, Salem, MA

October 20, 2007

Child rape victim faces new struggles even as case ends

By Julie Manganis , Staff writer

SALEM - For as far back as she could remember, he had molested her.

Starting when she was 3 years old, the man, a relative, would come into her bedroom at night and make sexual advances. Later, he would give her toys and tell her not to tell anyone.

"He manipulated me to make me think it was OK," said the girl, who is now almost 12. Still, there was always a part of her that knew something wasn't right.

One day, after returning from a visit to the relative's home, she finally worked up the courage to tell her mother. At 9 years old, she had no idea what had really happened to her.

"I didn't know how bad what he did to me was," she said.

And neither the child nor her mother knew what they would soon face as the case worked its way through the courts. Last month, her abuser, Sony Marquez of Chelmsford, pleaded guilty and was sentenced to six years in prison.

Yet after surviving six years of abuse, the girl and her mother faced a new ordeal: finding the emotional and financial support to help both of them recover. It's a struggle that has continued even after the girl's abuser was led away in handcuffs by a court officer.

"It's been overwhelming. My whole life has turned upside down," said the girl's mother, whose name, as well as her daughter's name, is being withheld to protect their privacy.

And while they are not alone, they feel that way.

While victims are given some information at the start of a case about how to find help, they are often left on their own as the case progresses.

The prosecutor is not permitted under ethical rules to act as an advocate for the victim. So when it comes to fighting with insurance companies over counseling and medical bills, or filling out paperwork to seek help from the state's Victim Assistance Fund, the victim is on his or her own.

The victim/witness advocate, who works for the district attorney, is bound by the same ethical rules. She could guide the mother and child through the court process, but she could not help them find counseling - or even ask if they were receiving it, because that would obligate her to tell the prosecutor, who would be required to tell the defense. And in Massachusetts, victims' counseling records can be ordered to be turned over to the defense.

Wrangling over that can add months, even years, to the time it takes for a case to come to trial - and during that time, there is little the state can do to help them.

Mental health vs. justice

It's a situation both the girl and her mother say is completely unfair.

And victims' rights advocates agree.

In Massachusetts, victims are often forced to choose between their own mental well-being and justice, said Susan Vickers, executive director of the Victim Rights Law Center in Boston.

The situation faced by this child and her mother is sadly common, Vickers said.

Finding someone to help is not easy, Vickers said. Her program does provide legal assistance and other types of help, but not every victim is aware that it exists.

In this case, it took more than two years for the child's abuser to come to trial. Part of that delay was due to her abuser's requests to see her counseling records and other information about the girl.

"That made me angry," the mother said. "He caused this. He put her in the situation that she's in. He shouldn't know anything."

And for months, she said, she and her daughter were led to believe that the abuser was about to change his plea to guilty, only to learn at the last minute that he had changed his mind. His guilty plea finally came on the day his case was set to go to trial.

Vickers said that while the law is evolving - a recent Supreme Judicial Court decision now mandates that victims be told when their records are being sought - it is still a painful choice for victims.

"Half of the victims in one study dropped out rather than put themselves through the indignity of having their most private thoughts publicly examined," said Vickers, whose group helps victims challenge such requests.

It is virtually unheard of in any other type of criminal case for a victim's counseling records to become potential evidence.

Piling up medical bills

The Victim Rights Law Center also steps in when victims have problems with insurance companies, employers or schools.

The girl's mother has a job with insurance benefits, so under the rules that govern the Victim Assistance Fund, they are expected to use that before applying for funds. But the mother has nearly gone broke paying copayments and trying to pay off a $2,000 debt from her own hospitalization, which came after her daughter disclosed the rape.

When her company switched insurance plans, she faced stricter limits on the number of counseling sessions they could each receive per year. Now her daughter is still getting weekly counseling, but the mother is not - a situation that weighs on both her and her daughter.

Meanwhile, the copayment for her insurance has gone up and is now $40 per visit. She also has to pay for medications the girl takes to help her concentrate in school and to help her sleep - more than two years of counseling has failed to stop the nightmares the girl suffers.

Then there are her daughter's other needs. When the girl turned to food for comfort, she put on weight, and now the pediatrician wants her to get more exercise. But the only gym that would let an 11-year-old work out there also required that her mother join and accompany the child during workouts. Not only is it hard to do because of the mother's work schedule, usually about 45 hours a week plus commuting time, but it's added yet another bill.

Unending worries

The mother worries about her daughter's social life in the future. Already, the girl talks about having children someday, but then quickly adds that she would do so by artificial insemination.

"My heart breaks," her mother said.

The disclosure tore their family apart, as some relatives sided with the abuser. That has further isolated them, the mother said.

They would like to find a support group where the girl could talk to other girls who have been sexually abused. She has friends at school, but she cannot talk to any of them about what happened to her.

It's lonely.

"(She) doesn't know another child who's been through this," said her mother, who has followed other child sexual abuse cases in the paper, wondering what has happened to those victims. She paid close attention to the case of Mary Jean Armstrong, the Beverly mother who pleaded guilty earlier this year to allowing at least two men to sexually abuse her daughter in exchange for cocaine. Her daughter would like to meet that girl, who is about her own age.

While they have heard about a support group in Ipswich, they have no practical way of getting there from the downtown Peabody apartment they moved to recently.

Her overwhelmed mother could also use some support.

"Everyone thinks I'm Wonder Woman," she said, tearing up, "and I'm not."