Sex assault victims get strength in family

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Pedro Oliveira Jr.
Monday, January 25, 2010
— “She was a very happy friend. Now she is scared. She cries a lot when she is scared,” wrote the 6-year-old boy, whose best friend had been sexually assaulted.

In the letter, he was pleading for a Walworth County judge to give a lengthy prison sentence to the man who committed the crime.

Like most sexual assault victims, the girl was scared. She didn’t understand why. She felt guilt and shame. She didn’t want to go back to school for fear that her friends would find out what had happened to her.

But the girl didn’t let the crime rule her life.

Walworth County authorities say she is a model for how sexual assault victims can live a normal or even an exceptional life.

Ten years later, the girl is thriving. She is now a junior in a Walworth County high school, at the top of her class, a member of the National Honors Society and a delegate to Badger State Girls. She wants to go to college for nuclear medicine.

“The biggest word is communication,” said her father, who asked her family’s name not be used because of the sensitivity of the case. “Stay open with your kids.

“Our strength is just believing in each other. We believed in her, she believed in us.”

Dealing with the situation was tough at first, the Sharon man said.

The perpetrator, James A. Colwell, was given probation, a sentence that didn’t satisfy the family.

Colwell absconded to Costa Rica and was brought back to the United States by Walworth County authorities. He was sentenced last year to 30 years in prison for violating his probation.

In her victim impact statement, the girl wrote that she felt as though she could conquer anything if she puts her heart into it.

“I feel safe and happy; it is great,” she wrote the sentencing judge last year. “I have finally been able to go outside and not be scared that someone is going to come and get me.

“For the first time in my life I feel just like everyone else—normal. That is a big step for me and I think that it was a great one.”

The victim’s father said they worked together as a family, but they had help from Walworth County officials.

Those officials provide support to the family to help them learn how to talk to children about sexual assault.

Paula Hocking, a forensic interviewer for Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin, said children are normally scared to talk about sexual assault. They’re afraid nobody will believe them, so they try to hide it.

Parents should be patient and encouraging, reminding the child it’s not the child’s fault.

“Let the child disclose in bits and pieces what they’re ready to talk about,” said Hocking, who has been in the Walworth County Alliance for Children since 1989.

“Don’t react negatively. Be a support person. Be calm. Support them, encourage them to talk about it.”

It’s also important to seek out therapy right away, she said.

Parents of victims should contact law enforcement immediately. In Walworth County, officials work as a team to help a family in need. Social workers, prosecutors, detectives and nurses consult with the family to help the child.

“It’s always healthy for kids to understand they have the support and people do believe what they have to say,” Hocking said.

Walworth County District Attorney Phil Koss has known the girl’s family for years and still stays in close contact with the victim. He prosecutes most of the county’s sexual assault cases.

“She’s clearly one of those victims I’ll remember forever,” he said.

What makes her different is her unwillingness to let the crime rule her life, Koss said. Instead, she has become the best she can be.

“She seems to be the type that is not defined by this event,” the prosecutor added. “She has great parents—clearly hard-working people. She expects a lot of herself and she does it.

“If there was ever a family that had to give lessons for other families, it was them.”

Ten years ago, the girl felt scared.

Now, she feels she has done her part.

“I now believe that something may happen that is tragic, but if you believe in yourself and try your hardest at it, it will always get better in the long run, no matter how long it takes,” she wrote.

Last updated: 12:20 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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