are not his little girl anymore.”
Both her mother and her mother’s boyfriend received prison sentences.
The ordeal left her traumatized and vulnerable, but with the help of countless hours of counseling, she became a strong survivor.
To report child abuse, call 800-252-5400, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day.
Now she helps other child abuse victims as a family life educator and licensed professional counselor intern in North Texas. She shared her child abuse experience with the Star-Telegram on the condition that her full name not be published because she continues to fear for her safety.
“Just because the person gets indicted or charged or arrested, it doesn’t stop what happened,” she said. “There is still a lot of processing ... it affects you all your life. You don’t let it define you, but you never know what’s going to trigger you. You never know what’s going to remind you of the situation.”
Some child abuse cases make headlines — a child who was kept in a closet and never fed, a toddler who dies at the hands of his mother. But many don’t draw attention.
In fiscal 2016, Tarrant County ranked second in the state in the number of confirmed victims of child abuse/neglect with 5,162. Harris County led the state with 5,812.
“Any child who experiences abuse is too much,” said Paul Gravley, executive director of The Parenting Center, a Fort Worth organization that provides services to victims.
“I would be happy to shut down The Parenting Center” if there were no need for it anymore, said Gravley, whose organization is among child advocacy groups that recognized Child Abuse Prevention Month in April.
Another agency, Alliance For Children, has centers across Tarrant County that work with CPS, law enforcement and families on reported child abuse cases.
Shellie McMillon, the agency’s director of community engagement, said victims need emotional support to heal. When they don’t get it, they endure emotional trauma that can lead to self-harming activities, acting out sexually, running away or drug abuse, she said. Still other victims can deal with the trauma by trying to be perfectionists.
“Inside, there is a lot of emotional pain,” McMillon said. “Kids can and do heal.”
From 2015 through 2016, the organization served 2,088 clients. A majority of them — 1,579 — were for reports of sexual abuse.
Diane Eunice, a licensed therapist who helps women at the Center for Transforming Lives, said child abuse trauma is not uncommon for women who have struggled with homelessness or addiction. Eunice said victims often need to work on multiple issues as they come to terms with a history of child abuse, including finding a home and a job.
Eunice said that during counseling, victims express emotional injuries and trauma caused by abusers such as a relative or family friend and have to overcome feelings of mistrust.
“They can be anybody,” Eunice said of abusers. “They can be the folks next door. Abusers have often been abused. No matter how you dress it up, abusers can be anybody.”
Her brother’s victim
In the case of Susana, 39, an immigrant from Mexico who is trying to build a better life for her family in Texas, an older brother was her abuser. She asked that she be identified by her first name. In Texas, 2,161 abuse perpetrators were listed as siblings or other relatives, according to data from fiscal 2016.
Susana is one of seven siblings, including the brother who molested her when he was supposed to be keeping an eye on her. She no longer lives in fear of her brother, who lives in Mexico.
“My brother gave me candies,” Susana said, explaining how when she was 5, he would lure her. Her brother was himself a child of about 8 and she believes he must have been victimized by someone.
Susana’s abuse ended when she grew into adolescence, but she didn’t start getting counseling until she was in her mid-30s. She is currently receiving counseling services through Lena Pope. Among the services that agency provides is counseling to youths in the Fort Worth school district’s family resource centers who have a variety of emotional needs.
Susana said blocking most of the memories was her way of coping. She recalled how she was easily taken advantage of because she was timid, having been scarred in a house fire at age 2. She remembers feeling very isolated and ignored by others.
“I didn’t talk. I always played alone,” Susana said, explaining that her brother took advantage of her shyness.
Sometimes she knew when he was coming and would run and hide. Often, while it was happening, she would black out.
For years no one else knew about the abuse. Finally, when she was about 11, her brother “distanced himself,” she said, and tried to victimize a younger sister.
“My brother did this with me, sometimes when I know this is coming, when, my brother came to me, I ran and went under the bed or somewhere because I know what is coming,” she recalled. “And for years I lived this. I lived this for years,” she said.
That’s when Susana found the courage to make an outcry.
“I told my mother, but she didn’t believe me,” she recalled. “I was mad and I demanded to know what he was doing with my little sister in the bathroom. I was nervous and angry at the same time.”
In the end, Susana said, her sister didn’t become another one of her brother’s victims.
‘Nobody should have to hear this’
Dawn is matter-of-fact when talking about her abuse, but she cries at the memory of her father entering the courtroom.
He was her safety net, and seeing him in the courtroom with the evidence in front of him was too much to bear.
“It’s one thing to talk about it,” she said. “It’s another to see it. When he walked through the door, it was no, he needs to go out — he doesn’t need to hear this. Nobody should have to hear this.”
Dawn doesn’t remember how many pictures were taken of her but knows her mother was often present when it was happening.
The perpetrator was sentenced in February 1999 on charges of sexual performance of a child (20 years), possession of child pornography (10 years) and indecency with a child under the age of 14 (20 years). He was paroled April 14, 2016, according to the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and must register as a sex offender for the rest of his life.
Nobody deserves to be made uncomfortable and touched where they don’t want to be touched. No means no.
Dawn, 30-year-old survivor of child abuse
When police broke the case, a TV station covered Dawn’s mother’s arrest.
“Anybody who knew her knew what had happened,” Dawn said.
Dawn’s mother received 10 years’ probation, but it was later revoked and she had to serve five years in prison, records show.
Dawn said her mother died several years ago after developing cancer.
People sometimes asked, “How come you don’t see your mom?”
Dawn answered: “My mom’s in jail.”
That answer prompted more questions: “What is she in jail for?”
“Well, you know, she is an accessory to abuse,” Dawn would answer.
‘That should have been a red flag’
Dawn and her younger brother dreaded seeing their mother’s boyfriend.
“There is he is sitting on the couch reading a newspaper, like ‘Welcome home, kids,’ type of thing and you are like, ‘Ugh!’ ” Dawn said.
“You just don’t want him there.”
Dawn’s parents divorced when she was in elementary school. Her father had custody of Dawn and her brother, so that meant the children would visit their mother’s apartment. At some point, Dawn’s mother met a tattooed man in the complex’s laundry room. He would become her boyfriend.
“We would all go hang out,” Dawn remembered, adding that he would take them to gun shows and buy them presents. The boyfriend made comments about Dawn modeling for pictures. Dawn ended up modeling lingerie.
The photographs were discovered when the boyfriend developed them at a pharmacy, Dawn said, explaining that a detective showed up at her school and police contacted her father.
Dawn said her mother, an alcoholic who said she was also a victim of child abuse, claimed her drinks were drugged so she wasn’t aware of everything taking place.
Dawn said her mother had always warned them about “stranger danger and safe zones,” but that vigilance disappeared with this boyfriend’s actions.
“The buying of lingerie — that should have been a red flag,” Dawn said.
She remembers realizing, during a school discussion of child abuse, that she had become a statistic.
“It was something like 4 out of 10 kids experience abuse,” she recalled. “You are sitting in a home economics room, with everybody kind of paired off at tables of almost 10, and you are like ‘Hmm, well, I know I am the one at this table. How many of the other kids have experienced it?’ ”
It wasn’t something she could talk about out loud with the other students.
“You are still alone in that way,” she said.
An innocence to protect
Many times, Dawn wanted to tell off her mother.
“Why did you let it happen?” she imagined asking.
Dawn said she struggled trying to understand why her mother didn’t protect her. But during counseling, Dawn learned she can choose how she feels about her mother.
“I can still like her even for the bad choices she made,” Dawn said.
As Dawn prepared for the April birth of her daughter, she said she would trust her “gut instinct” so she doesn’t put her daughter in questionable situations.
She said she won’t spank her either.
“One of the things we have talked about is spanking,” Dawn said. “With physical abuse, spanking can be a big precursor to it, that’s usually how it starts. Parents don’t mean to. They lose their temper. They hit too hard.”
Dawn said she also wants to respect her daughter’s personal space. She said with sexual abuse there is a grooming element that parents sometimes unwittingly contribute to when they insist that children hug relatives or grown friends even when a child is uncomfortable.
“She will own her space,” Dawn said. “My priority is her safety and her well-being.”
Susana is also looking forward.
“I didn’t understand what was happening to me — why couldn’t I learn?” Susana said of her struggles. “I couldn’t concentrate on school. I got bad grades.”
At Lena Pope, Susana is learning to move past the pain of child abuse.
If your mother doesn’t believe you, there are other people who can help you. Talk to the police. Talk to close friends. There is a lot of help that you don’t know about, but it exists and that can make a great difference.
Susana Moreno, 39-year-old survivor of child abuse, who receives counseling services from Lena Pope
“I am learning here to live my life — to first get rid of that hurt, those feelings,” Susana said in Spanish. “I am learning how to overcome, to have a better life because you become filled with anger, frustration, and sometimes you think all people, all men, are like that.”
Susana is trying to teach her three children how to protect themselves.
“It exists,” Susana said. “They need to be wary of people. It doesn’t matter if it is your teacher, your brother. It doesn’t matter. You have to be wary when you feel someone is touching you inappropriately.”
Susana also grieves for an innocence lost to abuse.
“I think that is the best chapter in a human’s life — childhood,” she said. “It is the most beautiful thing a human being can live.”