By Maricela Lechuga
Politics & Culture Reporter
Katie Joseph* is a survivor.
As a child, Joseph was sexually abused by her mother, father and three brothers. After she was kicked out of her home at 17 she moved in with the vice principal of her high school. He sexually abused her as well.
“I left for school here at UCSC, and paid for it by myself, and have been on my own since I was 18,” Joseph said.
Sadly, Joseph’s story is not an unusual one. According to childhelp.org, one out of every three to four girls and one out of every six to seven boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. Out of these cases, 30 to 40 percent of these victims are abused by a family member, and 50 percent are abused by someone outside of the family whom they know and trust. Strangers commit only 10 percent of child sexual abuse (CSA) incidents.
For those like Joseph, the Survivors Healing Center (SHC) — a nonprofit organization that provides resources to individuals who have been affected by CSA — has been a safe haven.
SHC was founded 20 years ago by Amy Pine, a marriage and family therapist, and Ellen Bas, author of the book “Courage to Heal.” Since then, the center has been the only non-profit organization directly serving survivors of CSA in Santa Cruz County.
The center has served 2,600 community members in the 2007-2008 fiscal year alone through therapy groups, presentations and work in prevention. This impressive number would not be possible if it were not for dedicated staff members and volunteers like Bonita Mugani, executive director of SHC.
“I wanted to be involved in something that would dignify our children and protect our children, take care of our children — the world’s children,” Mugani said.
Bettina Aptheker, a board member of SHC and chair of the feminist studies department at UC Santa Cruz, is part of the larger international movement addressing the pandemic of CSA.
“I think that the SHC is part of a national and international movement,” Aptheker said, “about both the rights of a child and women’s human rights, which comes out of the United Nations to call attention to this and to condemn it, and to call sanctions against people who perpetrate it.”
Risks and related social issues
Over 30 percent of victims never disclose their experience with CSA to anyone. Of those who do disclose, approximately 75 percent disclose accidentally.
According to SHC research, when memories of child sexual abuse are repressed and not dealt with, the individual runs the risk of self-injury and trauma-induced physiological disorders, and of making unhealthy life choices.
“They often feel like it’s their fault,” Dr. Ama Delevett, a licensed marriage and family counselor for the SHC said. “Oftentimes people have post-traumatic stress disorder without knowing it.”
“They’ve avoided certain areas, people, places, things, and they find themselves being easily triggered, and experience hyper-alertness to their environment. There’s the risk of self-injury, feeling depressed, self-medicating with drugs or alcohol, [and] making life choices that can be avoided by seeking support,” Delevett said.
CSA is not just an isolated social issue. It can be seen as a catalyst for many other social issues, such as homelessness, prostitution and substance abuse.
“This is a crime,” Pine said. “A serious, severe, atrocious crime committed against children who cannot protect themselves, who cannot make sense of what is being done to them, and who often take it in as a message that there’s something bad about who they are, which is, of course, not true. So you can imagine how many of our societal problems are tied to the ways that children grow up when they feel so hurt inside.”
Although it is not guaranteed that people with a history of child sexual abuse will turn to other dangerous avenues, there remains a statistical correlation between unhealthy life choices and CSA.
More than 75 percent of teenage prostitutes have been sexually abused. Nearly 50 percent of women in prison report that they were abused as children. And over 75 percent of serial rapists report they were sexually abused as youngsters.
Another issue related to CSA is rape. According to Gillian Greensite, rape awareness counselor at UCSC, although it is not necessarily true that survivors of CSA will be raped later in life, they are at greater risk due to lack of confidence and assertiveness.
“Research and studies have revealed that if a person has a history of CSA and has not gotten some help, those people are at higher risk of being raped as adults,” Greensite said. “I think the reasons are not mysterious. I want to be careful to not make it sound like it’s something that’s inevitable, and it doesn’t apply to everyone, but it’s a general truth that research shows. So it’s very important that people know that there are good resources to get help.”
The Healing Process
The SHC has many methods of healing for the community of survivors and allies of CSA, but the main engine is the therapy program. These therapy groups use trauma-informed therapy, which focuses on finding ways to live life more fully instead of reliving the trauma.
Delevett said therapy groups are very effective for victims of CSA because they rid survivors of shame and provide individuals with a supportive community that reassures them through compassion.
“Oftentimes, there is a lot of shame connected to CSA,” Delevett said. “The antidote to shame is community. It’s nice to have a place where you can speak up, and have other women nod their head in recognition and compassion, since it’s often easier to have compassion for someone else than it is to be compassionate for yourself.”
These therapy groups also seek to meet the needs of different members by providing groups for specific communities, including a Latina women’s group, a men’s group, and a gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender (GLBT) women’s group, as well as a girls’ (ages 14 to 18) expressive arts group. The groups meet once a week for 12 weeks, and participants pay on a sliding scale. There are also scholarships readily available to those unable to pay.
Art as a tool for healing
The therapy groups incorporate art to provide many expressive outlets as a tool for healing. These art therapy groups use a variety of mediums like clay, paint and collages.
The art therapy groups gave birth to the “Art of Healing,” an annual event that began 15 years ago. The Art of Healing event displays the art of survivors of child sexual abuse, who have had an intimate and emotional connection to the art that has guided them through the healing process.
“Words are great, but sometimes words don’t work as well as drawing or singing or acting,” Pine said. “The Art of Healing event offers an opportunity for survivors to share the creative work that has been a part of their journey through the healing process.”
Along with visual art, The Art of Healing incorporates performance pieces, including music, song, dance and poetry.
Kaatya Birken, who has been involved with SHC for 15 years, moved from Oregon to Santa Cruz to attend the therapy groups after reading Ellen Bass’ book “Courage to Heal.” Birken performed at the very first Art of Healing event.
“I was getting free,” Birken said. “It was cool to share with people who will look me in the face and … understand, instead of just being looked at and judged as dark and depressed. People understand why I have these feelings.”
The 15th annual Art of Healing event will take place this week at The Mill, a gallery located at 131 Front St. in Santa Cruz.
On Thursday, Nov. 6 from 7-9:30 p.m. will be the “Healing Words” evening that will include a performance by SHC cofounder and nationally acclaimed poet Ellen Bass (cover $25). Friday, Nov. 7 from 6:30-8:30 p.m. will be the opening of the exhibition, and will include a free artist’s reception. Saturday, Nov. 8, from 6:30-9:30 p.m. will be the Expressive Arts Evening. Sliding scale donations will be accepted.
*Indicates name change.