Girls' story shows how broad reach of abuse is

02/09/2011 4:57 PM

02/09/2011 4:57 PM

After the "Promise Not To Tell" story series appeared in The Wichita Eagle last week, describing the sexual abuse and rescue of Kathie and Kellie Henderson, people began contacting them, or their rescuers Jim and Shelly Vasey, or the newspaper, or the authorities.

Some, like Bobby Gandu, wanted to offer help — in Gandu's case, perhaps substantial help. He's the director of admissions at Wichita State University, and says the top leadership there wants to help all four Henderson victims afford a post-high-school education if they want one. They are working out details.

Other callers wanted to donate money, or cards giving them gasoline and gifts.

But most of the callers and the correspondents using Facebook and e-mail and pen and paper said they are victims themselves, of incest or other forms of sexual abuse.

They said they know firsthand what the girls went through — and that what happened to the girls is no isolated thing.

One middle-aged woman wrote from Alaska: "I have a history of having been abused as a child — nothing even close to what went on in that family — but I appreciate the girls being so open and honest, and helping remove the stigma by being so open."

Many of these women said the same thing about the Henderson case that the police said: That sex abuse is far more widespread than is commonly known.

The Henderson twins, now 19, and their younger sister, now 18, were sexually abused by their father and two of their brothers. A third, younger brother and victim, now 15, was not sexually abused but was beaten up several times by his older brothers and their friends. The younger sister did not want to be named in the three-part series, which began last Sunday.

The Henderson kids were rescued in 2005 after an aunt, Jennifer Walker, and the Vaseys found out about it. Shelly Vasey called police.

All three men are now in prison. Brad Henderson, the father, will not be eligible for parole until 2028. Andrew Henderson, the older of the two brothers in prison, got the same sentence. Only 18 at the time he was sentenced, he would be 43 if he is released then. His younger brother Matt Henderson received a lighter sentence. He will be eligible for parole in 2012.

Lt. Jeff Weible, commander of the Exploited and Missing Child Unit, and Diana Schunn, executive director of the Child Advocacy Center of Sedgwick County, said there is no doubt the story will make other cases surface, which was what the Henderson twins hoped would happen when they decided to tell their story.

Many victims have come forward involving situations that occurred years or decades ago. Weible said police want to know about those cases too, even though Kansas has a statute of limitations of five years.

Some victims coming forward are women in their 70s.

* * *

The woman on the phone is 72 years old. She remembers going to her stepfather's funeral.

She attended the visitation.

When it was her turn to view the body, she spat on him.

She does not remember whether her spittle hit his face. "It's not like I gave myself time to aim," she said. "But I succeeded in what I set out to do. I had driven a long way to make sure he was buried with my spit on him."

"Not long before that, he'd driven an 11-hour drive to come see me. He said he had pancreatic cancer and that he would die soon. He asked for my forgiveness. And I said, 'Never in this lifetime.'

"When I read that story about those two girls, I was horrified, because I know they are never going to get over it. This will take a lifetime.

"What my stepfather did affected me the rest of my life. I've had many, many husbands. I've used men all my life. I had terrible relations with men. I have nightmares all the time in which I can feel his fingers moving up the covers.

"I worked in a job for 50 years where I was around a lot of women every day. I don't want to say which job, or how many marriages, because then people will know who's talking here. But I'd work with women every day, and I was amazed how once we got to talking how many would tell the same stories as mine.

"Many of them had family members who molested them, and mothers who let it happen, mothers who tried to make it out to be the girls' fault. And many of those women did what I did. They had terrible marriages. They tended to be promiscuous.

"I finally confronted my mother one time when she was very old. She said she tried to stop him, but that he said I wanted it.

"'Good God,' I told her. 'I was a baby!'

"To this day, I cannot go to church because of that man. We'd go out to eat, and he'd insist on praying over the meal and making a show of it. He was a church deacon. He was an officer in the Army. He was a pillar of his community. But he did what he did to me. And I'm glad I spit on him."

* * *

"There were three of us girls in my family, just like with the Henderson girls," another 72-year-old woman said. "My mother married a lot of men... a never-ending nightmare. My baby sister missed out, but my other sister and I were molested for years... and by separate stepfathers. My sister still has nightmares at night, and she's 70 now."

She said she was molested every day after school from the time she was six until she was eight or nine.

"It's a wonder we survived.

"And no, we never told, not till much later. You just didn't tell, because you're a child, and because you're scared and because these guys told me, they threatened me, they told me they'd do it to my little sister. And you're a child, so you're frightened.

"My sister to this day is afraid of the dark.

"I am so happy these things are being brought to light by the Henderson girls. This kind of story is what helps people get out of these tormented situations, stories where girls like these have the courage to come forward.

"Maybe this will give other children the idea that there is help for them.

"Help and hope."

* * *

The woman on the telephone, inspired by the Henderson sisters' courage, called Diana Schunn at the Child Advocacy Center, an organization whose mission is to promote the health, safety and emotional well-being of abused children, and sent her a donation of $150. The woman is a retired Boeing worker, age 58, and she has memories.

"I was molested by my brother and my cousins," she said. "Thank God for their neighbors for rescuing them; they stopped it early enough that maybe the girls won't suffer as much as some."

She said her own abuse had happened when she was young and that she'd suppressed the memories. "Then in my early 50s something started to happen to me. I had to go to a doctor it was so bad. All these memories came rushing up. My marriage ended, my husband couldn't handle it. And I felt a terrible shame. Why didn't I say something?"

"Somebody has to step up, like these girls did," she said.

"I admire their courage."

* * *

"I live in Mississippi," a woman wrote to Shelly Vasey after the story appeared.

"I've never written something like this to someone I do not know, but I just read the article about you and the Henderson girls and felt that I had to contact you.

"I felt that I just had to tell you what an inspiration you are to me. You are an example of selflessness and love —even to those of us with different beliefs — because your actions regarding the girls were and continue to be Christ- like. Thank you for what you did for these children. I am in awe of you.

"I am a domestic abuse survivor. I know what it means for these girls to have someone like you in their lives. Were it not for you and your husband, these two girls' future would be awfully bleak — but you have given them hope for a life without shame, a life with the potential for great things to happen for them... you are a hero — your story exemplifies that we should help those around us who need help, even if it means a long-time commitment to those we help. You are awesome."

* * *

"I am an incest survivor who has been in counseling for 20 years," the neat handwriting on the card said. "We must learn to get this horrible problem out into the light of day and stop perpetrating it with silence."

The card's sender, a 53-year-old woman from Wichita, said Kathie and Kellie Henderson's courage inspired her. "Thank God for their extraordinary courage. Thank God for the multiple heroes. I was abused by my father and brother and raped at 14 by (my) 24-year-old brother in law."

In a telephone interview, the woman said she had been diagnosed with a number of problems, including post-traumatic stress disorder. She said she had spent her life having troubled relations with men, that she seldom has sex with her husband, that she's always had trust issues with male supervisors.

"And I have always had a lot of trouble believing that I am worthy," she said.

She did not realize how damaged she was until far into adulthood.

"I thought I could handle anything most of my life," she said.

But a few years ago, she began volunteering at Wichita's Sexual Assault Center, and sat through a number of support group meetings where victims try to help each other.

"I started having the most blinding headaches," she said.

"And the memories it brought up were terrible."

* * *

The woman writing an e-mail to the newspaper said she is a 42-year-old Wichita woman from a middle- to upper-class family.

"I too was violated by a family member. Although my violations were not as heinous as the (Henderson) twins... it is still something I chose not to tell.

"Because of this my 2 cousins were also molested over a period of time and I am sick about it to this day."

She said her abuse occurred when she was a small child, that her tormentor was her mother's brother, and that he is still alive.

It would happen on family visits, which took place on many weekends every year. "You knew it was coming every time we showed up."

"I'm not sure why I never told anyone. But when you're that young, you really don't know what to do."

* * *

People are also reaching out directly to the Henderson twins. And these messages, in small ways so far, have begun to shape the twins' view of their own abuse.

"People have said many nice things," said Kathie Henderson, who is living with Shelly Vasey, the woman who called 911 and arranged her and her siblings' rescue five years ago.

"I've done a lot of thinking; one thing I have kind of changed about is how I feel about my oldest brother (Andrew Henderson). I mean, I still don't want to have anything to do with him. But I want to be a good Christian, and I now regret that I said I hoped that Andrew burns in hell."

Kellie, her twin sister, has not had any such change of heart. Andrew, in a letter published with the story series, said he was sorry and wanted to spend his life making things up to his sisters.

"He's a Christian now?" Kellie said. "I'm not buying it. And he said he did it partly because he was a victim too? His letter pissed me off. I sure haven't forgiven him. He had a choice of raping us or not raping us, and he raped us. All this talk about Christianity and forgiveness, including what Shelly has said, is upsetting me."

She wants to move on and dedicate her life in some way to helping people like those victims who wrote her directly this week.

"A few people have written to say 'this happened to me,' " Kellie said.

"I've told them I think it takes time, time to learn how to trust people again."

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