Telling Secrets

Child victims of sex abuse put their pain on T-shirts for all the world to see. Do not avert your eyes.

The new white T-shirts are covered with bright colors. Some of the painting is messy and frantic, some exactingly precise. In most cases it's not hard to make out that the letters and the words are excruciating -- especially when you know they were written by children.

I don't like sex.

It's show-and-tell day at the Children's Assessment Center in the Rice Village, and what's on display are tales of horror condensed to just the few sentences that can fit on the front of a T-shirt, along with a drawing or two.

A T-shirt with the Spanish word for "sad" is part of the project.
Deron Neblett
A T-shirt with the Spanish word for "sad" is part of the project.
Wolf has worked with sexually abused children for ten years and still doesn't see the answers.
Deron Neblett
Wolf has worked with sexually abused children for ten years and still doesn't see the answers.

After all the trust I gave you
you hurt me

Like adults before them, the girls and boys, all victims of sexual abuse, were given the chance to say whatever they wanted about what happened to them. Some reveal pain. Some are accusatory. Some want to protect other children.

Don't ever let this happen to you. I'm sorry if it happed to u.


Sexual abuse is not nice, most
Predators come out at night
Even though strangers will
Come up to you and say
I won't bite try to give you candy and say it's
Alright, then you will fight
Like on HBO boxing night.

Some show they've sustained pretty heavy damage. One shirt was adorned with:


And then there's the one-liners. Each of the following was on a different shirt, done by a different child:

I cryed
I felt horrible
I fell hart broken

Children suspected of being sexually abused are brought to the Children's Assessment Center for a doctor's examination, are interviewed and videotaped by specially trained personnel, are assigned child advocates to see them through the court system and are given regular counseling sessions. The point is to avoid several separate interviews at the start of the process; to instead have one videotaped examination to be accessed by all the investigating agencies.

Julia Wolf, the center's director of therapy services, came up with the idea for the T-shirts after seeing the Clothesline exhibit -- shirts done by adult victims of domestic abuse. The children at the center were told they didn't have to do a shirt, but if they did it would probably help raise awareness of the problem.

Every child said yes, Wolf says. A few adult women, who suffered abuse while they were children, did some of the shirts.

And while part of the reaction to the shirts is Why put anyone through this?, Wolf says it helped bring out responses from kids who hadn't been able to talk about what had happened to them.

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, with attention to the problem heightened by almost daily revelations about the Roman Catholic Church in the United States and how it has been handling its priests who have sexually abused children who trusted them. The center wants to get its shirts out so more people can see them -- Project Row Houses is talking about displaying the shirts in August -- and is looking for other sponsors.

Among the center's shirts, perhaps saddest of all are the ones that don't have any words on them. One had just gobs of red paint on green, some of the red elongated like teardrops.

Shirts like this are from children too young to write.

Caroline and Tina, mother and daughter, are both victims of sexual abuse. Caroline and Tina are not their real names, but they have an all-too-real story that they were willing to tell to try to help others.

At 14, Tina was getting in trouble at school, skipping class and acting out. She was making herself sick by not taking care of her diet, which caused her juvenile diabetes to reel out of control. She got hauled into court for truancy, which led her to a Harris County early-intervention program and one of its counselors, Tim Conley.

It took a couple of sessions before Tina let out her secret. She'd been sexually abused at school.

A young man had started following her around in Austin High School. Tina still doesn't know who he was -- a student or drop-in -- but she knew he was bothering her. One day, he trapped her in the school restroom, where he sexually molested her and threatened her. She told some of her special ed teachers, she says, but they told her to sit down, certain she was making something up to find just one more excuse for not doing her schoolwork.

She didn't tell her mother; says she was too scared that Caroline might reject her. But after two counseling sessions, she told Conley and he asked her permission to tell her mother. "And then we got on the road," Conley says.

Conley worked with Tina until she was in a better state of mind. She moved on in her life, and he moved to a new job at the Children's Assessment Center. Two years later Caroline tracked him down, saying Tina's problems had returned and she needed more help. Not only was Tina not doing well in school -- she repeatedly failed ninth grade -- but she wasn't taking care of the diabetes again.

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