Saturday, May 11, 1991
Forces of secrecy strong in incest
Forces of secrecy strong in incest
By Ed Will
Denver Post - May 11, 1991
While incest takes place behind a curtain of secrecy woven by the offending parent, fears held by the child and the other parent can keep the curtain drawn for years.
One family's curtain was ripped down this week when former Miss America Marilyn Van Derbur Atler told how her father sexually abused her for 13 years, beginning when she was 5 years old.
Atler said yesterday that she isn't sure whether she would have been able to reveal the crippling secret if her father, millionaire Denver socialite Francis Van Derbur, were still alive.
That shows the strength of the fears and of the abuser, even 35 years after the attacks have ended and seven years after his death. And the fears hold the answers to such questions as why didn't she seek help as a child, why didn't her mom know or, if she did, why didn't she stop it.
Even if one parent peeks behind the curtain, fear can keep him or her from doing anything about it, experts say. Sometimes, it's the fear of dealing with sexual abuse in their own childhoods. For others, it is financial dependence on the spouse. Some spouses have intense desires to keep their families together - at any cost.
A total of 1,877 sexual abuse cases was reported during 1990 in Denver. At least 60 percent of the cases involved incest and only a very few were reported from within the family, said Detective Sgt. Robert Padilla of the police department's family crisis unit.
"Denial plays a large part. They don't believe the father has done it. It's hard for them to believe that he could have done it to his own kid. And if they do believe the kid, they don't want it known. Incest, you know, is a terrible thing to be labeled with."
Atler placed that label on her father, she said, as a way of showing other victims of childhood incest that the curtain can be pulled back, that healing can take place and that the abuse wasn't their fault.
Atler has not said whether others in the family knew. Her mother, Gwendolyn "Boots" Van Derbur, has supported Atler's public disclosure but has not taken part in the discussion. And Marilyn has declined to answer questions about her mother and sisters.
Much of the secrecy results from threats by the abuser against the child: "If you tell your mom, she won't believe you and she'll stop loving you. ... If you tell, they will come and take you away. ... If you tell, they will put me in jail."
Those threats, coupled with the child's unconditional love, can keep victims from ever telling.
"It's a very serious thing to tell and it destroys the family, and everybody wants to preserve their family because they don't trust that it can be better," said Kiely Forrestal of the Denver Department of Social Services. "You hold on to what you've got. There is no question that it puts the whole family into tremendous trauma."
Many of the threats may come true. The child may be removed from the home; the father may go to jail. The mother may become angry with the child.
The mother plays a major role in how the legal system reacts after an allegation is made, Forrestal said. If the mother is the accuser, she is allowed to keep the child in the home if she can assure social workers she can and will protect the child.
If the allegations come from outside the family, the child normally is held overnight in a shelter, because at home, the victim faces enormous pressure to change the story. The child may go home with the mother the next day, be placed with another relative or put in a foster home.
Critics say taking the children from their homes victimizes them again. Forrestal agreed but noted, "If you sent them home, they will continue to be molested. Then, they have no hope because they tried to trust someone and were betrayed. And they never, never will tell again."
Ten years ago, the common belief was most mothers knew of the incest but ignored it to protect there own security, said Dr. Richard Krugman, director of Kempe National Center for Prevention and Treatment of ChildAbuse and Neglect.
That no longer is the assumption. The abuse may take place while the non-involved parent is asleep or out of the home. Sexual abusers usually have a pattern of behavior that begins long before the actual sexual act. The pattern can include drugs or alcohol to occupy the other parent.
"Oftentimes in these families," said Dan Sexton of Child Help USA in Los Angeles, "the non-abusing parents also have been victims as children and are unable or unwilling to look at their own issues, so they choose to block out what's going on. They are not consciously ignoring it."
Forrestal told of a case of six sisters being abused by their father, but none of them shared the experience until the youngest one reported him for molesting her daughter.
The family's curtain remained drawn until the abuse of the youngest sister's child caused her to remember her own abuse.