This month is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and at the Florida Capitol, a large display with more than a thousand shoes worn by sex abuse survivors can be seen through the rest of this week. And, a group of survivors as well as advocates also trekked to Tallahassee to share their stories.
“I’m Onelia, and my abuse started when I was about two by my stepdad,” said Onelia Perkins.
Perkins survived years of sexual abuse by her stepdad—the only father she ever knew.
“And, at 13, I became pregnant with his child,” she added. “And, she’s right here. And, so, because of the laws that were passed here at the Capitol, his rights were terminated. So, we’re fine.”
It was only after Perkins reported the abuse to a teacher that her abuser was arrested. And, that’s after she’d already reported the abuse to a friend and her own mother who never told anyone.
Perkins—who’s now 18—along with even younger survivors came to the Florida Capitol to share their stories with state lawmakers as well as leadership.
“I was sexually abused by my dad’s best friend,” said 16-year-old Katrina. “He was somebody that my family and I trusted very deeply, and I told at my 12th birthday party.”
She says what really helped her to move forward as a survivor and advocate is the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center in Panama City. The organization helps victims of child abuse and sexual violence.
“And, I got help from Tasha from the Gulf Coast Children’s Advocacy Center, and they helped me get through what I was feeling and helped me get through how I thought it was my fault and let me know that it was okay to tell, and it was not my fault at all,” Katrina added. “It was his fault, and even though, he was found not guilty. It did happen, and I can make a change here at the Capitol.”
Around this time of year, Perkins and Katrina would be taking part in the annual “Walk in My Shoes” Journey. Participants walk statewide for more than 1,500 miles, raising awareness about sexual assault. It’s led by sex abuse survivor, advocate, and now Sen. Lauren Book (D-Plantation), who had to delay the walk to September. Not only is the freshman lawmaker still in session, she just gave birth to twins.
Still, that didn’t deter her organization “Lauren’s Kids” along with the Florida Council Against Sexual Violence from setting up a huge “Walk in my Shoes” display in the Capitol Rotunda—seen as you walk through one of the main entrances.
“And, we have over 1,000 shoes that have been decorated by young survivors all throughout the state of Florida, young and old,” said Book. “Our youngest shoe is of a young, young survivor, and our oldest shoe is a grandma, who wanted to share her story for the first time. And, so, we feel so proud to bring those stories and those voices here to the Capitol where we know that true change continues to take place.”
Dangling from the display are hundreds of paper shoes with messages, like “Stop Sexual violence.” And on the floor, are real shoes, attached with messages, like “My dad sexually abused me. I am six.”
Rep. Kristin Jacobs (D-Coconut Creek) says she encourages everyone to walk through the powerful display.
“Walk through not just those shoes that are hanging the spirit of the people whose names are on every one of the paper shoes, but look at the floor because what you see there are not just women’s shoes, you see there are not just women’s shoes, you see children’s shoes, you see men’s shoes,” she said. “Every pair of shoes there is a pair of shoes that the person was wearing when they were brought to the hospital or they were brought to the hospital or a sexual assault treatment center or to a police department. They really tell a story.”
The goal of many sex abuse advocates is to let those afraid to come forward know it’s okay to tell.
Last year, more than 10,000 victims reported their abuse to service providers in Florida. Most chose not to report the assault to law enforcement, due to shame, guilt, or embarrassment.
For more news updates, follow Sascha Cordner on Twitter: @SaschaCordner.