Burnett fights back against innocence lost

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 224 views 

Phil Donahue was the first person to tell Laurie Burnett what was happening to her was wrong.

“When other kids were watching Gilligan’s Island or The Brady Bunch, I was watching Donahue — this was long before Oprah — and when I was about 10 years old, Donahue had a show about incest. I was shocked to learn that I was experiencing what they were calling incest and discovered it was not normal and, in fact, wrong,” Burnett told The City Wire in a recent interview.

Today, Burnett is a forensic interviewer at Hamilton House in Fort Smith’s Mercy Tower, where she interviews children about suspected sexual abuse. But in the early 1980’s, she was just a kid in the crosshairs of a predator.

And Burnett’s predator lived under the same roof. He was, in fact, the only father she knew at that point in her young life.

From the ages of two to 12, Burnett was the victim of what she describes as “a classic pedophile.”

“I had no idea what was happening to me was wrong. My stepfather had multiple victims including two of my cousins and other neighborhood children. He convinced me that what was happening was normal and happening to other kids, but it was something special and private and not to be talked about,” Burnett explained.

Burnett struggled to come to terms with the betrayal she was starting to feel as she learned more about what was happening to her.

“I began questioning in my mind what was happening and tried to figure out a way to tell. I can’t explain why I didn’t tell. I wanted to desperately, but I just couldn’t do it. I didn’t think anyone would believe me, I didn’t know how to explain what was happening, and I was frightened of what would happen next,” Burnett said.

The last time Burnett’s stepfather touched her was the night police intervened. Following the incident, he took her to the mall and bought her a gift for “being a good girl.”

Burnett’s mother was at her weekly bowling league, and so Burnett was confused when her mother came through the door with two police officers, who had their guns drawn and pointed directly at her stepfather.

“They told him to get away from me. My mom came to me and gathered me in her arms. He just kept asking what was going on, and my mom kept saying, ‘You know what you did!’ I had no idea what was going on. I thought my stepdad had done something like rob a bank or something else bad enough for the police to have their guns drawn. I didn’t suspect it had anything to do with me.”

Burnett would soon discover that her cousin had been watching a film called Fallen Angel that same night. The movie chronicles the travails of a young girl experiencing sexual abuse, and it inspired her cousin to tell. A few phone calls later, and her stepfather was being led away in handcuffs.

“The police told me that my cousin had told her mom something and they wanted to talk to me to see if I knew anything about what she had said. It dawned on me then what was going on. I immediately said, ‘It’s all true; everything she said is true,’” Burnett said.

But if Burnett thought the nightmare was over, she was wrong.

Rather than being taken to a supportive environment like Hamilton House, Burnett was forced into an interrogation regarding her sexual abuse experience, while her mother sat next to her.

Burnett continued: “They began asking me all sorts of questions to verify her (cousin’s) story. I cannot express how terribly I felt at that moment. My mother was sitting right next to me. I loved her dearly. She was a loving and caring person. My stepfather had drilled into me how important it was to keep ‘our relationship’ secret from her. He said it was because she would be jealous, and I didn’t want to hurt her. So I worked very hard to keep the secret from her and now I was being forced to talk about it in front of her. It was horrible. I said as little as I could.”

As a terrified 12-year old, Burnett felt she couldn’t take the stand against the only father she’d ever known, and so he was able to plea bargain his way out of prison time, receiving only one year of probation as a result. Burnett admits that she “has googled” him and discovered that he is now in his seventies and selling hearing aids “somewhere up north.”

When asked what she would say to her former stepfather if she could confront him today, Burnett said she keeps coming back to the question of “why.”

“He literally stole something from an innocent young child. Something she could never get back. And not just from one of us, but from many. Innocence is not something you can steal and give restitution for. There is just no restitution for that, and I would like to know if that’s something he understands. It might have felt good for him in the moment, but he’s taking something from a child she can never, ever, ever get back. I don’t see how his own self-satisfaction can be that important. I would want to know if he really understands what he’s done, I guess,” Burnett said.

Burnett admits, however, that it’s more important for her to forgive. “I just have to tell myself I’ve forgiven him and let go of all the vindicating things. If his day is coming, I have no desire to see it. I had to let that go. It’s just not my place. I really do hope he’s found salvation.”

When asked how her experience affects the way she approaches a child during an interview, Burnett answers that she makes a point of leaving her own experiences out of the equation.

“I never talk with them about my own experience and when I am in the interview room, the rest of the world disappears. It is just me and the child and we have all the time in the world. Because what they have to say is important,” Burnett said.

Burnett continued: “When I interview a child, I want nothing more than to hear them say everything is okay, and nothing has happened to them. But when they have something to tell, I want them to see in my eyes that I am listening, I care, and I will treat them with dignity and respect.”

Dignity and respect were two things Burnett could have used when faced with telling her own story. Her experience of being ushered into a room and forced to answer uncomfortable questions in front of an audience of adults is not uncommon among child sexual abuse victims, and it is something she strives to change in her position at the Hamilton House.

“If it (Hamilton House) had been around when I was a child, the police would have taken me and my mom there, and we would have been greeted by a friendly child and family advocate. I would have been made comfortable while the adults sorted a few things out. Then, a nice forensic interviewer would have taken me into a quiet, secluded room where I would have been given the opportunity to tell everything that happened to me without worrying about my mother hearing it all,” Burnett said.

Burnett continued: “I could have told about the other victims so they could get help as well. I could have told that it had just happened that very night. I would have been given a medical exam, and with modern technology, they would have captured DNA. And while I was with the interviewer, my mother would have been speaking to an advocate, who would tell her there is support for us through this difficult time. We would have been offered therapy so the healing could begin.”