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Out of the darkness and into the light

Editor's note: This story is part of a joint effort by the Mail Tribune, KOBI Channel 5 and the Jackson County Child Abuse Network to educate the publicabout the extent of child abuse locally and what Rogue Valley residents can do about it. This is the third of four stories planned in April as part of Child Abuse Awareness Month. The final story will run April 26.

The diverse group taking Darkness to Light training at the Children's Advocacy Center last week had a common goal: Get educated about the realities of child sexual abuse.

A lawyer, a therapist, an adult survivor and others attending Wednesday's class received their lessons from survivors' stories and child abuse prevention experts.

"This is a crash course in being human," said Marlene Mish, director of the advocacy center.

Mish is one of 36 trainers in the United States who teach the research-based course that provides seven specific steps adults can take to protect children.

"There is only one person responsible for children, and that is every single adult," Mish said. "What are you going to commit to do?"

Bridget Wehde, 32, was in the fifth grade when her mother's former longtime boyfriend molested her.

The inappropriate talking, touching, groping and fondling from a trusted adult male figure traumatized the Medford resident.

"It made me think that no one was truly going to love me for who I was," she said. "I became very rebellious, my grades dropped and I had a series of bad relationships. I looked at men as horrible people. I was so afraid I'd be hurt again."

Although Wehde eventually confronted her abuser and sought counseling for her trauma, the mother of two told only a few trusted friends and her husband about the abuse that occurred two decades ago.

"I thought I'd dealt with it," Wehde said. "And there were reasons I kept quiet."

A child's silence and an adult's ignorance are a perpetrator's most powerful weapons. Imagine how difficult it is for a child to say "no" to a trusted adult — a parent, a teacher, a coach, a clergy member, Mish said.

Like many abused children, Wehde kept her secret locked inside in order to protect a beloved parent.

"I just told my mother last week," Wehde said. "My mom always did her best. She worked two jobs. She had no idea. I thought if she knew, it would kill her. I didn't want to be the person who did that to her."

Wehde's mother was sorrowful and shocked to hear her daughter had suffered at the hands of a man she brought into the house, she said. But both survived the telling. Now they are sharing the information Wehde learned at Darkness to Light.

"People aren't as educated as they should be," Wehde said. "I'd stand on a rooftop and yell about this if I wouldn't look like a crazy person."

There are 39 million survivors of child sexual abuse in America today. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually abused by their 18th birthday, said Mish.

"If I told you one in four children would be hit by a bus, what do you think would happen?" she said. "Don't you think we'd do something? Like right now?"

Mish's bus analogy rang a chord in Anne Kellogg, a therapist specializing in trauma mental health. Prevention always is the best option. A single incident of molestation can create significant and ongoing damage, Kellogg said.

"I'm grateful there's a much greater focus on perpetrator behavior and keeping kids safe, instead of victim blaming," said Kellogg. "I also like to see the emphasis on support. You're never too young and you're never too old to get support from someone qualified to shepherd you through this."

Kellogg believes a paradigm shift is happening. Like changes that preceded how society now responds to drunken driving, media attention and ongoing education are moving people away from being disengaged bystanders and into more proactive roles, she said.

"I think we're reaching critical mass," said Kellogg. "That's how any great shift begins to happen. People begin to realize their actual power."

Medford attorney Dennis Black took part in the training as a new CAC board member.

"I need to learn as much as I can about this issue," said Black. "I believe that if we can solve the problem of child abuse in our society, every other problem would be greatly diminished."

Litigation historically has played a role in changing policies and raising public awareness.

"Look at the cases involving sexual harassment in the workplace, or involving automobile safety," Black said. "Change has happened. And there are a lot less of these cases being filed now."

But suits against social, religious and other organizations that failed to protect children from abuse are increasingly in the news, he said.

"Stopping child sexual abuse is not only the right thing to do, it's a matter of financial survival," Black said. "There's nothing like the bottom line to affect a nonprofit or a religious institution."

Wehde plans to get her doctorate degree in child psychology, and wants to use her experience to help other child abuse victims, she said.

"It starts with me and then my children," Wehde said. "Then it trickles down to their friends. If even one child sees my picture in this story and realizes they can tell their secret, it will be worth everything."

Reach reporter Sanne Specht at 541-776-4497 or e-mail sspecht@mailtribune.com.

A victim of child sexual abuse, Bridget Wehde of Medford took the Children's Advocacy Center's Darkness to Light training in hopes of helping prevent other children from getting hurt. - Bob Pennell