Out of the Shadows
Ingrid Nelson shares the story of Annie and Tracey and how they are helping other children and families deal with child sexual abuse.
You won’t read many stories like the one we are about to share. For most people, and for the mainstream media, it is too much. For people who have been affected, it can trigger horrible experiences. For those fortunate enough to not have been affected, they don’t want to imagine that a world exists where terrible crimes go unchallenged, where terrible people do terrible things to innocent children. For the mainstream media who have a role and responsibility to shine a light into the darkest corners of the community, it’s too confronting; it doesn’t sell advertising and it doesn’t make people feel good. Well, we’re not afraid of sharing the stories that need to be told and neither are two brave woman who refuse to be silenced and who refuse to put on a fake smile and pretend everything is ok.
We are talking about sexual assault against children and we are sharing the uplifting and inspiring story of an innocent girl and her mother who not only believed her daughter but who continues to stand by her and countless others who have fallen victim to people they should have been able to trust the most.
If the #metoo movement has taught us one thing, it’s the power of speaking up and speaking out to say ‘it’s not ok’. In doing so, the victims of these terrible crimes take away the power that perpetrators have stolen from them through heinous acts.
Publisher and Editor-in-Chief
It’s one thing to read about the alarming statistics on child sexual abuse, but it’s another to meet the real faces behind the figures, those whose innocence has been ripped away from them, and those supporting them, who are left to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives.
It’s the reason child sexual abuse survivor Annie Jones and her mother Tracey Morris made the very brave decision to speak out against these predators, to raise awareness about this heinous crime and encourage other young survivors to come forward out of the shadows and get the help and support they desperately need through their charity No More Fake Smiles.
Annie, now 20, was sexually abused by her stepfather from the age of 13 to 15. A former RAAF squadron leader and highly regarded in the community, he was someone she trusted and looked up to,who manipulated her into thinking his behaviour was normal.
“I didn’t actually know I was being abused, because he was someone I trusted. He was basically my dad and he never said anything to me. It was this new experience and because I was still growing up, how the hell do I navigate through that,” says Annie, her piercing blue eyes filled with emotion as she recalls the memory.
“The emotional hold they have over you and the isolation they put between you and other people is actually what does more damage. To me, that was worse than what he did to my body. I felt so alone.”
In fact, it wasn’t until some two years later at the end of grade nine, when Annie finally decided there would be no more fake smiles and somehow found the courage to confront her step father about the sexual abuse in front of her mum.
“I snuck out to a festival and came home with a hickie on my neck, which was very out of character for me but I just didn’t care anymore. I had given up. The abuse had got so extreme. I was just on autopilot,” says Annie.
“He grounded me and called me ‘a slut’, that is when it just came out of my mouth. I didn’t want to say it because I knew it would hurt my mum, but I looked straight at him and said, ‘It’s nothing more than you have done to me dad’.”
At that moment Tracey’s world as she knew it changed forever and in an instant she became a single mum trying to navigate a rollercoaster ride of emotions and come to terms with what had happened to her precious daughter while fighting for justice against the man she once believed was the rock of their family.
“I know the question on everyone’s lips, even though they may not say it, is ‘how could you not know this was happening?’, but it’s all hindsight,” says Tracey.
“It took me years of psychology to learn not to beat myself up about hindsight. My children are what have got me through this. When Annie was in her darkest moments, I would drop the kids to school and sit on the lounge and cry all day until I had to pick them up again.”
The next few years were not easy for Annie or her family. Dealing with the devastating effects of the sexual abuse as well as navigating a court case against her stepfather naturally took its toll and she found herself suicidal and was admitted to the hospital’s mental health unit.
“I had hit rock bottom, I just didn’t want to be here anymore,” says Annie.
But there is a silver lining to this story and it was at this lowest point in her life that this incredibly brave young woman decided not to let this terrible experience define her. In fact, she was determined to not only heal herself but to help others who had suffered child sexual abuse.
“I knew I wasn’t healed yet myself but it was like a calling. I just had to do it. I got an overwhelming feeling in my chest. I started talking to myself and saying ‘you are strong, you are brave, you are beautiful’ and just started writing it all down,” says Annie.
“I just knew this issue was so much bigger than me and I knew I had the strength in me to talk to others about it.”
She didn’t know it at the time but this pivotal moment would lead to the beginning of a charity she and her mum would start and aptly name No More Fake Smiles (NMFS).
“NMFS is something I wish I had when I was being abused,” says Annie. “It is somewhere safe to go, someone to talk to, someone to relate to.”
“We recognise from first-hand experience that it is not only the abused child that is the victim in these circumstances, we understand the trauma caused has a far wider reach and we are here to support the whole family,” says Tracey.
Launching the charity last year, both Annie and Tracey have been overwhelmed by the number of people who have reached out for help.
“When Annie did her first Facebook post for NMFS, 380 people came forward with their story of abuse and the majority had not been believed or didn’t have any support. That has been a huge eye opener,” says Tracey.
“It’s a learning process, but through helping other people I heal too,” says Annie. “I love having the community involved and I love seeing so many women empower each other.”
Annie’s stepfather originally pled not guilty to the abuse. However, after three years navigating the court process he pled guilty before trial and was sentenced to 17 years imprisonment with a non-parole period of 11.5 years for 20 counts of sexual abuse against his stepdaughter. A result which has helped Annie, Tracey and their family find some closure.
“I remember walking out of the court room and I slid down the wall, thinking ‘oh my God, we have done it’, it was pure relief,” says Tracey.
“My evidence was so clear and I felt empowered by how strong I was,” adds Annie. “I was able tell them every single detail and that’s why it didn’t go to trial, our case was so strong.”
Despite grade 12 being one of the toughest years of her life, Annie managed to graduate and earn herself a place at university studying psychology and criminology with the aim of helping others.
“I would like to have a retreat for victims of child sexual abuse. I want to empower others. I don’t want to sit in the past, I want to create that space where people can come and start to love themselves again,” she said.
Celebrating their first birthday at a gala dinner last month, NMFS raised $30,000 to help young survivors of sexual abuse, and according to Tracey and Annie, it’s only just the beginning.
That money will go towards the organisation’s mental health program, which aims to provide care for child sex abuse victims through specialist psychologists as well as alternative services such as art therapy, yoga and boxing.
They also want the charity to provide support for families seeking justice against abusers in the courts, a process they know first-hand can be incredibly gruelling.
“No more sweeping it under the carpet. There is life afterwards, and they will smile again,” says Tracey.