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Survivor overcomes childhood sexual, physical abuse
The Domestic Violence Awareness Vigil will be held Thursday at West Wetlands Park. It will start at 5:30 p.m.
Attendees are encouraged to bring their own chair. Refreshments will be provided.
Cassandra Russom was both sexually and physically abused as a child. From 9 to 13 years of age, her former stepfather sexually molested her.
She felt she couldn't tell anyone. Although he never threatened her, he had created an atmosphere of secrecy within the family.
“You didn’t say anything, you didn’t talk about family secrets,” Russom recalled.
And she didn't want to be responsible for breaking up her family or be separated from her younger siblings.
“The thought of losing the kids or my mom was unbearable,” she said.
Even if she had tried to tell, she didn't know how to say it.
“I knew the word rape, but he hadn't raped me. So what do you call it? I just knew it wasn't right.”
Her stepfather was also physically abusive -- beating her, locking her in for extended periods of time without food. The punishments often didn't fit the offense. And what he considered an offense kept changing from week to week.
As the oldest of four siblings, Russom took the brunt of it.
He didn't work much of the time and mostly played video games. It fell on her mother to work and make enough money to put food on the table and pay the bills.
So Russom took it upon herself to take care of her siblings. Sometimes the only things she could find to put in their school lunches were two pieces of bread.
Then one day, while hanging out on the porch with her mom, the then-17-year-old suddenly felt the need to tell her secret.
If you don’t say it right now, you will regret it the rest of your life, she thought.
As she told her mother, she felt “ashamed, dirty and gross, like I did something wrong.”
Her biggest fear was that her mom would not believe her. But her mother, who by then was divorcing her husband, went into “mama lion mode,” Russom said. She took her daughter to Amberly’s Place, a crisis center for victims of abuse, the next morning.
Police asked Russom to call and confront her former stepfather in a recorded conversation. He didn't deny it. Rather, he offered excuses, saying he was sick and had been having problems with her mother.
He was found guilty of two counts of child molestation and, in 2009, was sentenced to 17 years in prison per count.
Russom had mixed feelings. “As a Christian, I felt I needed to forgive, but I was really happy he had been held accountable."
She was also relieved that he wouldn't be able to harm more children.
As is often the case, Russom could have easily fallen into drug addiction or other destructive behavior.
“It had the real potential to ruin my life. But I didn't let it. I chose to rise above it,” she said.
At 25, she’s now happily married and uses her experience to help other victims.
“I’m in a really good place now. I’m married to a great husband. I have a job I love. I’m emotional healthy.”
She’s administrative assistant to Estrella Fitch, CEO and founder of The Healing Journey, a nonprofit organization that offers support to victims of abuse.
Russom went through the healing program for a year. She now leads a support group, using her experiences to help other girls. She can relate to them.
“We have a feeling of solidarity. ‘Hey, me too. I’m not crazy. I’m not making it up. What you feel is normal. I can survive too. It’s not going to kill me. She went through the same thing.’”
Fitch met Russom when she became her victim advocate, a position she held for almost 11 years in the Yuma County Attorney’s Office.
She helped Russom and her mother understand their rights. During the trial, she offered them emotional support.
“She was my rock. She kept me sane,” Russom said.
By the time the trial was over, they had become friends.
In 2011, Fitch left the attorney’s office to start The Healing Journey to help victims heal after the trial.
“Women are so broken in the beginning,” Fitch said.
A victims fund allows up to $5,000 for counseling, but Fitch worried that victims did not have enough support once those funds ran out. The Healing Journey offers peer-support groups as well as classes and materials to all victims of sexual and physical abuse – men and women, children, tweens, teens and adults – in English and Spanish.
Funded by grants, the organization teaches life skills and “how to live without abuse and go on.”
The groups and classes are held at a local church. Fitch works out of her home office and is currently looking for donated office space.
“We've outgrown our resources. The numbers are exploding,” Fitch said, referring to the number of victims needing help.
The goal is to help those victims transform into survivors. Russom wants them to know that they can “survive because you are strong.”
Russom will perform the song “Brave” at the Domestic Violence Awareness Vigil Thursday at West Wetlands Park. She chose the song because of the “empowering” words.
“This vigil is different. Usually people mourn loss. This is an empowering vigil. We want people to know, you can get out,” Fitch said.
With the theme “Strength, Survive, Thrive,” the vigil is sponsored by the Yuma County Attorney’s Office, Yuma County Victim Rights Week Committee and The Healing Journey. It will start at 5:30 p.m. Attendees are encouraged to bring their own chair. Refreshments will be provided.
For more information, call The Healing Journey at 928-920-3760.