A Cycle of Abuse Pt. 10: Justice for sexual assault victims

Published: Jan. 16, 2021 at 10:26 AM CST
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This story was originally published April 18, 2019, but is being republished after it did not properly transfer onto WSAW’s new web platform.

WAUSAU, Wis. (WSAW) - “Knowing that 12 strangers believed in us, and we heard guilty.”

For child sex assault survivor Heidi Wolfe, that was the beginning of justice. She got to see her step-grandfather sent to prison--and she and six of his other victims got to tell their story in court.

“Even though their case wasn’t particularly represented, they were able to come forth and watch that happen and know that they were safe,” Marathon County District Attorney Theresa Wetzsteon said. “Other people were safe.”

And for some victims, having their day in court is what they need, Wetzsteon explains. But some victims don’t need--or want--to see their perpetrator go to trial, professionals say.

“Sometimes justice is doing a plea bargain so that the perpetrator still has to serve a sentence, but the victim doesn’t have to go on the stand,” trauma counselor Lee Shipway said. “It doesn’t have to be made public in her life, doesn’t have to be upturned.”

In north central Wisconsin, out of 389 cases in the last four years, the majority of those didn’t end before a jury, as 7 Investigates explains in Part 4 of this series.

Other times, the process of reporting itself is what survivors need to start that healing process, Wetzsteon says. But other times--reporting isn’t even done with the permission of the victim, especially in cases with young children.

“A victim can have a moment when they feel very strong and very courageous and they’re able to report. Or sometimes, the case becomes reported--not by the victim’s choice, but by some adult in a child sexual assault case who becomes concerned. And it’s not within the child’s control when the case is reported.”

But for Wolfe, justice and healing is a process that took time.

“That ‘a-ha’ kind of didn’t change the effect that I thought it would in the end. I still had to deal with what had happened. The ‘guilty’ didn’t wipe that away.”

Ultimately, professionals agree that justice is about getting the help that a victim needs to become a survivor--and regaining control of their own lives.

“The endgame for these kids is that they get what they need so that they can live a healthy lifestyle going forward,” Marathon County Child Protective Services supervisor Christa Jensen explains. “And they can teach their kids and those that they interact with about what healthy relationships and healthy interactions look like.”

“There are things that are beyond your control,” Wetzsteon said. “You cannot control what a jury does. You cannot control what the laws are. And sometimes those might not work out, but you have done everything in your power, and in your control to do the right thing. And that’s where a lot of people do find peace.”

Heidi Wolfe’s story continues on Friday, as 7 Investigates will share the story of her survival and healing--and how she broke the cycle of abuse.

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