Nearly 17 years ago, I woke up from a nightmare I didn’t realize I was in. If you’re a parent whose child has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of someone you know and trust, you will understand what I mean. Sitting in a family counselor’s office, the world as I knew it came crashing down as I learned that my eldest daughter, Lauren, had been sexually, emotionally and physically abused nearly every day from the ages of 12 to 16.
I worked hard to provide my family with a wonderful life and to create a loving and safe environment for my children to grow. I made sure to get references and background checks on everyone interacting with my daughters or son. But I was unable to protect Lauren from the monster living in my own home.
It never occurred to me that sexual abuse could happen to my family, let alone to my children. That is the message I want to send to every other parent out there: Don’t think this can’t happen to you or your children. Child sexual abuse happens in every ZIP code, in every religion and at every socioeconomic level.
A monster living in our home
In the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study, conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Kaiser Permanente, nearly 25 percent of women and 16 percent of men reported childhood sexual abuse — which means there are also many parents in our country whose worst nightmare came to life, just like mine did.
It seems every day a new abuse case dominates the headlines, from the Jeffrey Epstein allegations in Florida to USA Gymnastics to the Ohio State University wrestling allegations, and countless less-publicized stories. Clearly, the way we teach children about abuse prevention must change. And, as parents, our views about abuse must also evolve.
The person who destroyed my daughter’s childhood was not a stranger, not a man loitering around the playground or someone claiming a lost puppy. Instead, she was a seemingly loving and dedicated woman living inside my home who was deemed trustworthy to care for my three children. But people deceive us. According to a 2012 report by the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, in 91 percent of sex offenses against juveniles, the perpetrator is someone the child knows and often trusts.
We thought we knew and trusted Lauren’s abuser beyond the shadow of a doubt. She lived in our home and was like family to us — she even came on our family vacations.
But rigorous vetting, references and a background check couldn’t protect Lauren from the monster living in our home. Our nanny, Waldina Flores, was a pedophile who destroyed my daughter’s childhood with frequent sexual, physical and emotional abuse. Waldina moved into our home when Lauren was 11, then the grooming started. A few months later, at 12 years old, the abuse began. When she was 16, Lauren gathered the bravery to disclose the abuse she had been suffering.
Waldina fled, and the police found her in a different state coaching a girls’ soccer team — looking for her next victim. My daughter endured the emotionally draining legal process, but Lauren’s abuser was eventually sentenced to 25 years in prison.
I always considered myself close to my children. I thought they knew they could tell me anything. But for five years, my daughter was forced to keep a terrible secret out of shame, guilt and fear of not being believed. Predators are master manipulators and excel at brainwashing their victims. As parents, we can’t just wait for a sign to appear — we must know what to look for, and keep our eyes open.
I taught my children to listen to the adults in their lives, that they must always be obeyed and respected. What we didn’t talk about were the exceptions to that rule, about unsafe secrets and unsafe touches. I wish I told my kids that no adult should ever ask a child to keep a secret from their parents. I wish I told them more directly that their body belongs to them, and that if anyone ever touches them in a way that feels uncomfortable or confusing, it is always OK to say no and to come to me.
Preventing future child sex abuse
I used to think I would never overcome the “what ifs” that keep me up at night, and the all-encompassing rage I feel over what happened. Sometimes I still feel that way, but there is hope and healing.
That’s the message my daughter works to send to survivors in her role as the founder of Lauren's Kids, a foundation that aims to prevent child sexual abuse through education and awareness. It’s something I want to convey to parents, as well. In part, this mission has resulted in the Lauren’s Kids Guide to Hope and Healing, a free resource to help families report, respond to and recover from sexual abuse.
To all the survivors of child sexual abuse, know that I support and believe you. My daughter and I will always fight for you. To all the parents grappling with their horrific new reality, know that I stand with you. The fury, guilt and sadness will never fully go away, but we can channel our anger to create sustainable change and protect other children from abuse.
Ronald L. Book is a Florida lobbyist and the chairman of Lauren’s Kids, a foundation that aims to prevent child sexual abuse through education and awareness. Lauren’s Kids was founded by Book’s daughter, Lauren Book, a Florida state senator and child sexual abuse survivor.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: I thought sexual abuse only happened to other people's children. Then I woke up.