Stories of healing, expert on childhood intervention begin second day

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- The second day of Penn State's first national conference on the topic of child sexual abuse began on Tuesday, Oct. 30, with talks by Margaret Hoelzer, national spokesperson for the National Children’s Advocacy Center; and Christopher Anderson, executive director of MaleSurvivor. The morning session continued with a talk by Julie Larrieu, professor of clinical psychiatry at Tulane University, who spoke to the capacity crowd at the Penn Stater Conference Center and Hotel about her work helping the youngest victims of child sexual abuse and their parents to heal and grow together.

Hoelzer and Anderson, who also participated in a public forum to kick off the conference on Sunday, Oct. 28, shared their personal stories as survivors of child sexual abuse and the stories of their paths to healing and success.

Hoelzer is a two-time Olympic swimmer who won two silver medals and a bronze medal during the 2008 games in Beijing. From the ages of 5 to 7, she was sexually abused by a best friend’s father. She said education about abuse in school, along with a conversation with a childhood friend, were the catalysts that helped her to tell her mother at the age of 11.

“My mom did everything right. She believed me right away, and I got it all out in one take,” Hoelzer said. “She didn’t talk a lot, mostly just listened, but she would keep giving me these little nudges to keep me talking. Most importantly, she didn’t get upset; she managed to stay calm, even while hearing her child tell this horrible, horrible story.”

She said her parents called the police, who referred them to the Child Advocacy Center where she and her family got the help they needed to begin to heal. As a young adolescent, she said swimming was an important and positive outlet for her.

“I figured out early on that I had strength because of it. I would stand on the blocks (at a swimming event) as a young athlete and look around, and I would say ‘I have been through something. I have survived something. I am mentally stronger than everybody else here.’ And that helped me as an athlete,” Hoelzer said.

“I am proud to be a survivor, and I am proud of my Olympic medals; learning how to survive something got me where I am today. I don’t think there’s a reason why other victims of sexual abuse can’t have that same power.”

Anderson spoke about his work with MaleSurvivor, an organization committed to preventing, healing and eliminating all forms of sexual victimization of boys and men. Anderson said male survivors of sexual abuse face different challenges than female survivors; he said the resources provided by the organization are desperately needed around the world.

“Abuse doesn’t discriminate. Neither can we in our work to fight against it,” Anderson said. “There are 10s of millions of survivors out there who need our help and our support. We cannot let the fight alone.”

A passionate advocate for the rights of survivors of sexual abuse, Anderson joined the organization in 2007 after coming to understand the extent to which the sexual abuse and trauma he suffered as a child profoundly affected his life. Growing up in a tumultuous home, Anderson, who was bullied in school, found friendship in a neighbor who ended up sexually abusing him. It wasn’t until he was in his 30s that he realized the impact the abuse had on his entire life.

“I remember one clear instance of being sexually abused. There are members of my men’s group who endured abuse systematically for years, but they shared with me that what I have gone through was just as deeply wounding to me as what they went through was to them. That was hard for me to accept for a long time,” Anderson said. “The story itself is not what’s important. It’s the impact that that trauma has on our lives and who we become.”

To watch a video of Hoelzer and Anderson's session, visit http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LlHXrcFAV9U.

Larrieu, a developmental and clinical psychologist, spoke about the work she does with maltreated infants (children younger than 5) and their parents, a process called child-parent psychotherapy. The process involves therapy, not only for children, but for parents who oftentimes have had traumatic childhood experiences themselves.

“Very young children are impacted by trauma. They can let us know through behaviors and actions, even if they don’t have the language to talk about it,” she said.

Having a supportive caregiver is essential to a positive outcome for the child, she added, which is why combined therapy is so important. It helps parents to recognize and cope with their own trauma and that, in turn, helps them to become better caregivers.

“Child-parent psychology is such a powerful model, because (it allows us to appreciate) what behaviors mean in terms of a particular child and parent together, and also the beliefs and attitudes and feelings that underlie the behavior,” she said.

From Sunday evening, Oct. 28, through today (Oct. 30), scholars, practitioners, survivors and members of the public nationwide convened at Penn State's University Park campus to attend events related to Penn State’s “Child Sexual Abuse Conference: Traumatic Impact, Prevention and Intervention.” Several events throughout the conference have been live-streamed online and archived on the conference website and WPSU's YouTube channel for ongoing educational viewing purposes.

Sharon Cooper, adjunct professor of pediatrics at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine, was scheduled to present on the topic of Internet usage as a gateway to childhood sexual abuse on Oct. 30; she was unable to travel to the conference because of the weather.

Last Updated October 31, 2012