Story 6: Families Holding the Line for Safety

Dear Engaged Bystander: The most powerful work that I have done in my career was to create public dialogues between survivors of child sexual abuse and abusers (Tabachnick, 2004). I first created these forums while working with Stop It Now. Over time, I have created many public dialogues in churches, community rooms, and conferences. For each of these events, I had the privilege to collaborate with survivors who had spent years working through the trauma they had experienced. I also worked with adults who had sexually abused a child, completed intensive treatment programs, and committed themselves to leading healthy and safe lives.  I have facilitated more than 50 of these dialogues (based upon a model developed by the Public Conversations Project). I have found every one of these dialogues emotional, moving, painful and inspiring. 
Given my own commitment to having everyone speak about this issue, I eventually added family members of an abuser to each event. This was a difficult person to find -- someone who would speak about their experience, share the shame and pain of learning of the abuse, and talk about the skills they acquired to deal with all of the difficult dynamics. Allison*, a grandmother whose husband sexually abused their granddaughters came forward to speak. 
As the facilitator of these events, I found that the audience was always incredibly respectful of the survivor and the abuser, recognizing the courage it takes to share such intimate and painful stories. 
However, in one such event, when Allison* spoke about the unraveling of this trauma, a woman in the audience stood up in anger and asked the first hostile question. How could you have NOT seen what was happening to your granddaughters? I see children who are abused every day in my work and it is so clear that something is wrong.” 
As the facilitator, I was about to jump in, but Allison responded kindly and immediately. She said, “You’re right, if I knew then what I know now I might have seen what was going on. Or if I knew enough to at least ask a question. But even in hindsight, it would have been hard because the girls were doing really well in school. I knew at some level that something was wrong, but I also thought it had more to do with the divorce their parents were going through…
Allison then went on to say, “But if I knew then what I know now about my husband’s behaviors, I wish I had seen the change there and talked with him about it. If I had, my grandchildren would not have been harmed. And THAT is why I choose to speak at this dialogue and I am willing to tell my story again and again so others may learn from my experience.”
Allison was then asked question after question about how her life and her family’s life has changed. She talked about how they no longer spend holidays together as a family, but she spends each holiday with her daughter and granddaughters while her husband does something else. She said how each of her granddaughters make decisions about if, when, and how they will see their grandfather again – each girl making very different decisions based upon where they are. And she talks about how her life with her husband has changed and is much better for the open conversations they have together. 
What I find most remarkable about this story and about Allison is knowing how much safer Allison’s family is BECAUSE of her willingness to be vigilant about the family decisions, stay in connection with her husband to ensure he stays on track, and most of all, be open about what happened so others can learn. 
The entire community is safer because of what we can learn from Allison.  That is why I chose to share her story here.  I know this is not an easy path for her, for anyone. But I admire her so much for what she has decided to do and how well she cares for those she loves.
* The people in this story have given permission to use their story. However, the names of the people in this blog posting have been changed to protect their privacy and ensure their safety. Specific identifying information may also have been altered. 
PS  For a full description of the Dialogue Project I developed at Stop It Now!, you can read more in this article:  Tabachnick, Joan.Dialogue project breaks new ground. (2004).Crime Victims Report, November/December, 2004. Vol. 8, No. 5, 65-66.

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