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Healing as a Family After Child Sexual Abuse
Nancy Nesbitt is the parent representative on the Connecticut Governor’s Task Force on Justice for Abused Children. She applies her perspective and experiences as a mother of children who were sexually abused at a young age to her work. The task force serves to coordinate agencies in the investigation, intervention, and prosecution of child sexual abuse and serious physical abuse cases. She talked with Joyful Heart recently about her connection to child abuse issues, her role on the task force, and her views on how parents can begin a path to healing while helping their children.
Why did you join the task force?
I was looking to join a not-for-profit board with a focus on the issue of child abuse, where I could bring my experience, passion, and drive to support its mission. When I learned about the Governor’s Task Force on Justice for Abused Children (GTFJAC), I was particularly excited that GTFJAC works to coordinate resources statewide to help victims and their families get those necessary resources after they have suffered all forms of abuse. This includes, but is not limited to, physical abuse, sexual abuse, children witnessing violence, and child trafficking. As a federally-funded board, it offers tremendous connections (and education) surrounding this issue.
How has your family been affected by child abuse?
In the mid-1990s, I was in a five-year relationship with a man after ending a 10-year marriage to the father of my children. I was very vulnerable, and later found out that for three of those five years, this man had sexually molested my daughter from the ages of 9 to 12. He also abused my son. This man threatened my children and had them completely fearful of what would happen if anyone found out. After a long court process, this man made a plea bargain for a 40-year prison sentence.
It took a long, long time for the three of us to process the abuse and put our lives back together. At the time the abuse was discovered, both of my children refused any help; they were so traumatized that they shut down, internalized their emotions and pain, and began a long path of painful behavior. Now, 25 years later, they are doing well, and we are working closely as a family to continue the healing.
What were some of the effects of child abuse your daughter and son experienced?
When the abuse ended, it was so traumatic for my daughter Amy that she became locked emotionally. She became a drug-abused prostitute, and was sent to jail multiple times. My son Ryan threatened to do harm to himself and others. But he was able to get some help as a teen after being admitted to a long-term facility. The damage continues to affect him to this day. As a family, we are very honest in an upcoming book we co-wrote about what we went through and how we have come out on the other side.
What were some of the effects of child abuse you dealt with as a parent?
I didn’t go to counseling for four years—I didn’t realize how much I needed it. I had been told that my children needed counseling, but at that time no one told me I needed help, too. I made mistakes that compounded the hurt for our family. When I finally started counseling, it was a huge healing process for me and, ultimately, for our entire family.
The best advice I received from my counselor was that the greatest gift I could give my children was to heal myself, be happy, and show them what a successful life looks like.
I also joined a tough love support group because as much as I was hurting for the pain my children were going through, I realized I could not be their victim as they spiraled out of control. Both Amy and Ryan now say that my tough love approach ultimately saved them. I refused to enable their self-destructive behavior, and stayed strong to help lead them to getting help for themselves.
For many years, I also was afraid to talk to anyone about this other than with a very few close friends. I was worried about my work and my reputation. Our story of child abuse seemed to carry with it a stigma and shame. And when I did share the story with some people, they quickly distanced themselves from me. It would have been so much easier to explain that my children had a serious health illness.
What are the first steps a parent can do once they learn their child has been abused?
It starts with being honest, fully truthful, and open. The abuse is not going to be forgotten. It’s not going to go away. If it’s not talked out, it will be acted out. Parents should call their local police department, or a local or national abuse hotline. There are so many resources available now to help the entire family that didn’t exist in the 1990s. Make that first call.
What can a parent do to help themselves heal?
Caregivers who go through this are also survivors themselves. They have to deal with all of their feelings with questions like:
- “How come I allowed it to happen?”
- “How is this going to affect our image in the community?”
- “What financial implications will this potentially have on our family?”
There was one occasion when my daughter was 15 and I waited for her to meet me at a counselor’s office for a visit. When she didn’t show up, I got ready to leave. The counselor stopped me and said, “what about you?” When I said I was fine, the counselor said it didn’t seem that way. He was right. I began counseling that day. It was the best gift I was ever given.
It’s a grieving process for a parent. Be open and be truthful. There are resources out there to get help.
Now that you are on this task force, what do you hope to accomplish?
I bring to the task force the constant reminder of what it feels like to live this trauma firsthand. I have been working on a sub-committee to address system gaps within Connecticut. We have made a lot of progress, but there is still improvement to be made in many areas. I am finally at a point in my life and my career where I can now share my family’s experience. We need to bring this out of the shadows of shame and move this issue to the forefront of a nationwide discussion.
I am also raising awareness that this can—and does—happen to people in all communities, at all income and social levels. I’ve been told that I don’t “look” like the typical victim. Members of several communities in Connecticut have said they don’t need the resources—it doesn’t happen there. That is a myth and it needs to change. Regardless of where you live, we all need the same help and resources, and we all hurt the same.
What do you want parents of abused children to know?
I have learned that every 10 seconds a child is abused in the U.S. Many cases are never reported, in large part because of shame, guilt, and despair. My passion is helping to significantly lower the number of unreported cases—and helping parents understand their best option is to address the trauma head on.
My message is simple: Know that you are not alone. Know that there’s help out there. And know that there are compassionate, experienced people to help guide you to begin the healing process for you and your entire family.
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If you need help reporting child abuse or would like to speak with a counselor, call the 24-hour Childhelp National Abuse Hotline at 1-800-4-A-CHILD (1-800-422-4453). You can find more information on Childhelp’s website at https://www.childhelp.org. For more information on the signs and effects of child abuse, visit our child abuse and neglect section.