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Tuesday, March 25, 2014

On 'Oprah,' twins will share stories of sex abuse

BY ROY WENZL
The Wichita Eagle

Kellie and Kathie Henderson revealed themselves publicly as sexual abuse victims last month with the hope that they'd inspire other people to report abuse to the authorities.

It happened.

Seven weeks later, the 19-year-old twins have learned that they did what they set out to do — and thanks to Oprah Winfrey, they will do it on a national television platform next month.

Their story, first reported in a three-part series in The Wichita Eagle beginning Dec. 12, prompted new reports of sexual abuse to authorities and inspired dozens of other adult women, some of them elderly, to write or call the authorities, the Hendersons or the newspaper to say the same crimes had happened to them.

The Henderson sisters will fly to Chicago next week to tell their story again, this time in a taping with Winfrey and the 7 million viewers who regularly watch Winfrey's daytime television show.

The show will air sometime next month. Production teams for Winfrey, to prepare for that taping, visited Wichita last week and prerecorded hours of interviews with the Hendersons and the neighbors and police detectives who rescued them in 2005.

Meanwhile, the Kansas Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services received and assigned for investigation several reports in the Wichita area of cases of sexual abuse because of the story series, said Jean Hogan, director of SRS's Wichita regional office.

Hogan could not say anything specific about the cases reported. But she did say that she had double-checked with SRS staff from the Protection Report Center and Children and Family Services to see whether new cases came in, as the Hendersons had hoped.

"While we haven't had a big influx of reports, I would say that we had a few that specifically said when they reported suspected sexual abuse that they were reporting because of having read the article.

"If even one child is protected as a result, it is positive."

The Eagle's December story series, "Promise Not To Tell," described how the Henderson twins and their younger sister were sexually abused by their father and two of their brothers for about 10 years. At age 13, in March 2005, Kellie and Kathie finally confided in neighbors, who called police. The sisters regard the neighbors and the police who investigated as heroes who saved their lives; Kathie said she had contemplated suicide before their rescue.

The three Henderson abusers remain in prison.

Many of the people who contacted the paper or the authorities after the story ran said sexual abuse had happened to them, and that the families involved often covered it up.

Law enforcement investigated 455 cases of sexual abuse, incest and rape in Sedgwick County in 2009.

The sisters say that everything that happened after the story ran has validated their decision to go public not only as sexual abuse victims but as victims of incest, a word with a social stigma that has frightened sexual abuse victims out of reporting their abusers for centuries.

Kellie Henderson said she is glad she and Kathie will now tell their story to Winfrey and her national audience, again with the goal of encouraging victims or potential rescuers to report abuse.

Nearly 100 people contacted Kellie directly on Facebook or e-mail after the series ran. Many were victims who told her they were too afraid to do what she had done — come forward publicly.

Some of them had suffered for a lifetime in silence — and still suffer.

"I tell them that they need to remember that life is not over," Kellie said. "They can still live their lives, can still do whatever they want to do."

The story prompted other emotions.

Shelly Vasey, the neighbor who six years ago rescued the Henderson twins and their younger sister by calling police, said she and her husband, Jim, have received hundreds of calls or e-mails, and comments from people at church. Many were victims, revealing their abuse for the first time.

Some victims said they felt freed from a secretive past, Shelly Vasey said. Some said that in finally saying it had happened to them, they learned that others still loved them. Some people broke down in tears as they talked to the Vaseys.

One man a few days ago pulled Shelly aside and told her that he was a sexual abuse victim as a child — and that he looks upon Kellie and Kathie's courage with awe.

"He said that he now carries the newspaper article with him every day, and that whenever he feels like he lacks courage in anything, he pulls out the story and looks at it. It gave him the freedom as an adult to finally voice the terror he endured," she said.

"We still hear from people on a daily basis who read the article for the first time and want to tell how it helped them."

The story brought Kathie Henderson substantial help even before it ran. Kathie, who was living jobless and distraught with a boyfriend in northern Kansas when the series reporting started, came to Wichita in November to give an interview — and ended up moving into Shelly and Jim Vasey's house, at their invitation. She said the Vaseys have now saved her twice.

With their help, she got a job, and medical help with chronic headaches and other afflictions. After the series ran, people by the dozens contacted her.

Many were "women who struggled with the very same horror in their childhood just as I had," Kathie said. "I really want to thank all the victims who've told me their stories."

At age 19, she now serves on a sexual assault advisory board for Via Christi hospitals. She tells victims to stand proud, she said. "They did nothing wrong."

Wichita State University contacted the family, offering to help get college educations for all four of the Henderson victims, including the twins' younger brother.

The story has had at least one result not directly connected with the serious subject of abuse. It has to do with flying to meet Oprah.

"I've never flown before," Kellie said. "So I've been making a bucket list of things to do before I die: First time on a plane. First time to go to Chicago. First time on TV. First time on 'Oprah.' First time in a limo, because the Oprah people will take us in a limo. Yeah, I'm making a bucket list. Because if you crash in a plane — you're dead."

Reach Roy Wenzl at 316-268-6219 or rwenzl@wichitaeagle.com.

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