Feelings of shame and embarrassment often cause victims of sexual abuse to keep their stories hidden.
When sexual abuse is suffered at the hands of a trusted family member, it becomes less uncommon to hear a public account.
Melissa was courageous enough to discuss, in detail, the decade of abuse she suffered. Her step-father and two of his brothers were her abusers.
"I don't remember my first time," explained the 28-year-old mother. "I don't remember how I lost my virginity."
Melissa's earliest memory of being abused is while living at her step-uncle’s house in San Antonio. She was four years old.
"I remember asking him for another popsicle, and he said the only way I can get the popsicle is if I touched him, and if he touched me."
Melissa moved to Mesquite with her mother and step-father two years later. Dallas County court documents show this is when her step-father began molesting her.
"When I was six years old, he said that he was going to touch me, and he was gonna give me some pesos, and I could use the pesos at Walmart and buy whatever I wanted,” Melissa explained.
The abuse took place at Melissa's home, in her bedroom or her parents’ bedroom. She says it often occurred while her mother was at work; she believed her mother was unaware at the time. Melissa described the encounters as sometimes painful and often "confusing," particularly because she was so young.
"I doubted everything I did,” Melissa said. “I doubted who I was."
A second step-uncle eventually molested Melissa by the time she was 10. She says her relatives never abused her at the same time, and does not believe they knew about each other's encounters.
Approximately 33 percent of active registrants in the Texas Public Sex Offender Registry have targeted a child classified as a relative, according to information reported by arresting police departments. More than 90,000 profiles in the database were reviewed in March 2017 to arrive at this figure.
"The most likely place that abuse happens is in the home by somebody that loves them," said Kristen Howell, a social worker and chief programs officer at the Dallas County Advocacy Center, or DCAC.
“We see it every day here at a volume that I could not leave before I started here,” Howell said.
Howell says about 60 percent of child sex abuse cases handled by DCAC occur within a family. The average client is a 9-year-old girl who started being abused for several years prior.
Melissa endured her step-father’s abuse the longest, believing he targeted her because she was not his biological child.
"I really wished to be his daughter, just so that way, I wouldn't go through that," she said.
Melissa says her step-father’s abuse escalated from molestation to sexual penetration around age of 10. She says he threatened to hurt her or her mother if she ever told anyone.
“I felt trapped for so long. I felt mentally in prison,” Melissa explained. “I think he knew how much power he had over me, and he knew that I wasn't going to say anything.”
The trauma of repeated abuse caused Melissa to suffer frequent headaches and lose focus while she was a child. She says she grew to be withdrawn and often blamed herself for her plight.
“I thought it was my fault," she said.
Melissa eventually became pregnant at age 16, unbeknownst to her mother and friends at school because of her weight. She admitted that she was in denial for most of her pregnancy.
"It was painful just to imagine that I was having [the] baby of my stepfather," she said. Melissa eventually gave birth to a son at 17. Six months later, she confessed to her mother that her step-father is her son’s father. Her mother encouraged her to report him to her school counselor.
“When I was a child, I wish my mom would have heard someone else talk about this, and she would have been more aware of this,” Melissa explained. “I want people to be brave enough to talk about it - to ask for the help that they need.”
Melissa’s step-father was ultimately convicted of sex abuse crimes and sentenced to 60 years in prison in 2006. Her two step-uncles also served time in prison.
Roughly 12 years after escaping her abusers, Melissa is now married and studying to become a teacher. She and her husband are raising their 4-month-old daughter, along with Melissa's now 10-year-old son. Melissa's son only knows his biological father is prison. He is unaware of that he abused his mother.
“When you see something different, even if it's a little thing, pay attention to those little changes," Melissa warned. She hopes sharing her story will encourage parents to be more of the potential for a relative to get too close to a child.
Kristen Howell, Chief programs director at the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center, says it is essential that parents and guardians to constantly evaluate the people in a child's life, as it is often difficult for children to admit on their own they are being sexually abused.
“We never want to put the responsibility for keeping the child safe on the child," Howell said.
Children with disabilities, children who may be questioning their sexual identity, or children live in a household with family conflict and/or domestic violence are over-represented in the abuse population, according to Howell's professional experience.
When it comes to identifying a child that is being sexually abused, “The truth is, is there aren't as many indicators as we think,” Howell explained. However, a child that suddenly begins to resist a relative's affection, no longer want to show that relative affection, or no longer wants to visit said relative, it may be worth exploring that child's feelings with open-ended questions, e.g.
- Is anyone hurting you?
- Has anyone ever touched your private parts?
- Can you tell me more about that?
Howell explained an abuser's grooming process can be slow and methodical, in some cases taking years before ever physically touching a child. She outlined the following methods a perpetrator may use to achieve his or her end goal:
- Behavior: An abuser may treat a young girl as though she's older, and behave much younger when targeting a young boy.
- Building high trust: An abuser may use rewards or gifts to establish a relationship. “We have something special. Our relationship is different than your relationship with other people. We get to do certain things that are different.”
- Confusion: Perpetrators will blur lines between what's appropriate and inappropriate, causing a child to be unsure of what is happening. “Was that touch accidental? Or intentional?”
- Fear or intimidation: Abusers may use veiled threats or create a lie around a consequence. "I love you, but if you tell this, someone will get hurt, you might get hurt."