Highlights from the Back-to-School Survivor Summit

In honor of children heading back to school this year, RAINN recently held a survivor summit with three inspiring members of the RAINN Speakers Bureau to discuss child sexual abuse, how to support child sexual abuse survivors, and healing after trauma. RAINN Speakers Bureau members include Joelle Casteix, Kaitlyn Urenda-Culpepper, and Jerome Whitehead.

Joelle is an author, survivor, spokesperson, and advocate on bringing public awareness to the scope and scale of the global crisis and the profound effects of child sexul abuse and sexual assault on victims/survivors and their communities.

Kaitlyn is a storyteller, a Title IX activist, political activist, and a health and human rights activist. She has always found a way to turn pain into purpose. Fueled by her experience of assault, she turned to SESAME and RAINN for support and advocacy guidance.

Jerome is an author, husband, and survivor of multiple childhood sexual assaults. He has been writing professionally since 1989, initially beginning his career as a contributing freelance columnist for “PGN, Incorporated,'' located in Philadelphia.

RAINN’s vice president of communications, Heather Drevna, opened up the conversation and focused on how perpetrators often select a victim and groom them for abuse over a period of weeks or months.

“He was very unsuspecting. He was very unassuming, very well liked, and very well known by our community,” Kaitlyn said of the man who groomed her. …”He was like your older buddy or brother that would do whatever you wanted or needed...He made it look like he was your friend here to get you through high school rather than someone there to educate.”

Joelle emphasized that perpetrators groom not just kids, but their families and whole communities.

“Predators need credibility and they need responsibility to be able to gain access to kids so they are going to get jobs where they have access to kids,” she said. “They also need to be credible and in order to do that, they have to take their grooming beyond just the kids and take it to the parents and where the kids will report.”

Jerome shared how entwined his perpetrator was with the other aspects of his life and how difficult it was to seek help.

“For years, I treated my molestation as if it was something that happened to me as opposed to something that was done to me,” he said. “I had three perpetrators; back to back at the age of 13 and I couldn’t understand at that age why somebody would pick me. So I thought it was simply because they had the ability to see that I was gay. I know now that had nothing to do with it. It was just a matter of opportunity for them.”

Disclosure, especially to an adult by a child, can be so difficult. Joelle shared what caregivers and parents can do to let their kids know that they are there for them and how they can be supportive in the moment of disclosure.

“It’s important to open the conversation up right now before there is any suspicion of abuse,” she said. “It’s important to understand the signs of grooming. They are very simple signs of how an adult interacts with a child or how a child interacts with an adult to understand that there may be problems. And then, open up that conversation with your kids.”

After disclosure, Kaitlyn mentioned that “words matter” and how we respond to our children. Kaitlyn elaborated, “Those behaviors and words that you hear, matter...the expectations that my family and my community gave me were that I could never tell anybody. I could never live down the embarrassment or the shame and it took me a long time to realize that it was not my shame to carry. It was theirs...a thing we may forget is that our kids are always listening to us...our words hold so much power.”

Jerome didn’t share what happened to him until he was an adult. He shared why it is important to let your kids know that you are there for them all the time and create a pattern of behavior and dialogues that reinforces a safe space to share experiences, and what he wishes other adults in his life could have done differently. “My mother never asked me where I was all night long or who I was with...all she expressed was anger which in return made me internalise everything that happened...what I always tell parents is if you think that your child is involved in inappropriate behavior with an adult, just like Joelle said and just like Kaitlyn said, have an honest and open conversation with your child. But make sure that they are in a safe environment.”

Healing journeys are like an upward spiral. You are constantly moving upward, but sometimes it feels like you’re moving sideways. However, even if it feels like you are moving sideways, you are still moving on up and onward. Joelle shares her message of hope and healing to survivors.

“It’s okay to come forward and get help. Coming forward and talking about it might be the scariest thing you have ever thought about doing...Letting go of that secret and shame will be the most tremendously powerful and healing thing you can ever do for yourself.”

You can watch the full panel here.

If you or a loved one have experienced sexual violence, the National Sexual Assault Hotline is available 24/7 in English and Spanish at 800.656.HOPE (4673) or chat online at rainn.org. The hotline is free and confidential.

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