Faces of abuse
When Truckee resident Tanya Rose Paul was 14 she lived in an abandoned shanty in the hills of the San Fernando Valley for three months.
The fort had a rollaway cot and a wooden stool. She ate stolen canned food and bathed in the high school locker room. Paul wasn’t homeless, but she might as well have been.
Her father started beating her two years before, then she became a chronic runaway, recalls Paul, now 39. Her mother turned a blind eye to the violence. Paul stopped attending school. She slept in friends’ closets and in trailers in their driveways.
Anything, she says, was better than going home.
Around the time Paul was fighting to survive adolescence in a violent household, Truckee resident Melody Strong, at 19, was finally fleeing her childhood home and the explosive rage of her father.
“I grew up in a terror-filled household,” says Strong, now 46. “My mother was the primary victim, but it trickles down. She was so busy trying to keep my dad happy that she wasn’t able to love her kids, so we had no nurturing.”
Both women are now adults living in Truckee. They have children, friends and careers. But neither of them have closure for their wounded hearts that may never heal.
“I lived through it. I’m here. I’m all right,” Paul says. “There is nothing that I could say to [my father], or that he could say to me, ever, that would make it better.
“You can’t apologize. It’s too late. The opportunity for forgiveness is gone. However, the opportunity for me to let go is (here).”
Last year in Placer County there were 1,400 child abuse investigations. In Nevada County there was another 1,168. The light blue ribbons tied to the trees along Donner Pass Road represent the 293 cases reported in Truckee and on the North Shore.
“Just because Lake Tahoe is beautiful and a resort destination, doesn’t mean that this stuff isn’t going on here,” says Chris Carter, program manager for the Tahoe Women’s Services Children’s Program.
“It all comes down to power and control,” Carter says, “and a child is easy to control and manipulate.”
Carter has worked with children with mental issues since 1998 and is now counseling abused and neglected children at Tahoe Women’s Services. She said the children who walk through her door are boys and girls, wealthy and poor, of all races and all ages.
“Most of the cases we see are kids that have been sexually assaulted, kids that have witnessed domestic violence, or have been neglected as a result of domestic violence in their household,” she says.
Some form of domestic violence, whether it be emotional abuse on a spouse or sexual abuse on a child, is happening right now in one-third of homes on the North Shore, Carter says.
“(Child abuse) is an issue that’s everywhere, but it’s preventable. Violence is a learned behavior,” she says. “But if you don’t stop it, it will have long-term effects.”
Those long-term effects ” post traumatic stress disorder, depression, distrust, social disconnect and more ” are issues Paul and Strong say they still deal with, even though they have been out of violent homes now for more than 20 years.
“(Child abuse) is something that’s not talked about. It’s the dirty little secret,” Strong says. “There is the immediate damage, but there is also the damage that it does down the road. It’s the baggage that you carry. It’s not here and today, it’s tomorrow.”
Strong, who married at 19, divorced at 21, and has never re-married, has been unable to maintain intimate romantic relationships for the majority of her adult life, she says. She has social anxieties and said she lives with a constant fear of rejection.
Her older brother has repressed all of his childhood memories, but Strong hasn’t. She can remember the blood and the bruises, and her mother’s broken arm, knocked-out teeth and miscarriages. She remembers the awful names her father called her and the torn-out clumps of hair.
“I can honestly say that there was no nurturing at all. I mean, we were fed. We were well clothed. The neglect was love,” Strong says. “I can never ever remember being told ‘I love you’ as a little kid. I have no memories of sitting on my parents’ lap, snuggling. I have no memories of my mother ever reading to me. I don’t remember ever, ever being hugged.”
When she had her own daughter at 19, Strong says she was lost.
“I didn’t know how to love her because I didn’t know how to love,” she says.
Time has changed that, but Strong says she hasn’t stopped trying to overcompensate for those lost years.
Strong’s situation is not out of the ordinary, Carter says. Adults who were subjected to abuse as children often suffer from low self-esteem, trouble with intimacy and feelings of guilt.
Paul says she has been there.
“More than the physical abuse is the emotional abuse. The scars run so deep,” Paul says. “I had never learned to rely on anybody, let alone trust them, because everyone that I’ve ever relied on has screwed me. It was never being content with what I had because I was certain that what I had was going to go away.
“Something about being abused takes away your sense of reality and your sense of believing. You feel like you’re incredibly alone in the world.”
Aside from the emotional repercussions, another long-term problem associated with child abuse is the likelihood that the victim will grow up to become a perpetrator. It is most common in boys because they are more naturally aggressive, whereas women will learn how to become victims, Carter says.
In fact, 63 percent of abusers were abused as children or witnessed abuse in their homes, says Melanie Cleary, prevention program coordinator for Tahoe Women’s Services.
And in learning to be a victim, women who were battered as children often find themselves in other violent relationships later in life. This happened to both Paul and Strong.
“But violence is a learned behavior, and it can be unlearned,” Cleary says.
Strong is working to stop violence against local women and children. As a crisis intervention trainee with Tahoe Women’s Services, she will soon be able to volunteer at the Mt. Rose Safe House, in the children’s program, or as a helpful voice on the other end of the crisis hotline.
“My mother didn’t have any other options,” Strong says. “But to be able to educate women now that there are options ” damn it, I am going to work my hardest so that there aren’t kids that go through what I went through, and grow up with so little self worth.”
For more than 20 years a number of local prevention networks have provided domestic violence assistance and education, including access to the Mt. Rose Safe House for battered women and children, 24-hour hotlines, legal advocacy, counseling and educational programs within the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District.
Tahoe Women’s Services recently received a $125,000 grant from the state to provide extended services for victims of abuse. Much of the grant went toward funding a new program that gives children access to individual or group counseling sessions, local support groups, legal and personal advocates, and Sprout Yoga for Kids, which Paul helped create as a healing place for children who cannot find peace in their world.
“Maybe if I had had a quiet spot, or maybe if I had one person who said I was beautiful, it might have made a big difference in my world,” Paul says.