It all started when “Jen” was only 10 years old. Her parents divorced and her mother, whom she lived with, met a new man. Jen was 14-years-old when the abuse started.

“It started out with inappropriate touching, sexual comments and name-calling,” said Jen, who asked not to use her name. “Then one night he came into my bedroom. Everyone else was already in bed, but I wasn’t asleep yet. He came over to me, saying I was a woman and pretty and he started touching me. I remember I just started crying and he left.”

For Jen, it was the beginning of a nightmare that lasted until she turned 18 and ran away from home.

“It went on four years through junior high and high school,” said Jen. “When I was 18, I went to get help. One day, I just could not stop crying and I knew I needed help.”

April is Child Abuse Prevention and Sexual Assault Awareness Month and Jen wants to share her story so other children won’t have to go through what she did.

Looking back, Jen knows that her abuser was “grooming” her as his victim.

“His behavior was so typical of abusers,” said Jen. “It’s unnerving when I hear other people talk about being abused. The details are always different, but the stories are so similar to mine.”

Jen said her abuser started out by breaking down her self-esteem, calling her names and telling her she wasn’t good enough. Then he worked to build her up, telling her she was smart and pretty and started touching her.

During the abuse, Jen never told her mother what was going on for fear that she wouldn’t believe her.

“I felt like I couldn’t tell my mom,” said Jen. “I always felt like she knew because some of the thing he were kind of overt, but I didn’t tell her then. When I sought help, I didn’t tell my counselor what happened at first, because I thought if my own mother wouldn’t believe me, who else would.”

Jen suffered from depression and was later diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, something that has affected her adult life as she worked to come to grips with what happened to her as a teen.

She has been molested once before when she was 8 years old by a family friend.

Her school work suffered as she became more miserable and one of her teachers took notice of the slip in her grades, eventually talking to her mother.

She didn’t tell any of her friends or anyone from her church because her abuser was a church-going man.

“I thought there would be people who wouldn’t believe that anyone in church would do anything like that,” said Jen.

The situation continued to weigh on Jen.

“I was so miserable at home,” said Jen. “They had been together for eight years. I started thinking about what my options were. I had thought about running away a lot, but that’s not necessarily a lot better, but I didn’t have a lot of appealing options.”

Jen eventually decided that running away was her best option, and while still in her senior year of high school, moved out of her mother’s house.

Her family tried to dissuade her from leaving, saying she was throwing her life away. Her mother told her she wouldn’t help her financially if she chose to leave home.

“At that point, I didn’t care,” said Jen. “I was lucky, I had a little money saved. But it still wasn’t easy. I was still in high school.”

She didn’t talk to her family for awhile after she left.

It was after removing herself from the situation that Jen told her mother about the abuse.

“I remember the first words she said were ‘I don’t believe it,’” said Jen. “Then she said ‘I believe it, but I have questions.’”

Jen pulled out journal entries she had written, detailing the abuse and showed them to her mother, but her mother’s reaction was not supportive.

“For whatever reason, she chose not to believe me,” said Jen.

Their relationship has been strained for most of Jen’s adult life. There are still times when Jen doesn’t even want to talk to her mother.

“I do want to have a relationship with my mother,” said Jen.

Extracting herself from place where she was abused didn’t ease Jen’s fears at all.

“I had these recurring nightmares that someone was trying to break into my house,” said Jen. “I didn’t sleep well at all and I would wake up in the middle of the night in a panic, thinking someone was breaking in. I’d curl up in a fetal position and cry.”

The dreams were so vivid Jen would wake up ready to call the police.

When it got to the point where she thought she was losing her mind, Jen turned to therapy and medication for her depression. The dreams became fewer and far between.

Over a year ago, Jen found out that the man who had abused her for years had died.

“I read it in the newspaper by accident,” said Jen. “It was a surreal experience. I went to the funeral home just to make sure it was him. When I saw him, he wasn’t as big and scary and I remembered him, but I was not looking at him through the eyes of a child anymore.”

After 15 years, Jen found some closure to a horrible chapter in her life.

“I felt so relieved, I can’t begin to speak how relieved I was,” said Jen. “I think that speaks volumes about how devastating the sexual abuse was.”

To bring awareness to child abuse and sexual assault in April, Help-In-Crisis and Court-Appointed Special Advocates of Cherokee Country have events planned throughout the month.

CASA is holding two Child Abuse Prevention rallies in Cherokee and Adair counties. The Tahlequah rally is set for April 24 at noon on the Cherokee Courthouse Square, with a rally set in Stilwell on April 27 at noon on the Courthouse Square.

At the rally, there will be 137 paper candles to represent each of the children served locally by CASA during 2005.

During Volunteer Appreciation Week, CASA is also hosting an luncheon for CASA volunteers currently working on cases. The event is set for April 10 at Porterhouse.

“We want to show our appreciation to our volunteers,” said CASA Executive Director Jo Prout.

Statewide, CASA is participating in CASA Day at the Capitol on April 11 in Oklahoma City. Prout and other CASA workers will be on hand to talk to legislators about child abuse legislation.

“It’s important for us to keep up with that and take advantage of the opportunity to speak with our legislators and what’s going on in that area,” said Prout.

On April 3, HIC workers will travel Oklahoma City for ceremonies during Sexual Assault Awareness Day at the Capitol.

Friday, April 7, the agency will be canvassing Tahlequah with special eggs filled with facts, ribbons and candy.

On April 13, at 11:30 a.m., HIC will have a ceremony, to present a plaque, and tree-planting event at Tahlequah City Hospital, which partners with HIC. The event will honor victims of sexual assault and child abuse.

On April 27, a mock trial at the Cherokee County Courthouse will provide community awareness of the difficulty of rape trials. The public is invited to attend and show support to victims’ quest for justice.

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