Life after being molested as a child: Confusion, anger and forgiveness
The legal process keeps track of what happens to a person who sexually abuses children, from the point of arrest to conviction and sentencing. But what happens to the victim? After the perpetrator is jailed, can the child escape his or her own prison?
SINGAPORE: When she was just seven years old, a family friend in his 30s started making sexual advances on her.
Ms Devika Satheesh Panicker, now 24, did not think much of it, as she was too young to understand the gravity of what was going on.
It started out with kissing and touching over her clothes, and progressed to molestation and digital penetration. The family friend also made her touch him.
The man spent a lot of time with her in the Woodlands flat where she lived with her parents and two sisters, Devika recalled. He was in Singapore looking for a job and her parents let him stay as a tenant in the flat.
This continued for more than a year, until he turned his attention to her older sister, asking her inappropriate sexual questions. The older girl told her parents about it, and they sat Devika down. After about 20 minutes of coaxing, she revealed what had happened to her.
“I was worried that he might punish me if my parents found out,” she told Channel NewsAsia.
Looking back, she could identify the first time she realised something was wrong - when she felt pain as he was molesting her.
“I told him ‘I don’t want’,” she recalled. “That is one of the more vivid memories I still have of him making me feel unsafe. That was one of those moments when I was like, why would someone who cared for me want to hurt me?”
He bought her candy after that and asked her if she was alright, and told her not to tell anyone about it as “it’s our secret”.
SHE TESTIFIED AGAINST HIM IN A TRIAL
Devika's parents filed a police report after she revealed what the man had done to her. He was charged with molestation and sexual abuse. The man claimed trial and she remembers testifying as a witness.
She was kept in another room as she was too young to be in the courtroom, she said, but could see the proceedings via video link. She remembered seeing him on the screen, the first time she saw him after his arrest, but felt nothing.
Less than a year after investigations began, her perpetrator was sentenced to six years’ jail and 14 strokes of the cane.
After this, her parents sat her down and told her to forget what had happened and to never talk about it again.
It was only when Devika was 10 or 11 and taking a health education class that she began to grasp what had happened. The teacher was going through “good touch, bad touch” lessons, explaining a scenario where a man touched a woman without her consent on a bus, when Devika realised it was similar to what she had experienced.
She felt confusion at first, followed by anger. This gave way to feelings of helplessness, and depression. Her grades began falling and although her parents took her for therapy sessions, she did not open up, repeatedly saying: “I’m fine, I’m fine.”
She felt ashamed and blamed herself, refusing to seek help as “I didn’t want to see myself as a victim”.
“Subconsciously I believed that I deserved it,” she said. It created a distance between her and men, and she found herself struggling with problems in relationships, holding on to toxic ones because she did not think she would find someone else who would love her.
On top of this, she kept track of the time her attacker spent in jail.
“I was counting down every year,” she said. “The last year when I knew he was going to be released, I had so much trouble sleeping, I was having nightmares that he would come and find me for putting him in jail. It was a very difficult year for me, but I've never seen him after that. I think he was deported.”
IT TOOK A TOLL ON THE ENTIRE FAMILY
The ordeal took a toll not just on Devika but her entire family - with her parents and older sister blaming themselves for what happened.
This is a common reaction in such cases, said Mr Kenny Liew, senior clinical psychologist at the Institute of Mental Health's department of developmental psychiatry.
“Parents may have the misconception like - oh, I failed to protect my child, I didn’t know,” he said, pointing out that the perpetrator in sexual grooming cases may have used strategies to allow the victim to be exploited more easily.
In his talks with such young survivors of sexual abuse, he tackles the problems of guilt and blame, interspersing them at times with chats with the parents, whose reactions are equally pivotal to the child’s recovery process.
In 2017, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) investigated 181 cases of alleged sexual abuse of children, an increase from the 107 in 2016 and 82 in 2015. The 2016 figure was the first time the number of cases crossed the 100 mark in more than a decade.
The ministry attributes the steady increase of cases since 2015 to its efforts in uncovering more cases with serious child protection concerns that were flagged for intervention.
Over the years, it has introduced more rigorous screening tools, provided more training for social workers, educators and counsellors for identifying and detecting child abuse, and also increased public education on family violence so those affected by it will know how to seek help.
WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A CHILD SEX CASE IS REPORTED?
There are various levels of intervention for suspected child abuse cases, with the state stepping in for serious injuries and sexual abuse with MSF's Child Protective Service and possibly law enforcement agencies.
Cases that are lower on the spectrum are dealt with either by community-based child protection specialist centres, family violence specialist centres, or community agencies. When suspected child abuse is reported to Child Protective Service, a social investigation is initiated. This is distinct from a criminal investigation.
In a social investigation, a child protection officer checks on the safety of the child and works with the child and family members to address the allegations. With the family, the officer draws up a care and protection plan for the child. In cases where the police are involved due to a suspected criminal offence having taken place, the child protection officer will also work closely with the police.
At all times the safety of the child is prioritised, and children can be taken out of the family and placed with other caregivers or in foster care, depending on the severity of the situation. As a last resort, they may be placed in children's homes.
Should the case go to court, the children are given additional help such as counselling or therapy at various critical points that may affect them emotionally - such as when they have to testify in a trial.
When the perpetrator is released from jail, the child's safety is kept in sight, and the case can be referred again for the various levels of intervention if needed.
SIGNS TO LOOK OUT FOR
Sexually abused children may exhibit symptoms such as sudden behaviour and mood changes, said IMH's senior clinical psychologist Kenny Liew.
These include shying away from physical contact, excessive crying, a change in habits or routines, a regression to behaviour from when they were younger such as thumb-sucking or bed-wetting, and self-harm.
They may also develop inappropriate sexual behaviour such as excessive genital touching, use of sexually graphic language, or initiation of inappropriate sexual contact with other children.
Signs may also show up in school, with a change in academic performance, he said.
Indeed, people who have day-to-day contact with the child involved are usually the first to find out about the abuse, said Ms Goh Mei Fang, 30, a senior clinical psychologist at MSF's Clinical and Forensic Psychology Service.
But everyone responds differently, and not every child who experiences sexual abuse may develop a traumatic response, said Mr Liew.
Even so, the goals of therapy for Ms Amanda Goh, 32, who leads the sexual abuse intervention team at MSF's Clinical and Forensic Psychology Service, are to reduce distressing symptoms in victims and increase their abilities to function.
Another goal is to teach caregivers helpful parenting and communication skills and ways to cope with their own reactions as caregivers to what happened to their child.
Sexual abuse in children is particularly challenging, Mr Liew said, because they are at a stage where they are developing their social and sexual identities and learning how to be more independent.
"So when there is sexual abuse, it really disrupts these good developments that they're going through and that can make it more particularly challenging than ... say, a road traffic incident which they can see as an external event," he said.
His number one goal in therapy is for the children to see that it was not their fault, and to see that "there's a lot of hope".
I STILL FIND LIFE TO BE A VERY BEAUTIFUL THING
For Devika, it was hope that she managed to find, after years of not being able to come to terms with what happened to her.
When she was 21, she returned to the stairwell where the man used to molest her. As part of a college application, she got a friend to photograph her, and the result was a candid picture with her smiling.
There have been times she wondered what her life would have been if she had not been molested, or what she would say to her perpetrator if she was to meet him again.
"If I was 16, and I met him, I would have been raging," she said. "But now, where I am now in life, I think I'm able to see ... that yes, it was a choice he made to violate me that way."
"And I know he's suffered in jail and I know he's already served his time, he's been punished for the choice he's made. He's faced the consequences of it, as much as I've faced the consequences of what he had done to me."
Devika is now an events manager and a spokesperson for the Sexual Assault Care Centre run by women's rights group Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE).
Even though she felt like she was not good enough, always feeling "imprisoned" by what happened to her, Devika thinks she has become a kinder person as a result of what she experienced, and has forgiven the man.
"I can share my story. I have a voice. It's the one way that I can allow myself to move forward and not let it pull me down anymore - like this did not happen in vain," she said. "I still find life to be a very beautiful thing. Though I did have moments of suicidal thoughts here and there, I think I'm very happy with my life."
Anyone who is aware of a child being or at risk of being abused, can help by alerting a community-based Child Protection Specialist Centre, MSF’s Child Protective Service, the ComCare Hotline 1800-222-0000 or their nearest Family Service Centre.
Where a life is in danger, the public should immediately call the police.