Real pain, real stories
The awful secret began at the age of 4 for Heather Pautz. For 12 years she suffered sexual abuse at her father's hands. She kept quiet for her two younger sisters, thinking he wouldn't touch them if she absorbed it all. "I didn't tell anyone abou...
The awful secret began at the age of 4 for Heather Pautz.
For 12 years she suffered sexual abuse at her father's hands. She kept quiet for her two younger sisters, thinking he wouldn't touch them if she absorbed it all.
"I didn't tell anyone about it until I was 16," said Pautz, now 33 and director of Barnes County Social Services. "I thought I had an obligation to protect them."
Pautz realized silence wasn't the answer when her sister Leslie told her she was a victim, too.
Seventeen years later, her father long since arrested and convicted, Pautz is spreading her story with a growing group of survivors who dream of ending child abuse.
Authentic Voices of North Dakota began last summer with a three-fold mission toward sexual and physical abuse of children: prevention, protection and healing. The group, which welcomes anyone who knows a victim or who just wants to help, has 42 members. Twenty-one are survivors of abuse, and at least half of them live in the Fargo-Moorhead area, Pautz said.
An organizational meeting Monday is open to anyone interested in joining. It begins at 6 p.m. at the Fargo-Moorhead Rape and Abuse Crisis Center.
Many survivors have joined to tell their stories publicly, but those uncomfortable with the attention can work behind the scenes. They don't need to discuss what they've lived through, even within the group, organizers said.
"We want them to get comfortable," Pautz said. "We're not going to be forcing anybody to be involved."
Angela Ten Bear joined in the fall. The 28-year-old Moorhead resident and mother of three said not a day passes when she isn't haunted by years of sexual abuse.
Ten Bear said she sought help when it happened, but her mother lied to help the offender - Ten Bear's step father. At 15, she left home to live on her own, a troubled teen angry at society.
Her life turned a corner three years ago when she started visiting the Rape and Abuse Crisis Center. Last fall, she enrolled in the criminal justice program at Minnesota State University Moorhead. She might become a police officer.
For Ten Bear, Authentic Voices provided another source of strength, especially on days when life gets her down.
"I've gained the self-confidence back, the understanding that it wasn't just me," she said. "Anybody can be a victim."
As an American Indian, Ten Bear said she hopes to make an impact in ethnic communities such as hers, where strict family loyalties make it even harder for victims to get help.
Chris Brown, a 44-year-old kitchen manager in Fargo, wants to tell people how sexual abuse nearly destroyed his life. He first sought counseling when he was 27, about the time he entered his fourth or fifth bout of treatment for alcohol and drug abuse.
Brown, a native of Jamestown, N.D., said he's been clean for 17 years. He's spoken publicly to audiences, including state legislators, for about 15 years.
"You can deal with it, live with it, but it's always going to affect you for the rest of your life," he said.
Brown said he hopes Authentic Voices will help people realize child abuse is more common than many think.
In one speaking appearance, Brown spoke to a crowd of about 600 people, some of whom were neighbors to his childhood home in Jamestown. They had no idea Brown was victimized, he said.
"You never know - it could be happening right next door," he said. "It's just more widespread than what people could ever, ever, ever believe."
Much of Authentic Voices' work lies in defeating what some survivors see as society's stigma toward victims and reluctance to broach the subject.
Connie Skillingstad, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Minnesota, said she remembers when cancer was a taboo subject. The same shift in public attitude needs to happen with child abuse, she said.
Skillingstad said she believes society is nearing a tipping point on abuse, after which people are going to find themselves much more comfortable discussing it. Survivors' stories are playing a major role in the process, she said.
Nationally, the Authentic Voices movement began in 2001 under The National Call to Action, a collaborative group that disbanded last year due to lack of funding, Skillingstad said. About 400 to 500 people belong to Authentic Voices groups across the country, she said.
Leslie Brunette, a 29-year-old pharmaceutical sales rep, is another Fargo-area member. She suffered abuse as Pautz's younger sister, but now she's happily married and the mother of two young children.
"You can live through it and be well adjusted," she said.
Brunette finds tremendous promise in Authentic Voices. She can't wait to see where it might lead.
"I'm just so excited about this," she said. "Sometimes I feel it's not happening fast enough."
Readers can reach Forum reporter Dave Forster at (701) 241-5538