March 14, 2020
“On the day my grandmother caught him fondling me, I was wearing my favorite pink cotton dress. Now pink is a trigger for me.”
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Roz Overstreet-Gonzalez lived a typical life in San Bernardino, Calif., with her parents and two siblings. She played sports, learned the piano, and was a Girl Scout. After school while her parents worked, she would go stay with her grandmother.
Every time she was there, a teenage male relative was too.
Then one day when she was about six years old, he went from family member to child molester. And this continued, often with a friend of his joining in, for about two years.
“There were bunk beds in the room, and sometimes I was on the bottom bunk and could see the bedframe of the upper bunk. It was black with a little tiny checkerboard pattern,” she said. “ I can still vividly see that.”
Overstreet-Gonzalez, now a staff attorney in the parole division of the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia, is one of the estimated 20% of girls who are victims of child sex abuse, according to the National Center for Victims of Crime, which also reports children are most vulnerable to sex abuse between the ages of 7 and 13. Just two months into the pandemic last year, RAINN reported the number of calls to the hotline made by children and teens rose by 22% and 79% of those callers said they were living with their abuser. Nearly 70% identified their abuser as a family member.
Children such as Overstreet-Gonzalez who are victims of prolonged sexual abuse usually develop “low self-esteem, a feeling of worthlessness and an abnormal or distorted view of sex,” according to the National Center for Victims of Crime. Children may become withdrawn and distrustful of adults.
And far too many child sex assault victims wait far too long before they tell anyone.
“The average age for women to share is 52 and I don’t know what it is for men,” said Lori Poland, executive director of the National Foundation for Child Abuse and Neglect. “No matter what it is, it’s the wrong number.”
Hiding in the bathroom
When her male relative was around, little Roz would hide in the bathroom, staring at the walls and ceiling. Now she remembers every inch of that bathroom even though she’d like to forget what happened to her in those early childhood days.
He would bribe her with candy to ensure she never told a soul. Eventually, he got caught by her grandmother fumbling with her clothes while trying to take them off. The grandmother put a stop to it and immediately called the police and Roz's parents.
Overstreet-Gonzalez remembers talking to a detective and a prosecutor.
“I remember going to a prosecutor’s office to explain to him what had been happening. The prosecutor was a white man and I recall sitting in his office with my mother. There was nothing warm about his office or about him; it was a cold and sterile place.”
She can't recall if anything was done after that. Back then in the late 1960s, therapy wasn't common or trusted -- especially by the black community, so it wasn't an option to help her heal. She is unsure if any official actions were taken against her relative, but at least he was forbidden to ever come back to her grandmother's house.
After the case was closed, her parents didn't know how to help her. They did, however, do their best to make sure she would get over her trauma and tried to give her the best life they could, Overstreet-Gonzalez said.
This kind of supportive response makes a big difference for victims, said clinical psychologist Jim Hopper, a child abuse and sexual assault expert who is a teaching associate at Harvard Medical School.
“It’s so devastating when the response to the disclosure is not believed,” said Hopper. “That can be more traumatic than the abuse itself for sexual assault survivors.”
Poland, who was kidnapped, sexually assaulted and left to die in an outhouse when she was three, is now a therapist herself. Even though she was abducted by a stranger, she continues to face denial about what happened to her within her own family.
“They feel responsible,” said Poland. “ Families will rewrite the story and victim-shame the victim. The most important thing (for parents) to remember is that experience is that child’s experience.”
Exercise and special forms of yoga for trauma survivors can be healing for child sex abuse victims, says Hopper, but therapy is important to consider.
“I totally understand the fear of talking to a therapist and the fear of talking about things they don’t want to,” said Hopper. “But It’s important to know there are therapists who are really good at talking to people about this - trauma-informed therapists.”
Going it alone with family support seemed to work for a while as Overstreet-Gonzalez got summer jobs, and joined different school clubs.
Then suddenly she started to become overweight.
“I experimented with bulimia and just stopped eating so that I could lose weight,” she said. “ I did everything I could so that I could look and feel normal so that no one would know that I was damaged.”
She felt out of place everywhere she went.
“All of these things made me feel like a fish out of the water -- like I didn't belong anywhere,” she said. “But at the same time, the inner me wanted to do everything and prove to everyone that I could despite having gone through this.”
So she joined every sports team and club that she could. She never had to face her trauma, but instead, she did everything she could to ignore it.
Her past trauma started to catch up to her when she moved to DC to go to Howard University. She wasn't able to live the college life she expected. She didn't want to engage with any other students - she didn't know how - and never understood what caused her to act like this.
To avoid talking to anyone, she would stay in the bathroom all day talking to herself and staring at the ceiling -- just like she did when she was little.
“While everyone was out doing college things, I would hide in the bathroom.”
The road trip that wasn’t
Valerie Davis, a Baltimore dentist who lived with Overstreet-Gonzalez during much of college, has a different memory of her former roommate from those days.
“She appeared to be more mature than the rest of us,” said Davis. When she became manager of the women’s basketball team, “the coaches and all them gave her more responsibility and trusted her with the money, the keys and everything.”
Davis chalked up Overstreet-Gonzalez’ quiet demeanor - “she was introverted even though she was in the crowd” - to the fact she came from the more laid back West Coast.
That was until Overstreet-Gonzalez’ mother asked if Davis would fly out to California to drive back to DC with her roommate after the first summer. She quickly agreed but once she was there, “at last minute, I find out she’s not coming back.”
“I thought at the time that part of it was that the East Coast can be harsh and we were kind of fast,” said Davis. “She kept telling me she just couldn’t take it and I knew there was something else that was more than I could see or thought it was. The audio didn’t match the video.”
Striking out for Spain
Then suddenly, everything changed. Overstreet-Gonzalez decided to take control of her life.
She wanted to become a Spanish teacher, and she knew how she wanted to start her new path: “The only way for me to get fluent in Spanish was to go to a Spanish-speaking country, so I went to Spain.”
In Spain, she was able to be herself and not worry about her past being known. Being black in Spain was uncommon; she got praised by many of the people from the villages. They called her “La Morena” - the brown-skinned woman - and considered her to be good luck through the community.
“When I walked through the town in the morning hours, the shop keepers tried to usher me into their stores,” she laughs. “There was a local legend that if a black person was the first person of the day to enter their stores they would have a lot of sales that day.”
The love she was receiving made her more confident in herself and what she was doing. Before leaving Spain she had lost 30 pounds and had become fluent enough in Spanish to hold a conversation with the local people.
She decided to finish college and become a lawyer to be a voice for people who didn't have one and weren't represented correctly.
Overstreet-Gonzalez realized who she really was.
“I was as good as anyone else and what I was feeling was normal,” she said. “I could finally move on from it.”
‘Coping is not healing’
Overstreet-Gonzalez proved the statistics wrong.
As a rape victim, she is 13 times more likely to abuse alcohol and 26 times more likely to abuse drugs, but instead of clinging to drugs and alcohol, she decided to do something with her life. She became a lawyer and has practiced for more than 25 years.
Along with being chair of the Urban Health Media Project, Overstreet-Gonzalez is chair of the DC State Athletics Commission and a mayoral appointee of the Mayor’s Council on Physical Fitness, Health and Nutrition. She distributes food every Thursday to Latino families in need through the nonprofit Following Francis and often mentors young DC residents of color.
She strives to become a better, more empathetic person and lawyer every day and is speaking out about her child sex abuse to help people realize “what happened to them isn’t who they are.”
“Why am I talking about this now? Why not? For decades I've been talking about it in my mind and only to myself,” she said. “I was just coping. I realized that coping is not healing -- it's just stacking the trauma on the shelf until it collapses under the weight.”
Most of all, she wants to help break the cycle of child sex abuse so it stops children from being victimized and reaching their full potential.
“Hurt people hurt people but healed people can help heal other people,” she said.
If you or someone you know has been a victim of sexual assault, the National Sex Assault Telephone Hotline can be reached at 800-656-HOPE (4673).
Editor’s note: Dionna Duncan is a junior at Archbishop Carroll High School in Washington, D.C. and was a participant in a “Surviving and Thriving Despite Trauma” workshop by the Urban Health Media Project (UHMP). Jayne O’Donnell is UHMP’s founder and former health policy reporter for USA TODAY.