By Riley Herrin, LCSW

In 2003, I had never heard of child advocacy centers. I was just an 11-year-old girl then, and while my biggest concerns should have been the next time I would get to see my friends or the math test coming up, they weren’t even on my radar. Reality was, I was heading to a child advocacy center with my aunt. She had recently become my relative placement through Child Protection Services, and I remember her telling me to be honest. Honest about the years of sexual abuse I had experienced at the hands of my stepfather.

I don’t remember the building I walked into, or who spoke to my aunt when we arrived, but I do remember the room I sat in, small chairs, and a table I colored at. If I close my eyes, I can still see the lady I talked to, blonde and welcoming. I spilled my guts to her. I often wonder what she thought when I left that day. Knowing the weight of the words I used to describe the details of every sexual encounter I could remember. The words that make an adult’s heart drop when little mouths say them. I didn’t know it then, but this was just the beginning to my middle and end.

This moment, this conversation at a child advocacy center, led to a team of people who were eager to support me and my family while we navigated foreign lands. I participated in more therapy sessions than I can count, and I spoke with a doctor who assured me that, despite the abuse, my body was normal. I was shocked to find out that my body didn’t scream, “Abused kid!” when people saw me. My family and I were on a first-name basis with our advocate, and she was always a phone call away to discuss updates about law enforcement’s next steps and the possibility of trial.

It was a long process, but by 2006 I was doing what so many survivors never had an opportunity to do: I was sitting in front of a jury, next to a judge, and across from my stepfather. The courtroom felt big, but my sights were centered on the attorneys and the 12 strangers studying me. After three days of testimony from that same team of eager people, my team of people, the trial ended and my family left feeling the impact of our team’s diligence and God’s work in it all. My stepfather would serve 100 years in prison, day for day.

Now, 21 years after my outcry, I write from my desk, in the child advocacy center I work in, with a team of people waiting for me to come listen to a child who has never heard of a child advocacy center. My beginning may have been rocky, and my middle brought its challenges, but my tomorrows will forever be better than my yesterdays, and the end has yet to come.

Riley is the Direct Service Coordinator for Kids Hub Child Advocacy Center in Hattiesburg.