HAMILTON – Child abusers need the darkness.
They use fear and intimidation and the innocence of youth to keep their victims from stepping into the light.
They depend on a culture where the topic is taboo and people would rather look away than admit it exists.
Tara Walker Lyons knows all about that. She has lived in the dark.
Now, at the age of 27, the Hamilton resident is stepping forward to tell her story in hopes of pulling away the veil that child abusers hide behind.
On July 16, she released a video of her story on social media, and people from all parts of the country have responded. She has created a Facebook page called “Defending Innocence” that she hopes will help start a movement to get people talking about childhood sexual abuse.
Beyond that, she has taken the courageous step of standing in front of men and women incarcerated in the Montana prison system to tell her story, in hopes of putting a face on child abuse.
Before she’s finished, Lyons wants to help Montana join a growing of number of states where important information about child abuse is taught in public schools as part of an effort to break a vicious and ugly cycle.
Lyons was only 6 years old when her abuser first sneaked into the room.
The first time it happened was on the night before the annual fishing derby in Augusta. Her mother was asleep just 8 feet away.
For six years, the abuse continued. She thinks it happened over 100 times.
The attacks finally stopped when she and another girl gathered the courage to run to the big white and red house on Augusta’s Main Street where the sheriff lived. They had just been molested together in her mother’s maroon Buick Skylark.
Her abuser chased the two girls down the street before finally giving up.
Lyons remembers thinking: “It was time for this finally to end.”
That was a feeling that would never go away.
“For a long time I thought the only way to overcome it was to ignore it,” she said.
She did well in high school and went on to college, but things never seemed right in her life. One night in Missoula, she was cited for driving under the influence. The judge ordered her into treatment.
That was the first time in her life that she told her story to professionals.
“Luckily, it was also the first time that I had ever been in trouble with the law,” she said. “I learned that there were people out there who were willing to help you.”
Fifteen years after she had found safety in her father’s arms at the group home, where she’d been sent after being removed from her mother’s home, Lyons sat down in front of a video camera. Her young daughter was asleep in the next room.
It was time to let the world know about the hurt that comes with childhood sexual abuse.
The video begins with white letters scrolling over the screen.
First there’s a warning that viewing the video may trigger certain thoughts or emotions for some viewers.
It continues with the announcement that the video’s purpose is to put a face on an “enormous” issue, one that affects one in 10 children – likely more.
"Childhood sexual abuse," the video reads. "The time for society to start talking about this issue is now."
Lyons’ face appears. She begins by reading statistics.
In the year 2000, the rate of sexual assault against children was 2.3 percent higher than adults. Female survivors are three times more likely to report substance abuse issues. All childhood sexual abuse survivors are twice as likely to attempt suicide.
She stops, takes a deep breath and looks at the camera.
Lyons said the video has a purpose. She has to do her part.
“I have to do the inevitable. I have to open up. I have to look at all of these facts and I have to see me. Anxiety, check. PTSD. Check that one off too. Depression. If you only knew. So bear with me. As you’ll understand, this isn’t exactly easy.”
For the next 11 minutes, Lyons tells her story of sexual abuse, beginning with the confusion of a 6-year-old girl assaulted by a man who “violated every right that I had as a human being.”
It’s the same story that she tells to inmates as part of the Montana Department of Corrections’ Victim Impact Panel.
Jamie Rogers is the Department of Corrections' victim program manager.
“We are thrilled and very fortunate to have Tara on our victim impact panel,” Rogers said. “She’s powerful. We love her message. She’s someone who has lived with so much trauma, and now she’s working to turn that into something positive. She’s determined to make a difference. I believe she will.”
Lyons has the ability to connect with inmates and make it real for them. At one point in her talk, she asks if there are others who’ve experienced childhood sexual abuse.
“She’s so gracious about it,” Rogers said. “She asks them all to close their eyes. I really love her response when someone raises their hand. She tells them: ‘I’m not alone in this room.’
“There may have been others who didn’t feel comfortable raising their hand, but it sends a message that you’re not alone. There is so much shame associated with childhood sexual abuse. It’s quite a battle to get the survivors to realize that the shame is not theirs.”
The problem is one that many people don’t even want to acknowledge.
“Tara has decided to use her voice to make a difference,” Rogers said. “Her message is incredible. She tells everyone that we need to talk about it so there’s not that shame associated with it. The more we talk about it, the less it’s going to occur.”
Lyons has a unique way of telling her story to offenders.
“She’s not bitter or angry,” Rogers said. “She acknowledges that they are human beings too. She doesn’t care that they are in prison or even what crimes they’ve committed. She tells them that they can make a difference, too.”
“She’s an amazing person,” Rogers said. “She has such courage. Things move fast when a survivor decides to heal. She was ready to get on with it. I think that is very honorable, because her story is not an easy one to tell.”
In October, Lyons will speak again to offenders at the state’s Passages pre-release program. She also plans to attend three days of training presented by the Montana Coalition Against Sexual and Domestic Abuse.
That training will allow her to become an advocate with the credentials needed to take her message into more public venues.
Sometime in the near future, Lyons hopes to start working with state legislators interested in pushing forward a nationally recognized program that requires sexual abuse prevention be taught in public schools and educates teachers about the warning signs of abuse.
Erin’s Law is named after author and activist Erin Merryn, who was molested by a family member from the ages of 11 to 13.
As of this month, 26 states have passed Erin’s Law. Montana is one of six states in the nation where the law has yet to be introduced in its legislature.
Had the law been in place when she was first molested, Lyons believes it could have saved her years of torment.
“We learned how to drop and roll if we ever caught on fire,” she said. “We learned five different ways to get out of the school building. We learned about stranger danger.”
“But there was never a time when I was told about my personal body space,” Lyons said. “I didn’t learn about safe secrets and unsafe secrets.”
“No one ever said that talking about it could save you,” she said.
Stepping forward in the light has made all the difference in the world for Lyons.
“I feel almost like I’m the 27-year-old version of myself walking into that children’s center to take that little girl into my arms,” she said. “I feel like I’m actually fighting for that girl who didn’t have anyone to fight for her before.”