Child sexual abuse: Painful story, but little healing
Healing proves elusive for a young man who says he was sexually abused for years by relatives. Still, he says he feels stronger for having told.
Seattle Times staff reporter
Finding helpFor information or help about child sexual abuse:
King County Sexual Assault Resource Center:
Crisis Line: 888-99-VOICE (888-998-6423)
Providence Intervention Center for Assault and Abuse (Snohomish County): Crisis Line: 425-252-4800
THE MEMORIES COME without warning, darting through Martin Santos' head.
He is under a bridge, in a park with two older boys.
Shut up and take off your clothes, they say. Don't make any noise.
Santos was 6 then. Now he is 21. An adult, a man. He could use a gun. No — a baseball bat. He could find these two relatives, make his pain theirs.
But the fantasy leaves him cold. Because their pain is not enough. And what he wants is gone for good.
He wants to reach back in time and warn the 6-year-old on the trail of Des Moines Creek Park to run. That boy was on a bike ride. He thought they'd all stopped to skip stones in the creek. Instead, that boy died.
In his place lives Santos. A sports fanatic who connects the dates of when he says he was raped to which baseball movie came out that year; a fledgling public speaker from Des Moines who has talked to crowds about the sexual abuse he says he endured for seven years; a survivor, not a victim, who insists he feels stronger each time he hears himself tell his story aloud.
But there was a price.
He told his family and watched it rupture. He told police and was called to testify against his relatives in court.
They said they were innocent.
Now, almost four years after a jury's verdict, and too many holidays and family gatherings split between those who believe him and those who never did, Santos sometimes wonders if he should have stayed silent.
Maybe life would have been simpler if only he'd kept his secrets locked up tight.
SANTOS WINDS THROUGH his old neighborhood in Des Moines, passing the low-slung homes, overgrown yards and gravel driveways.
Through a rain-spattered windshield, he sees the 1950s rambler where, as a high-school sophomore in 2006, he sat down to write an English paper about a moment that changed his life.
The assignment was an experiment with memoir. Santos dashed off a first-person essay on his love of baseball. But the day before the paper was due, something pulled him back to the computer. He typed until 2 a.m. His body shook.
"Over the span of seven years, I was terrorized," he wrote. "Over seven years, I walked through hell and back." He titled it "Say Something" and went to bed.
After his English teacher read the essay, then his extended family, he was relieved the secret was out.
But something else weighed on him. Two other family members had told him that they, too, had been molested by the same relatives, who were now adults.
Santos was done being quiet. He wanted these men in prison.
Child sexual abuse is one of society's most underreported crimes. While the stigma has diminished compared to a generation ago, secrecy and shame still envelop it — especially when it happens in families. And that, researchers say, makes accurate data notoriously tough to collect.
The numbers that are available reveal a lot.
Of 329 sexual-assault cases filed last year in King County, more than half of the defendants were related to their accusers, according to the county prosecutor's office.
Defendants often plead out before trial, accepting punishment for a lesser crime. Or victims decide not to follow through.
Prosecutors say these allegations are some of the toughest to prove. More often than not, there is zero physical evidence. Memories are clouded by time. It often comes down to one person's word against another's.
Julie Kays sees this play out every day.
Inside her fifth-floor office at the King County Courthouse, the senior deputy prosecutor for Seattle's Special Assault Unit listens to girls, boys, men and women confide stories of sexual abuse "beyond most people's imagination."
Kays has tried more than 60 sex-abuse cases, the vast majority involving children. And 90 percent of the time, she said, victims come forward months or years later.
Children think people won't believe them; they agonize over ripping their families apart.
"I can't tell you the number of times I've had kids on the witness stand say, 'I love my dad.' And Dad is sitting in the defendant's chair," Kays said.
It's her job to look for big and small ways to corroborate a victim's account, she said.
She approaches former teachers, who may be able to speak about a student's behavioral changes in school. She searches for photos of the child from when the alleged abuse occurred. She asks family and friends to talk about the defendant's access to the child.
The victim's testimony also can have tremendous sway, Kays said.
Verdicts are impossible to predict, which is why she tells victims this: Your healing must not depend on the outcome of the case. Because it's not a matter of whether we believe you.
It's what can be proven in court.
"THE NEXT WITNESS is Martin Santos."
It is Aug. 13, 2007, and Santos walks to the witness stand in track pants and a basketball sweatshirt, hands tucked in his pockets. He is 17 and on summer break from Mount Rainier High School.
This is the second time the case has gone to trial.
Months earlier in a King County courtroom, a jury acquitted the two men on three of the eight child-rape and molestation charges involving Santos and the other two family members. A mistrial was declared on five remaining counts, so the case is back in court.
The prosecutor begins.
She asks Santos basic questions, about school, his favorite classes, family.
Then: Tell the court what happened when you were 6 by the bridge at Des Moines Creek Park.
Santos looks down.
"I was told to do something," Santos says. "Something I'd never done before. Something I didn't know anything about."
"Did you know what to do?"
"I didn't know what to do at all. I didn't even know what it meant. ... "
"Did you talk about it to anybody?"
She asks about the essay he wrote. What happened after you turned it in?
A school counselor talked to him, Santos says. Then Child Protective Services. When he learned police were getting involved, Santos says, he had to tell his family.
He called an uncle, who helped translate the essay into Spanish so the rest of the family could understand it. The uncle, at Santos' request, gathered a dozen relatives at Santos' house to read it aloud the next evening.
Santos stayed in his bedroom, but he remembers hearing every word and every sound, from the thumps in his chest to his mother and aunts sobbing.
"I wanted my family to hear it from me," he tells the court. "I did it because it was my family. And it was my responsibility to say something."
The defense attorney raises discrepancies in Santos' story. He asks about conflicting statements Santos made to authorities initially about which relative abused him at the creek.
"And you didn't correct that for about a year, is that correct?"
"I believe so."
The defense challenges Santos to match allegations of abuse at his house and other places to specific times.
"You asked me if I could remember a day, a time, a month or a year," Santos finally says. "I can't."
"Do you have a hard time remembering dates or times?"
The next day, the defendants take the stand. The prosecutor asks one about the alleged sexual contact, which he says didn't happen.
"I like girls," he says.
The defense attorney questions the other man about inappropriately touching Santos.
"Did that happen?" the attorney asks.
"No," he replies. "It did not."
After deliberating for two hours, the jury returns: not guilty on all counts.
SIX MONTHS AFTER the trial, Santos was asked to share his story in a four-minute video for the King County Sexual Assault Resource Center, where he had received counseling and help throughout the court process. The clip was filmed in Des Moines Creek Park and shown to 900 people at an annual fundraiser.
Afterward, a woman approached Santos in tears. I was raped, too, she said. I've never told anyone outside my family.
He hurt for this woman, a stranger, yet he felt joy. This is what it meant to affect one person with his story. How many more could he reach?
Later that year, Santos organized a walk at the park to raise awareness about sexual assault, with the support of his parents and other family members.
"Talking is how Martin ... finds healing," said his father, Mike Holte.
Santos named the walk "Say Something."
He knows those two words come at a cost. There are people in his family who wish he'd never gone to court, never told his story, and who never forgave him for doing both.
Now it's time to move forward. After graduating from high school three years ago, Santos set his sights on becoming an emergency-medical technician with an ambulance company. This spring, it happened.
The job is his way of connecting.
"You get to be part of someone's life in that deep, dark moment," he says. "So many people think they are alone. Sure, everyone's situation is different. But in so many ways, it's all the same. ... We all walk around with missing pieces."
He starts to talk about a dream.
In it, the relatives come to him. "I'm sorry," they say. And just like that, life is bright and good, and the emptiness he felt is suddenly replaced with a fullness he's only imagined.
Except he hasn't talked to the men in years.
Sonia Krishnan: 206-515-5546
News researcher Gene Balk contributed to this report.
Trending on seattletimes.com
Most viewed photo galleries
The Morning Memo
The Morning Memo jump starts your day with weather, traffic and news
Career Center Blog
Your Opinion Matters
Take our survey and enter to win $100. Enter Now!