Each one of these 175 butterflies, dragonflies and moths represent a child who has been interviewed at the Mikailia Child Advocacy Center — "Flutters of Hope."

Mikailia chose to fight and change the lives of local victims of abuse — ‘You are already strong. Be brave!’

A young local woman’s courage to step forward and confront the man who abused her for years has become a role model and inspiration for others who experienced the horror of being abused as a child.

April is National Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the Mikailia Child Advocacy Center, a community-based center that collaborates with other community agencies to support effective child abuse investigations and prosecutions, held an open house Thursday, April 25 at the new center located at 1410 Chestnut Ave. The center promotes hope, healing and justice for children who have experienced child abuse.

Originally located in the district attorney’s office, Lassen County District Attorney Susan Rios said that site was not an ideal location for such sensitive interviews because of all the hustle and bustle and activity inside the DA’s office.

The new location now provides a space that is more comforting and conducive to the needs of both the victims and the investigators.

When one first enters the center, it feels more like a living room than an office, with a couch, stuffed chairs, a coffee table, toys, games, Leggos and children’s books to help make children feel more comfortable.

A personal message from Mikailia hangs in a frame on the wall near the door.

“It’s such an honor to have the Mikailia Child Advocacy Center named after myself,” she wrote. “The center is a place for anyone who is a survivor of abuse to come and tell their story. There will be no judgement, just love and support. They can help you, like they helped me. Please, if you have suffered from any type of abuse, speak up. You are already strong. Be brave.”

When victims and their families arrive at the center, a victim advocate, sometimes from Lassen Family Services and sometimes from the DA’s office, will meet them and their families to explain the process and victim’s rights to them. The center’s staff includes five highly trained interviewers.

“Ideally the interviewer should not be somebody who is familiar with why we’re doing the interview,” Rios said. “We want to do what’s called a blind interview because it avoids the idea that the answers were suggested or the child was led to say something by the interviewer.”

A wall along the way to the interview room is decorated with butterflies, dragonflies and moths, each one representing a child who has been interviewed. The children pick their own decoration and place it on the wall themselves. So far, the center has conducted 175 interviews of suspected victims.

“It’s 175 too many,” Rios said, “but it’s clearly a service that’s needed in the county, so we’re happy to provide it.”

The interview room is soundproofed to ensure the privacy of the victim, and law enforcement personnel may listen and view the interview from another room in the center. Mikialia’s message — “You are already strong. Be brave!” is painted on the wall.

“We don’t always interview for criminal cases,” Rios said. “Sometimes we do interviews here for Child and Family Services. Sometimes when we interview, it’s for another agency.”

And sometimes interviews are conducted for children who are placed here from another county.

Rios said the interview room used to have toys, but they distracted the children too much, but they can sit on the floor and color if that makes them more comfortable.

Generally the interviews are conducted one-on-one.

“We like the smaller room because it’s more intimate and the interviewer can connect better with the child,” Rios said. “We follow a nationally accredited and accepted interview protocol. We don’t just bring kids in and jump right into what happened. We talk to them. We do rapport building. The older kids — 11 and 12 — they usually already know why they’re here. It’s usually a little bit easier to get information from them. The littler kids — we can’t ask leading questions — we have to ask open-ended questions and see what their response is. It requires training. Every person who does an interview has gone through a required training program and is certified to conduct those interviews.”

Mikailia tells her story
(Reprinted from a December 2018 edition Lassen County Times.)

An open house was held Friday, Dec. 7 for the newly established Mikailia Child Advocacy Center. The center was made possible by a grant from the California Office of Emergency Services, and it works with various agencies to support and assist children and developmentally disabled adults during investigations and prosecutions by endeavoring to reduce the amount of trauma to victims of child abuse and their families.

A tall, self-possessed young woman with a warm smile stood just inside the door. Her name is Mikailia.

Mikailia is a survivor of child sexual abuse inflicted upon her by her stepfather from the age of 5 until age 13. Mikailia lived two lives: one as a normal child, the other as an abused child.

For fear of breaking her mother’s heart and being judged by others, she kept the abuse a secret — a secret capable of eroding her confidence and damaging her sense of self throughout her formative years. Suddenly, at the age of 18, she got a call from Lassen County Sheriff’s Office.

“One day I received a call from a detective who requested I come down to the station for some questioning,” she said.

Assured by the detective that she was not in trouble, Mikailia recalls, “I had a gut feeling I knew what it was about.”

Her inkling proved accurate.

“When I arrived, the detective informed me that they had received a call from my ex-stepfather’s sister. His sister told the detective how her brother had committed all these crimes towards me over the years.”

When asked if this information was true, she recalled, “I had always planned to deny it with every ounce of my body, but something was different this time. Without even thinking, I yelled out ‘yes’ and immediately began to cry. So many emotions began to rush through my body, because now my secret was out.”

Though no longer a child, Mikailia was reminded of the hundreds of lies she had been told during those years: “Would people really view me differently? Would the guy I was dating not want to be with me?”

And the fears: How will my family react? My mom is going to be so hurt. What about my safety because he’s still out there.

“All of those thoughts played over and over in my head,” she said. “I was scared, but speaking out was the best choice I have ever made. I realize none of those lies were true.”

Though frightened, Mikailia chose to fight for justice.

“I wanted this man to own up to all the life-altering pain he caused my family and me,” she said.

Her decision to speak up was just the first step on her journey to justice. After carrying the secret for so long, Mikailia would now be required to tell her story repeatedly and in the intimidating atmosphere of a courtroom, in order to prove the charges and put the pedophile behind bars.

The lies Mikailia was told were weapons of fear to ensure her silence. So much shame is inflicted upon victims of sexual abuse that it can be crippling.

Anais Nin, author of “It Wasn’t Your Fault: Freeing Yourself of the Shame of Childhood Abuse with the Power of Self-Compassion” educates on the subject of shame.

“Former victims of child abuse are typically changed by the experience, not only because they were traumatized, but because they feel a loss of innocence and dignity and they carry forward a heavy burden of shame.

“Emotional, physical and sexual child abuse can so overwhelm a victim with shame that it actually comes to define the person, keeping him/her from their full potential. There may also be a great deal of shame due to the exposure of the abuse.”

This sense of shame is an aspect of the harm that has been committed to one’s body and soul, along with the inflicted abuse. It is a lie about oneself that is further damaging long after the abuse may have ceased. Overcoming the obstacles involved in facing this battle would require an immense act of bravery.

Mikailia chose to fight.

“For three years I fought,” she said. “At times I felt weak … but I continued to fight because I deserved a new beginning.”

Victim advocates provide additional resources and assist with paperwork to help cope with the stress of criminal justice proceedings.

“The man who I had once longed to be a father figure to me was now facing up to 100 years in prison,” she said.

The Probation Department conducted a detailed background check of the defendant to be used in determining sentencing. Faced with a century of hard time for his crimes against Mikailia, the perpetrator and his attorney offered a plea bargain.

The special prosecutor was also in the trenches with Mikailia. His hard work and persistence resulted in a sentence of 61 years.

Notes Mikailia, “Now he can never hurt another child ever again.”

She adds, “Throughout this journey I have learned that I did not, and will not let this define me. I loved and absolutely love my life. Yes, there were challenges, and yes, I’m still overcoming some of them, but, it is possible!

“I want my story to be heard so that other survivors can find their own voice. Please speak up and be released from the burden of trauma you have experienced. The center is a safe place for survivors of abuse to come and tell their stories.

“Please, if you have suffered any type of abuse … speak up. You are already strong, be brave.”

For more information, call (530) 251-8280.