April is National Sexual Assault Awareness month, as well as National Child Abuse Prevention month in recognition of the pervasiveness of sexual assault nationwide. Sexual violence, including child sexual abuse, spans across all ages, genders, races, ethnicities, and economic backgrounds. According to a Child Maltreatment report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Children’s Bureau, 60,956 cases of child sexual abuse were reported in the United States in 2013. On top of the guilt and shame that abuse can bring, most victims know their attackers, which can lead them to be silent about their traumatic experience. Staying silent, however, does not lead to healing, according to Shannon Deitz, abuse survivor and founder of Hopeful Hearts Ministry.
Q: What do people need to understand about sexual assault and child abuse? How have these tragic crimes continued to take place and have they grown over the past 5 years?
A: Both sexual assault and child abuse are issues that render discomfort and disbelief when discussed. In both instances it takes an extensive amount of courage to speak up and tell someone what has happened or is going on in the home. The stigma of shame and displace guilt often keep the victim quiet and in fear.
However, the more we can bring awareness to both issues, especially during Sexual Assault Awareness and Child Abuse Prevention month, the louder survivors can be with their stories, and the more prevalent the issue can become in the public eye. The statistics (from what is reported) rarely change. 1 out of 6 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime and 15% of them will be under the age of 12 the first time they are assaulted. Often when one is assaulted the shame and guilt are embedded so deep that their defenses become lower and they find themselves in the same situation repeatedly throughout their lifetime.
Child abuse is more difficult to determine the true statistics because those reporting the abuse are often outside of the home, however still, 3.6 million referrals are made a year.
These crimes continue to remain stagnant in numbers because it is inherently a difficult, uncomfortable subject which forces us to pay attention and react and respond instead of turning a blind eye when we notice something out of the ordinary, or when a friend admits to an assault.
One young man confided when he was a freshman in college and rushing a fraternity he walked out of the bathroom at his frat house’s party to find a line of his ‘brothers’ waiting to ‘rape’ a young woman in the bedroom. While he didn’t participate, he also didn’t do anything to help the young woman. To do something would have meant to take a stand, to cause waves, and people instinctively shy away from confrontation. Yet that moment missed to help her still haunts the young man today.
These crimes are not fading, however, and the more we continue to bring awareness the better chance those listening to other survivors’ stories will be apt to recognize the abuse they are suffering and want to speak out, and or make safer decisions. In bringing awareness we offer the opportunity for survivors to speak out and help others to know that they are not alone and to inform generations to come, encouraging them to get beyond the discomfort of confrontation.
*statistics taken from RAINN and Child Help
Q: What do people need to understand about survivors of abuse?
A: Survivors of abuse, both male and female, are not fragile individuals. They are strong, worthy individuals who have overcome a great amount of suffering whether it was physical, sexual, or verbal. Every single form of abuse affects the person emotionally, lowering their self-esteem and sense of worth. Often survivors hide or bury the facts and the deep effects of the abuse out of fear, shame, and lack of support. The best way for a survivor to heal from the affects of the abuse is to give a voice to what has been done or said to them; to be heard and to know they are supported and loved.
A: What has inspired you to reach out to others?
Q: I am a survivor of rape and incest. The years I kept the facts of these traumas within me led me down some dark paths that were filled with bad decisions based on my lack of worth and self-esteem. I want to educate and reach out to other survivors before they get entangled in that dark path and make decisions that can affect them for the rest of their life, adding to the trauma of what has been done or said to them in the past.
Q: Why do you feel it is important for you to share your story?
A: When I began to live my life in the freedom of being a survivor, no longer tethered to chains of negativity, pessimism, and insecurity, I realized how much I longed to see others free from these same chains. I knew the only way to reach others was to tell my story in its truth and entirety. What affected me in my healing process was to hear other stories similar to mine and to witness their successful triumph and victory overcoming their past. I began to realize if they could do it, I could too. I want to share both the stumbling and the victories so that others can relate and recognize that they can also be victorious over their past.
Q: How has sharing your story with others helped you in your journey to healing?
A: The more you share the truth about your experience the easier it is to accept it and move passed it in order to embrace your present and future. By sharing my story through speaking to groups and leading retreats, I find that it gives me strength and fortifies the healing process. What has been ‘done’ to me is a part of who I am, but it doesn’t define who I am. In fact, I’ve come to the place where I can thank God for every aspect of my life, the dark and ugly moments, along with the joyous times, because He has brought good from it all and allowed me to recognize that I am stronger because of it.
Q: Low self-esteem, especially among teens, has become a national epidemic. What do you want someone struggling with feelings of low self-worth to understand?
A: My instinct is to respond, “You are worthy! You are unique and there is no one else in this world just like you and this world needs you and the skills and talents YOU have because each one of us has been given a specific purpose to use these talents and gifts and no one can replace you.”
But I also have been in a place that I have felt extreme unworthiness and insecurity. I know that if I heard someone say that I’d doubt what those talents or gifts were, because I wasn’t like everyone else. To that I say, “Would being like everyone else make you happy? Would going against who you are, what sparks interest and joy inside of you just to get others attention bring you joy? Most likely not.”
In this day and age of social media, self-worth is defined by the number of followers we have on Instagram or how many ‘likes’ they give to your posts. It is important to realize that those are numbers and most of those people have so many numbers because they ‘follow’ and ‘like’ everyone just to get more numbers. When it comes down to knowing you, who knows you best?
You, my friend, are worthy of life and others would be so lucky to know you, who you really are and share in the gifts and talents you’ve been given.
Q: What is your goal with Hopeful Hearts Ministry and what motivated you to start it?
A: Hopeful Hearts Ministry strives to help those who have suffered abuse not just survive, but to thrive.
When I was called into speaking on a national and international level on various topics regarding faith, the most popular message I gave, the one that resonated best with audiences at least, was when I spoke of my own personal journey, the abuse I incurred and how I overcame the stigma of shame attached.
As the years progressed and my voice became stronger, God led me to more and more opportunities to work with survivors of all ages, especially those in my generation and generations ahead of me who were taught to keep skeletons in the closet. It became very clear that there was a desperate need to empower all survivors to have a voice, to educate the world on what abuse is, to teach others how to listen to those who have suffered abuse, and to learn how to stop the generational cycle of abuse. In 2012 a dear friend of mine said to me, “Why don’t you start a non-profit? Think what more you could do.” Hence, Hopeful Hearts Ministry was formed.
Q: Tell us about the I Have a Voice project and the feedback you have received from viewers.
A: In 2013, I realized the importance of a survivor speaking truth and being heard. I decided to create the “I Have a Voice” YouTube video series, revealing 5 emotionally-charged personal stories of survivors of abuse. This hope-filled project consists of intensely moving interrelated videos, all with a collective purpose to help victims to overcome their past and be empowered to move forward. Men and women have responded as a result of the videos, expressing their gratitude in knowing they are not alone. They are empowered to move forward in their lives. Since 2013 we have added 2 more I Have a Voice Videos. From one male viewer:
I came across your website yesterday and was very moved to listen to your short YouTube video “I Have a Voice – Childhood sexual abuse and forgiveness”.
Your sharing of your story, your truth, was very powerful. I especially liked the part where you defended the (any) abused child by saying “it’s not right” (to take away the voice of a child).
That really hit home and I was moved by your honesty, courage, and willingness to stand up for and speak out on behalf of the abused child. ~ James, TX