Tara Walker Lyons will never forget the moment she was finally set free from decades of trauma that came from being sexually abused as a child.
It happened last April while sitting on the other side of a table from her stepfather at a deposition in Great Falls. On that day, he admitted under oath that he had sexually assaulted Lyons when she was 10.
“That’s when my truth was solidified,'' Lyons said. "His supporters and friends have sent me messages on Facebook saying that 'I don’t believe you.' Now they can’t do that. I literally have it in his own words.
“When you are a victim of sexual abuse — it’s kind of weird — you have like a list of proof,” Lyons said. “The details you remember. The location. Maybe if there were other witnesses. It’s like you have your little box of armor filled with the weapons that you’re supposed to use to back up your story.”
Now that her stepfather has admitted the abuse, she said, "I don’t have to have that armor anymore because I have my own proof in my abuser’s own words.''
And that, she said, is a "big deal'' that will let her focus on other important projects, such as "working with young victims or trying to pass new laws.”
In the first week of October, Lyons was notified that there was a settlement in the civil case that she brought against Larry Atchison, her stepfather, for the abuse that occurred in 1998.
“I want every victim to have the opportunity to get to that truth,” she said. “Being called a liar is the worst thing. It makes you so angry when you’re told that you’re dishonest and you’re lying. Having that truth changes your soul. It changes everything in your life.”
Lyons is best known in Montana as the woman whose outspoken advocacy for the survivors of childhood sexual abuse led to the passage of the 2017 legislation that established the groundwork school districts need to address childhood sexual abuse in the classroom. Ed Greef, the Florence legislator who carried the bill, named it “Tara’s Law.”
Lyons plans to return to Helena next year to ask legislators to expand the statute of limitations for civil cases on child sexual abuse cases. Under the current law, there is a three-year limit after “realization of injury.”
She said that time period is not nearly long enough for survivors, who can spend years doing everything they can to keep those memories from rising to the surface.
“That term 'realization of injury' is confusing and dependent on a lot of different things,” Lyons said. “For me, the realization of injury occurred when I was in treatment in 2014 … That was the first time I was diagnosed with PTSD. It was the first time I realized that this wasn’t normal and that what I had gone through was really bad.”
Lyons has already been reaching out to legislators who might be interested in revising the law and she’s told Gov. Steve Bullock about her plans.
“I’m planning on doing the same thing that I did last time,” she said. “I will show up at the Capitol and find a sponsor willing to introduce this bill … I want everyone in Montana who has been through this to have their opportunity to be set free. I don’t want any of them to come up against the three-year statute of limitations.”
She believes there should be no time limit because "this is a life changing event that needs to be addressed so people can move their lives forward.''
Lyons’ journey toward healing began in July 2015 when she took a courageous first step to tell her story publicly while living in Hamilton. With her young daughter asleep in the next room, she sat down in front of a camera and created a video that changed her life.
The 11-minute, emotion-charged video went viral. It opened doors she didn't even know existed.
Since then, Lyons has taken her story on the road to talk to a wide variety of groups ranging from inmates in pre-release centers and sexual offenders to legislative subcommittees. She now calls Missoula home.
Last week, she spoke to young people at the juvenile detention center in Great Falls.
“These are vulnerable kids and I was a vulnerable kid," she said. "I want to show them their story is important and that they’re not alone.
"The scariest feeling I’ve ever had in my whole world was that first night I spent by myself in a children’s center in Helena.”
She was taken there after reporting the sexual abuse to the local sheriff in Augusta.
“I want to offer them a little bit of optimism,” Lyons said. “It took until I was an adult for someone to finally tell me that I wasn’t a bad kid or that I wasn’t a bad person. I think if I could have figured that out when I was a bit younger, things could have been different.”
Commonly used statistics suggest that one in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused.
“Whenever I give a speech, I go into it knowing that I’m probably not alone in the room,” she said. “There’s probably someone else there who understands.”
Lyons’ journey began before the #Metoo movement. She remembers being frustrated at first because the new movement seemed to take people’s attention away from childhood sexual assault.
“Then I realized that we all just need to shout out our stories,” she said. “Now I’m thankful for all of this additional attention.
"I don’t think that people realize the strain that sexual assault puts on our health care system. Every aspect of our lives as survivors is impacted, she said. "If people could understand the actual negative outcomes that this has on our society, maybe everyone would be more compelled to try to fix it.''
For years, Lyons felt like she carried a wound that would begin to scar only to burst open when something would trigger memories.
“No matter what, if you don’t acknowledge what happened, that wound will continue to burst open,” she said. “For me, that happened so many times. Now I think it’s finally stitched together correctly. I think it’s finally healing right.”
Lyons watched Judge Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation hearings and heard the testimony of Dr. Christine Blasey Ford.
“Everyone is saying this happened so many years ago and how can anyone remember,” she said. “Your life takes a pivot when you are traumatized. When that happens, you are going to remember something that changed your life.”
Lyons has steered clear of talking about the hearing on social media.
“I just felt like it would have been too much of an emotional drain,” she said. “I encourage anyone who has been negatively impacted to use that emotion. They should use it to put your boots on the ground, sign up for training, sign up for classes, reach out to advocacy centers and tell them you’re ready to tell your story at an event.”
“Right now, maybe a lot of victims are feeling a little helpless like they aren’t being heard or being listened to, but that doesn’t mean that they can’t keep going,” she said. “The people who don’t listen to you don’t matter. It’s the ones who are willing to listen who matter most.”
Lyons plans to use the settlement money to take her children on a vacation, pay some rent and go back to school, where she’s considering studying either journalism or law.
Lyon’s stepfather and her mother did not return a phone call to comment on this story.