Several members from Team USA Gymnastics testified in front of Congress recently to examine the FBI’s failure to promptly address complaints made in 2015. Considered the largest sexual assault case in sports history, the USA Gymnastics scandal has been in the news several times over the past 6 years.
Aly Raisman has spoken publicly about the abuse and its impact on her. Recently on The Daily Show, she said, “abuse isn’t something that you just suffer in the moment. It can carry on with you for a really long time. And the way a survivor heals is linked to how their abuse is handled. The power of one adult supporting a survivor and doing the right thing is so important.”
As Aly so eloquently articulated, recovery from trauma is a process that often unfolds over a lifetime and can be dramatically impacted by disclosure experiences. In the immediate aftermath of trauma, survivors who are met with empowering, compassionate support tend to experience stabilization more readily in the subsequent days, months, and years. Negative reactions to sexual assault disclosures such as: blaming the victim, disbelief, minimization, or attempting to control the victim are related to depression, substance abuse, and more severe PTSD symptoms.
The testimony and interviews of the gymnasts suggest the inaction of officials at every level allowed the assaults to go unchecked for several additional years. Unfortunately, this experience rings true for many who seek help and are met with resistance and disbelief. Even among well intentioned caregivers and providers, methods of questioning and lack of compassion leave survivors feeling judged, hurt, and unsupported.
It is important to keep in mind that disclosure is a very difficult process and those who have been assaulted may be entering the conversations feeling confused, out of control, violated, humiliated, and afraid. They may also doubt their own ability to effectively evaluate and interpret their surroundings. Often, they have been hurt by perceived authority figures, who are trusted and respected.
To complicate the trauma further, the gymnasts were met with failures at every turn by the Olympic Committee, the USA Gymnastics, and law enforcement creating a sense that there was no way out and that they faced insurmountable odds. The level of betrayal from the very systems that were in place to protect them will certainly play a role in their recovery.
This heartbreaking sequence of events is the story of children in our very own community. Replace the names and vary the systems of disbelief and intervention failures and this tragedy is repeated in our own backyard.
I hear the words of Aly Raisman echo so loudly in my mind: “The power of one adult supporting a survivor and doing the right thing is so important.” She is exactly right! It only takes one person to do the right thing. One person to validate and believe. One person to advocate. One person to listen intently without judging. One person to build an iron clad support system. One person to speak up when all others have turned a blind eye. Clearly, a single champion enhances our systems of protection and forges the way for countless individuals to walk a path of resilience and recovery.
Are you brave enough to be that one person?
Dr. Ashley Elgin has championed causes for women and children in need for over 30 years, most recently becoming CEO of Lena Pope in 2019. In 2017, she was recognized with the Distinguished Service Award, Non-Profit CEO of the Year by Community Council of Dallas for her service at Promise House. Dr. Elgin has a PhD in Counseling from the University of North Texas and is recognized as an expert on the dynamics and effects of childhood trauma, authoring academic chapters and publishing research articles in clinical journals. Additionally, she has provided expert testimony and legislative address on the topics of trafficking, homelessness, and child sexual abuse. She has been active in her community including serving on boards and committees for Meals on Wheels of America, Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, North Texas Association for Play Therapy, and Children’s Advocacy Center of Texas Partner Agency Council.