Sunday, June 10, 2007

Turning a negative into a positive

I have spent the past four years researching and reporting about abuse in residential treatment centers. I have listened to hundreds of stories from people who have been negatively affected in some way by this multi-billion dollar a year industry. Some of their stories are gut-wrenching. The abuse that goes on behind closed doors is unimaginable.

I admire people who take a negative experience and turn it into a positive by moving forward and using their skills, talents, and smarts to make a difference. I'd like to share the experiences of four young men who I have great admiration for and whose stories may be of inspiration to others.

I commended them for their ability to take a negative and turn it into a positive. It does not mean they suffered any less than others - in fact, these individuals actually suffered some of the most hideous forms of abuse.

One teen suffered at the hands of many. He spent five years of his youth being trafficked through programs both inside and outside the US. At one point he was in a facility in Western Samoa. Some of the students believed if they drowned him the program would shut down. So they set out to do it, nearly achieving their goal. He could have allowed this to destroy his life. Though he had some rough years, and the damage done to him is irrepairable, he has turned things around and taken control of his life. He used his talents and participated in a film where he could share his experiences with the world. Today, he is going to college, working to achieve his goals.

Another teen spent a few years in two programs, one in Mexico and one in the US. Both were owned by the same umbrella of facilities. He was in the same program as the boy mentioned above. This boy has suffered some of the most unimaginable forms of abuse. He was tied down in dog cages and left to burn in the hot Mexican sun, among many other forms of serious abuse. It took him 16 hours to tell me his story over the course of a week. The abuse he endured left him with many lifelong scars. But rather than be completely defeated by his experiences he has finally decided to fight back and try to find justice in all of this. Many others have followed his lead - he should be commended for his strength and courage.

Many people express themselves through art, be it through music, drawing, or film. One teen spent some of his youth unjustly incarcerated, without due process, and was not only a victim of abuse but witnessed abuse. He learned how adults have manipulated parents and how children have been harmed as a result. He has decided to move forward with his life and to make a difference in the lives of others. Through his words, through his music, he tells the stories that so desperately need to be heard.

And last, but by far not least, another young man has chosen to use his artistic talents to share with the world the abuse he endured. He spent years behind closed doors, restrained and abused, watching others be abused as well. He watched as family after family was destroyed as a result of the manipulation of this program. Rather than allow this experience to destroy his life he took his talent - film directing - and recently directed a fabulous film depicting what went on behind closed doors. The importance of his film is not only to share with the world what went on then, but more importantly, to share with the world that this type of abuse continues today - in our country!

These four young men have endured so much. I recently learned that one umbrella of programs that has repeatedly abused children and teens is currently telling parents these boys', and others, stories are fabricated, they are far-fetched, and not believable. I have heard so many of these stories from so many different children. The similaries of their stories is chilling! Lawsuits have been filed by a large number of families, all alleging these stories are true.

I want these boys to know how proud I am of them and all they have accomplished. I have supported them, and will continue to support them and others, in making the most of their very negative experiences.

We must all move forward and never look back. Let us all continue to be a voice for those who no longer have a voice. Because, as I always say, "Together, we can and do make a difference!"

Isabelle Zehnder
Founder and President
Coalition Against Insitutionalized Child Abuse (CAICA)