Administrators at the McMahon/Ryan Child Advocacy Center called Jennifer Nadler a few days ago. They asked if she could be at their East Genesee Street headquarters at 10 this morning, when they announce a historic collaboration to confront the sexual abuse of children in our community.
At McMahon/Ryan, they’d heard of Nadler, 36. She is a survivor who chooses to speak out. This month, she gave two community presentations based on the same ideals as a new “Darkness to Light” initiative, led by the advocacy center and the YMCA of Greater Syracuse.
“What I want other survivors to understand,” Nadler said, “is that they’re not alone, and there is hope of getting through this.”
She will be joined at McMahon/Ryan by Dan Leonard, 56, of Manlius, who was sexually abused as a boy by a youth football coach. Both survivors were invited by a coalition representing many governmental, law enforcement and human service agencies.
Linda Cleary, executive director of McMahon/Ryan, said abuse is a crime of manipulation and secrecy, a crime transcending boundaries of class or income. Her center was involved with 700 childhood abuse cases last year. Statistically, she said, one of every 10 children nationally will come forward as a victim. That doesn’t come close to counting the true number of survivors, Cleary said, since only a fraction of children ever speak of what they endured.
The “Darkness to Light” effort involves a two-hour training. Among the goals: Instructing adults on the best ways of keeping children safe, identifying the warning signals of abuse and supporting any boy or girl in the instant they break the silence about what’s been done to them.
“The reality is that it’s happening to thousands of people,” Cleary said. She said high-profile national incidents in recent years — in which some coaches, educators, physicians and clergy members were identified as perpetrators — underline a stark reality:
Your typical abuser is not an anonymous stalker, hunting children as they walk home from school. In 90 percent of the cases, Cleary said, the assailant is someone a child loves or trusts. It is far more likely to be a friend, relative or neighbor than a stranger in the darkness.
Those emotional bonds explain why overwhelmed and terrified children often hesitate to reveal the truth.
Similar themes are at the core of Nadler’s presentations. She always begins by showing photos of herself at 12, just before she was targeted — a little girl still thrilled about family parties in the yard or trips to an amusement park.
That child was about to be abused for two years, she said, by a trusted adult outside her home. For more than a decade, Nadler blamed herself, believing she must have somehow encouraged the man who molested and traumatized her.
“I felt damaged for so long,” Nadler said, “and I finally realized you can’t get through it unless you face it.”
She returned to Central New York and continued with intensive counseling. She sought help from child abuse specialists, who urged her to report her case to the authorities. Investigators listened. They told her the crime fell beyond the statute of limitations for prosecution.
Still, police were sympathetic, Nadler said. They gave her time. They understood the magnitude of what had been done to her.
All of it meshed into ongoing recovery. She often looks at photos that show her as a little girl, just before she was assaulted. “I allowed myself to grieve for that child,” she said, “and to wonder who I might have been if I had never been abused.”
Today, she’s married, with a 6-year-old son. Her life is better than she ever imagined it could be.
Yet she speaks of an on-going responsibility, a point that Dan Leonard — a fellow survivor — has also made in interviews.
They understand why so many others bury what Leonard calls “the secret.”
For that reason, Nadler quickly agreed when “Darkness to Light” organizers sought her help for their training, called “Stewards of Children.” By teaching adults how to react to abuse, she believes the program is confronting an elemental truth:
“The reason children don’t tell? They’re afraid.”
She will be there this morning, as this new effort gets underway. The national goal is training 5 percent of any community to better recognize and act upon abuse. That equates to about 18,000 people in Central New York, a level Cleary and other organizers hope to reach by 2020.
As for Nadler, she often thinks of what happened this month after she finished her community presentations. Following both talks, men and women quietly lined up near the stage. One by one, they stepped forward to wrap her in an embrace. Several complete strangers said to her: “The same thing happened to me.”
“You’re not alone,” Nadler told them – a message she’ll share again today.