When Tara Walker Lyons was 12 years old, she ran through a dark alley of Augusta one night to knock on the door of a Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s Office deputy.
She had fled her home after suffering six years of sexual abuse by a relative, she said during testimony at a January hearing at the state Capitol.
Now 27 years old, Lyons is speaking out to protect other children from sexual abuse.
Lyons wants Montana to follow in the footsteps of 26 other states that have passed a law supporting Erin’s Law, the Child Sexual Abuse Prevention and Awareness Act. It provides federal funding to each state for sexual abuse prevention and education in the schools.
However, Lyons’ efforts face some steep challenges in Montana because local school boards decide curriculum in Montana’s 413 school districts.
Lyons has been crisscrossing the state and traveling from her home in Hamilton to Helena to testify about the need to get sexual assault prevention education into schools.
Unfortunately, Lyons’ story is far too common in Montana and the United States.
In 2008-2009, the Montana Child and Family Services Division received 1,406 reports of child sexual abuse, according to the Montana Attorney General’s office website. In 2009, 347 rapes were reported and over half of the rape victims (188) were children between the ages of 3 and 17, it reports.
Nationally, one in four girls will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18 and one in every six boys will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18.
The U.S. Department of Justice reports that 71 percent of these children were assaulted by someone they were acquainted with or knew by sight and 10 percent were assaulted by a family member.
“I just started coming out with my story this past year,” Lyons said after testifying before the Education and Local Government Interim Committee.
So far, she is finding no one else in Montana “advocating for sex abuse prevention” education in the schools, she said.
When the abuse started, Lyons went from being a good student to doing poorly, she said. She suffered from anxiety and was constantly biting her nails.
As an adult, she turned to alcohol for solace, she said. Two years ago she was charged with a DUI and went for inpatient treatment at the Montana Chemical Dependency Center.
“That was the first time I got professional treatment,” she said. “I had felt so much shame” about what had happened.
Like other victims, she blamed herself, she said.
After therapy and treatment, she began speaking out publicly as part of the Department of Corrections’ Victim Impact Panel, telling her story at various prison boot camps and prerelease centers.
Since speaking up, she’s been approached by survivors of all ages, she said. “The most excruciating thing for me to ever hear is that they have never told anyone before.”
It’s estimated that only 30 percent of sexual assault victims disclose the abuse, she said.
Lyons was never taught about “unsafe touch,” she testified. “Had I known what a mandated reporter was, I would have known that I could go to a teacher or counselor about what was happening to me in the middle of the night. Instead, it took six years for me to go to police directly. I had told my mother repeatedly, I told my friends, my friends even told their parents. But the abuse continued.”
Under Erin’s Law there is now federal money available “to bring Montana up to speed regarding sexual abuse prevention education,” she told the interim committee.
Lyons also testified before the Health and Physical Education Negotiated Rulemaking Committee in late January, which is reviewing revised health and physical education content standards for K-12 students. She told the committee that “body safety information is missing” from the standards.
“It’s almost as if we are unintentionally keeping our kids in the dark, and we are too afraid to do something about it,” she said.
Doing something about it faces a lot of challenges.
Montana’s constitution requires that curriculum be done at the local level, said state Sen. Mary Sheehy Moe, D-Great Falls.
“We have such a strong local control environment in our state,” she said, “where we really believe in local school boards in terms of establishing the specific curricula. The state creates broad standards, but it’s up to the local school district to come up with a curriculum.”
“That’s Tara’s challenge,” said Moe. “Can Tara go to every single local school board and tell her story?”
As a legislator, Moe has heard heart-wrenching stories of parents who have lost their children to suicide, as well as hearing from victims of sexual assault and sexual abuse. Parents and victims are asking “public schools to do things about issues that were never considered public school issues.”
“The Legislature is not empowered -- nor do I think they should -- to make those kind of mandates to the public schools,” said Moe, who is an educator. “The place for the kind of curriculum that she (Tara) is recommending … is at the local level.”
“I’m a supporter of parents’ rights,” added Moe. Parents want to be in charge of sex education. “We want our kindergarten kids to remain innocent ... but in the absence of any kind of intervention or education on that (topic) by the schools, we are accepting the fact that one out of four girls and one out of six boys (will be victims) -- and that there is nothing we can do about that.
“The parent can deliver that same instruction, but it would not be Tara’s parent (mother), would it?” said Moe.
Moe’s advised Lyons to speak at the statewide teachers conference and the school board association annual meeting. Lyons is also trying to speak at the Montana superintendents conference.
“Tara’s story is so compelling,” she said. “And the facts that go beyond Tara’s story are even more compelling.”
School districts need to decide if they’re giving their students the tools they need to keep them safe, she said.
Moe also recommends that teacher preparation and continuing education standards could make teachers more aware to watch for signs or side effects of sexual abuse that are displayed by children in their classrooms.
“There are certain things … that are telling about elementary children who are suffering abuse.”
“As an overall comment, I admire her courage so much,” Moe said of Lyons. “Her story is one that should be listened to.
“There is a place for those discussions to occur. In the past, we’ve been concerned we want our children to keep their innocence ... but in doing that we also render them vulnerable.
“We’re hearing stories from victims of sexual assault -- not just Tara -- that require a response from society.”