Polk Women Working to Stop Child Sex Abuse

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kim alvarezKim Alvarez, with Darkness to Light Stewards of Children, leads a training session teaching how to recognize and prevent child sexual abuse on Saturday at the Polk County Sheriff’s Office East Region Command in Winter Haven. About 30 people attended the session, at left, asking questions and commenting during a break in the training video.

PAUL CRATE | LEDGER MEDIA GROUP PHOTOS

By 
THE LEDGER
Published: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 9:35 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 27, 2013 at 9:35 p.m.

WINTER HAVEN | When Kim Alvarez walked out of a courtroom in North Carolina last year, having finally seen a former neighbor brought to justice for sexually abusing her nearly five decades earlier, she felt as if she had at last escaped the emotional burden of that childhood trauma.

Now, Alvarez is doing what she can to save other children from enduring the horrors she experienced at age 8.

The Winter Haven resident is an energetic leader of training sessions for Darkness to Light, a nonprofit organization devoted to preventing child sexual abuse. After leading private training for about three years, Alvarez began staging public sessions in January.

On a recent Saturday, Alvarez, 57, stood at the front of a meeting room in the Polk County Sheriff’s Office’s Central District Command in Winter Haven and spoke with controlled passion to an audience of about 30 people. Wearing a slate gray T-shirt with the words “End Child Sexual Abuse” in green on the back, she cited statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicating one-in-four girls and one-in-six boys suffer sexual abuse before turning 18.

“If 20 percent of our children were injured on school buses, our society would be all over that,” said Alvarez, 57, a facilitator for Darkness to Light’s Stewards of Children Child Sexual Abuse Prevention training.

Darkness to Light, founded in 2000 by a South Carolina woman who suffered childhood sexual abuse, now says it has 4,000 facilitators in 49 states and 15 additional countries. The Stewards of Children program features three-hour training sessions that alternate video presentations with live discussions.

Alvarez, who works full-time in pharmaceutical sales, offered an expanded program in April to commemorate National Child Sexual Abuse Prevention Awareness Month. The program was supplemented by presentations from Maj. Joe Halman of the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and others.

Alvarez said the training sessions are especially valuable for those who work with children — teachers, day-care workers, church leaders — but are open to any adults. Darkness to Light’s approach is tough-minded, realistic and pragmatic.

Video segments included interviews with several adults who endured sexual abuse as children, among them Marilyn Van Derbur, Miss America in 1958, who described being raped by her father for years.

Other survivors emphasized that sexual predators are more likely to be relatives or friends than strangers, although the program also stressed the dangers of pedophiles who pursue children online.

The session abounded with practical advice, such as: Never allow one-on-one meetings between adults and children in youth or church groups.

Following the first video segment, Alvarez reinforced its general message.

“Awareness without action is totally meaningless, and it leaves our children exposed and unprotected,” she said.

FINDING ALLIES

The audience included Davenport resident Jodie Ciccarello, who met Alvarez through the Darkness to Light website. Ciccarello said a teenaged relative of hers was sexually abused at age 10 and only disclosed the truth seven years later.

Ciccarello, 41, said guilt over her failure to stop or detect the girl’s abuse now fuels her involvement with Darkness to Light.

“It’s almost like cancer,” Ciccarello said of sexual abuse. “You can’t appreciate getting involved until you’re affected by it, either directly or indirectly. … It’s our goal to kind of take Polk County by storm with this information.”

Ciccarello said it’s unrealistic to expect children to protect themselves from pedophiles. Those who prey on children are often extremely crafty, she said, using psychological tricks to lure their victims and later to keep them silent.

Near the conclusion of the recent session, Marilyn Mancuso of Davenport challenged those in attendance to take what they had learned and put it to use. Two years ago, Mancuso started a support group for sexual assault victims that meets at Community of Faith in Davenport.

She said her work complements that being done by Darkness to Light.

“I’m the other side,” Mancuso said. “They are prevention, and I am the healing end of it.”

Mancuso, 81, said she was sexually abused by her father for years beginning when she was 6.

“I think people need to wake up and pay attention to these little ones,” Mancuso said. “The only thing I think should be more emphasized is there are no safe havens, absolutely none. The predator is everywhere. It is factual, and it’s horrific.”

Alvarez, the mother of two grown sons, said the Darkness to Light program is not intended to make parents unnecessarily fearful. She said the sad reality is that predators lurk in all realms of society — especially in institutions geared toward children — and guardians must be attuned to the dangers.

Noting that parents take precautions to shield their children from other kinds of harm, Alvarez said it’s essential to have knowledge about the methods used by sexual predators.

“Child sexual abuse occurs often enough in our society that it would be irresponsible for us not to expose this reality,” Alvarez said. “In educating the public on the prevalence, consequences and circumstances of child sexual abuse, it is not my intention to make them fearful or paranoid but to help them walk away with greater consciousness of the realities of child sexual abuse so they can better protect their children through due diligence.”

BATTLING DENIAL

Alvarez said many adults turn away from the harsh truths about child sexual abuse. That’s a message conveyed in the Darkness to Light video presentation when a narrator declares that “child sexual abuse is being passively accepted.”

Part of that acceptance, the program suggests, is the tendency of many adults to dismiss or ignore claims of sexual abuse made against family members or friends. Alvarez said she has personal experience with that phenomenon.

After she was first molested by a teenaged neighbor, Alvarez said, a family member who witnessed the abuse later blackmailed her, playing on her fear of parental rejection to force her into unwanted sexual acts.

Alvarez said she finally revealed that episode to family members decades later, and they reacted with hostile skepticism.

Alvarez’s mission has found allies who have no personal experience with sexual abuse, among them Stephanie Samak of Lakeland. Samak said her eyes have been opened to the prevalence of the problem after hearing about it from Alvarez, a colleague and friend.

Samak, mother to a toddler-aged boy, said she hopes to host a Darkness to Light training session in her home soon. Samak said she was impressed by the quality of the material used in the sessions.

“It’s objective and scientific in a way that sells its credibility,” she said. “I felt the victims were speaking out about their lives, but it didn’t feel exploitative to me. … There needs to be way, way, way more awareness of this program in our community.”

Samak, 37, listed all the precautions women take to protect their children from health threats, starting in pregnancy. She said guarding against sexual predators is a continuation of that process.

Samak said parents and guardians need to be aware that many predators are gregarious and popular, a claim borne out in recent years by revelations about sexual abuse committed by Catholic priests and by Jerry Sandusky, a former Penn State University assistant football coach convicted last year of dozens of counts of sex abuse.

She said Darkness to Light, as its name suggests, helps to uncover the tactics of sexual predators.

“It helps you peek into the cold, dark heart of a predator,” she said. “We can take what these predators know, and we can leverage that into our feeling a little bit more empowered.”

[ Gary White can be reached at gary.white@theledger.com or 863-802-7518. Join his discussion of books at http://ledgerlit.blogs.theledger.com. ]

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