Closing the statute of limitation on child sexual abuse

Even after she left home at age 19, married and had children, she felt dead inside.

Then one day 20 years ago, one of her sons took her to Spelman College to hear Marilyn Van Derbur, a former Miss America who was sexually abused as a child, speak. It was then that Deere allowed herself to feel again, to remember and to finally let go of the secret that had held her captive for so long.

“It changed my life,” said Deere, now 61 and living in Atlanta.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy is counting on Van Derbur’s keynote speech at a luncheon it is sponsoring at the Marriott Marquis on April 26 to have the same impact on others that it did on Deere. Organizers are also celebrating the recent approval of legislation that eliminates the statute of limitations for reporting child sexual abuse.

Van Derbur, who did not disclose her abuse until she was in her late 30s, has been lending her face and voice to this issue for more than 20 years. She was 53 when a newspaper reporter learned she was an incest survivor. The next day, it was a front page story.

“I was overwhelmed with shame, but three days later a woman told me that there were people who didn't believe me,” she recalled. “That was a life-shifting moment. If people were not going to believe me, who would believe a child? Instead of avoiding the press, I called reporters and said, ‘Let's get to work.'"

More than 26,000 cases of child abuse were reported in Georgia in 2010, said Nancy Chandler, CEO of the Georgia Center for Child Advocacy. Of those, 13,282 cases were substantiated by the Department of Family and Children Services.lawmakers and child advocates like Chandler have been working to extend or waive the statute of limitations for childhood sexual abuse charges across the nation. Currently in Georgia victims have seven years from the time a report is filed with a government agency or the victim’s 16 birthday, which ever comes first, to press criminal charges. But just last week the Georgia General Assembly approved legislation to eliminate the statute of limitations for child molestation prosecutions.

"I am very pleased that this passed and am looking forward to the Governor's signature," Chandler said.

Less than 10 percent of those victimized by child sexual abuse will ever tell anyone of their abuse. “That’s why this legislation is so important,” Chandler said. “Normally when a child is abused they are living in the home where it happened and are unable or afraid to speak out. This will give kids the opportunity to let people know what happened to them.”

Van Derbur  and Deere agree there should be no statute of limitation on child sexual abuse.

“Most survivors can not even think about coming forward for 20 to 30 years,” Van Derbur said. “This is validated for me every single day as I read and respond to emails from men and women.”

Some of those emails came from Deere, who began writing Van Derbur shortly after seeing her at Spelman in 1992.

That evening when Van Derbur told her story of abuse, Deere said it sounded like her own. As audience members lined up to speak to the former Miss America, Deere sat too ashamed to move.

“I couldn’t even raise my face to look at her,” she said.

But she asked her son to go ask Van Derbur for her contact information.

Soon after, Deere said that she began sharing her own story with Van Derbur.

That tale began in her bedroom, where her abuser regularly had sex with her.

“I don’t remember a time when he didn’t,” she said. “When we were out in public we looked like a fine upstanding family,” she said. “When we got home we were completely different.”

Only once did she get up the nerve to tell someone -- an eighth grade English teacher, who dismissed it, saying Deere had "an active imagination."

After that, Deere said, the abuse became her dirty little secret.

Deere said she learned to cope but even after she married, divorced and both her parents died, she was haunted by the abuse.

The letters and emails to Van Derbur provided a way for her to finally lay aside the shame and create a new path for herself. It is why, she said, she is now willing to share her story with the public.

“I want to help other people and say in my small way, you can find yourself and be happy,” she said. “You can live again.”

Georgia Center for Child Advocacy 25th anniversary luncheon, 11:30 a.m., April 26. $50. Marriott Marquis, 265 Peachtree Center Ave., Atlanta,

Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.

Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.