In this country, 26 states have enacted laws requiring schools to teach students how to avoid being sexually abused.
Another 18 states have either introduced or plan to introduce those laws in the upcoming year.
Only seven states in the nation have not done a thing. Montana is one of them.
Tara Walker Lyons wants that to change.
If someone had told the 27-year-old Hamilton woman last July that she would be traveling thousands of miles across the state to speak out in an effort to put a face on childhood sexual abuse, Lyons probably would have just shaken her head and said no.
After she released a video of her story on social media and created a Facebook page called “Defending Innocence,” Lyons’ journey toward healing from her own abuse has taken on a life of its own.
Lyons was 6 years old when she was first molested. The abuse lasted for six years and only stopped when she and another girl gathered the courage needed to run to the sheriff’s house in Augusta.
For years afterward she lived with the emotional pain, which led to addiction, depression and anxiety.
“It’s an injury that keeps on bleeding,” she said. “It doesn’t go away.”
This week, Lyons stood before a legislative committee and told lawmakers the state needs to give young children the tools to escape that same fate.
“I know that if sexual abuse prevention education had existed when I was a child, I could have stopped the abuse much sooner,” Lyons told the state’s Law and Justice Interim Committee. “I know that my life would have been tremendously different. I know it wouldn’t have taken six years for the abuse to stop.”
Since July, Lyons has been spreading her story and that message to inmates, parole officers, legislators and whoever else will listen in hopes of making a difference for victims, many yet to be born.
“I am using my story to put a face on what is considered by some to be our nation’s largest public health concern,” Lyons said. “One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before their 18th birthday. To me, that is enough to be considered an epidemic.”
Along the way, Lyons has been encouraged by the doors that continue to open and the people who have stepped forward to offer their support and encouragement.
That support sometimes has come from the most unexpected places.
In November, when mixed martial arts fighter, “Sugar” Sean O’Malley returned to Helena for a homecoming fight, he wore shorts that displayed the national hotline phone number for child abuse. His promoters allowed Lyons to pass out her “Defending Innocence” handouts to everyone in the crowd.
O’Malley’s father was one of investigators assigned to her case.
That night, she met a little girl who was the victim of incest.
“It was one of those times that I thought, ‘What if I had met a Tara at her age?” she said. “I think it’s the kids who give me the most strength. I feel like they’ll remember me. It makes me feel like I’m doing some good.”
She talked with the girl’s mother, who offered her encouragement and told her about a camp in Oregon that works with children who have been sexually abused.
Another door opened.
This week, Lyons will travel to Portland to become a Big Buddy for a child at the Sparks of Hope Healing Camp at the base of Mount Hood.
The camp’s founder and fellow childhood sexual abuse survivor, Lee Ann Mead, is certain it will be a life-changing event for Lyons.
The camp pairs survivors of sexual abuse with children.
“The adults serve as a guide for the children, for the healing journey the camp provides,” Mead said. “They pour love and hope into these kids, who are often bankrupt of love. The children learn to use their voice in a safe environment.”
In return, the children are given the strength to use their voices to shed light on a subject that society appears afraid to address.
Mead’s husband works as a detective.
“He said that only one in 10 victims report their abuse,” she said. “He sees the revolving door. It’s staggering. People are so afraid to deal with the issue.”
“We tell our volunteers that the more they use their voices, the more people will listen,” Mead said. “There was a time in this country when people would whisper about cancer. Back then, no one would have ever imagined putting a child on television with a bald head.”
“Now it’s common,” she said. “It’s everywhere and it’s made a difference. Why aren’t we doing that with child abuse?”
Mead is excited for Lyons and the journey that she’s undertaken to bring a face to child abuse in Montana.
“My kids at camp want to use their voice,” she said. “With their courage, they want to shed a light on this. They know what it’s like to be in the darkness. Victims feel shame and so they don’t talk about it. The more they talk about it, the more the shame goes away.”
“To see a little child empowered and standing up for themselves makes you a better advocate,” Mead said. “It’s been a long journey for me, but it’s been awesome. I think Tara is on that same journey. She’s going to be hell on wheels.”
Chelsea Duenow of the Passage’s pre-release center for women in Billings has seen firsthand the power of Lyons’ message after Lyons participated in a victim’s impact panel in October.
“The women here saw a lot of hope in her story,” Duenow said.
“Many of our offenders are victims themselves. It’s empowering for them to see someone who has also been traumatized being successful.”
It’s time to do away with the stigma that comes with childhood sexual abuse, Lyons said. It’s time for people to step forward and address the issue head on.
“I have had so many people come up to me after I talk and tell me that this has happened to them or someone in their family,” she said. “I want other survivors to step forward and join me. I want people to know that we survivors are all here and we’re not going away.”
Society’s aversion to the topic needs to change.
“When I say the words ‘childhood sexual molestation’ to some people, it almost feels like they feel like I’m verbally assaulting them. That’s not right. People shouldn’t feel like they are being verbally assaulted when they hear those words,” she said. “For change to occur, we need to be talk about this openly.”
After speaking to the legislative committee, she came home both excited and exhausted. She anxiously shared all of what had occurred with her husband.
“But the most powerful part of the whole day happened after all that,” Lyons wrote. “It was when my husband told me that watching me talk about this stuff was a complete 180 from watching me talk about it before. He said, ‘You know what I don’t see you do? I don’t see you get mad anymore. I used to watch you sit in that recliner and cry and cry about your mom. I haven’t seen you cry in anger since this started in July.’”
“I’m done with anger,” she wrote. “I am on to bigger things. I am healing. I am winning this fight. I know every single moment in my life has led up to this moment. And I wouldn’t trade a moment in my life for the world.”