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Unpacking years of silence: Nonprofit helps sexual abuse victims heal
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Revelations involving past allegations of abuse at Boy Scout Troop 26 from First Baptist Church in Gainesville swirl in both the personal and professional spheres for Heather Hayes.

In performing forensic interviews and exams, Hayes works to serve children that have been physically or sexually abused as their cases move through the justice system.

But Robert William Lawson III, the man who recently filed the lawsuit against former Scoutmaster Fleming Weaver alleging rape back on a 1985 scouting event, comes from a family she’s known for most of her life. Lawson graduated from high school a year ahead of Hayes, and he was her husband’s roommate in college.

“He’s a fine young man, and his family’s a nice family,” Hayes said, who serves as the executive director for the Edmondson-Telford Center for Children.

The lawsuit filed March 17 in Fulton County State Court cites a 22-year-old child molestation investigation and other allegations as basis for a claim of negligence and failure to provide adequate security for the children.

Weaver, the church and former pastor Steven Brown have been named in the suit.

Attempts to reach Weaver, Brown and Lawson’s attorney for comment have been unsuccessful.

“These allegations from more than two decades ago run counter to everything for which the Boy Scouts of America stands,” Northeast Georgia Council Scout Executive Trip Selman wrote in a statement. “This individual was last involved in Scouting in 1995 when we removed him from our organization and precluded him from further participation in the Scouting program.”

On Main Street, the Children’s Center for Hope and Healing saw roughly 2,000 people last year for help regarding abuse.

“The sad thing about child sexual abuse is that most of them never disclose,” said Sam Shoemaker, the nonprofit’s executive director.

The closed Hall County investigation into the case began in 1994 with a man telling Sheriff’s Office authorities of sexual abuse when he was boy in the Scouts. Weaver admitted in 1995 to investigators that he had “sexually abused five victims during the time they were in his Scout troop” in a 10-year period ending in 1981, according to the interview report.

In 1984, the Main Street children’s center opened by a group of Division of Family and Children Services caseworkers and mental health professionals who “saw a need for some specialized, expert counseling for children who were being sexually abused,” Shoemaker said.

“I think there was probably a lack of resources back then,” he said.

Hayes said the progress in her time of child abuse victim advocacy has cultivated deeper conversations and increased accountability.

“Twenty years ago, you did have situations like this, where people want to brush it under the rug. They don’t want to acknowledge it. They want to minimize it,” Hayes said. “They want to have someone sign a contract that they just won’t be around kids anymore, and I think what we’re seeing is that doesn’t work.”

Selman said the years since the allegations have been spent looking at ways to better safeguard scouts with help from law enforcement and child safety experts.

“Today, the BSA seeks to prevent child abuse through a comprehensive program of education on the subject, the chartered organization leader selection process, criminal background and other checks, policies and procedures to serve as barriers to abuse and the prompt mandatory reporting of any allegation or suspicion of abuse,” Selman said.

Susan Collins, the clinical director at Children’s Center for Hope and Healing, said struggling relationships, dependencies on alcohol or drugs and other mental health concerns are frequent symptoms that bring an adult into the center to discuss childhood abuse.

“Something is happening in their life that they can no longer cope with anymore,” Collins said. “A lot of people just avoid, don’t want to think about it and put it behind them.”

Shoemaker said the center saw roughly 150 adult women last year for therapy and counseling, a list of clients that has grown about 10 percent each year. The number of adult men is considerably lower, he said.

Shoemaker and Collins said a parent will sometimes come into the center to discuss their child’s signs of abuse and may later disclose the abuse they also suffered as a child.

“I think a parent’s worst nightmare is if they’ve been a victim, and they do everything that they can to not have their child be a victim, and then their child is a victim. I think a lot of that is because maybe the parent didn’t get some therapy, so they don’t really know how to protect their children in that way or maybe they don’t see the red flags,” Collins said.

Shoemaker said 90 percent of sexual abuse is perpetrated by a person known to the victim or the victim’s family.

“It’s not the stranger on the street with candy too much,” he said.

As with other child abuse scandals, Hayes said the elements often share the same elements of people or institutions of high esteem in a community and the feared repercussions of disclosing sexual abuse.

“The biggest fear that children have that they don’t disclose is they feel that they’re not going to be believed or that they’ll get in trouble,” Collins said.

While children will often have sessions for 12 to 24 weeks, adults in the center often have therapy for more than a year. The long years of trauma and symptoms, Shoemaker said, often lead to these longer periods of therapy.

“It’s hard to face what happened to them,” Collins said. “I think they think they’re crazy because how could something that happened when I was 8 years old still be affecting me when I’m 50?”

Without treatment, the scars fester and wounds “sit there and become bigger and deeper,” Hayes said.

“Just like a wound that’s not treated medically, it will abscess into your life in all ways, shapes and forms,” she said.

The goal of therapy, Shoemaker said, is that each discussion will assuage the pain little by little over time.

“The damage is done by keeping it a secret, because you’re always going to have these memories and they’re always going to affect you,” he said.

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