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Sex offenders are more likely to be family members, not strangers

Published February 18, 2011 9:38 am

Crime • Brown daughters' revelation reflects experience of other Utah victims.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2011, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

For the second time in months, a high-profile Utah family is in the news with daughters' accounts of sexual abuse.

But the story of the Brown daughters — Desirae, 32, Deondra, 30, and Melody, 26 — may be even more startling to some than Elizabeth Smart's harrowing testimony of near-daily rapes by her abductor, Brian David Mitchell.

This week, the Brown women confronted their abuser — not a stranger who laid in wait outside their family home, but the man inside who was supposed to keep them from harm — their father. Keith Brown pleaded guilty to sexually abusing his three daughters as children.

"It illustrates the reality of what sexual violence in Utah does look like," says Alana Kindness, executive director of the Utah Coalition Against Sexual Assault. "People are surprised because they have an idea in their heads of what a sex offender looks like."

But very few victims of sexual assault are attacked by a stranger — 13 percent, according to a 2007 survey of 1,800 women by the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice.

It's much more common for the offender to be a family member. The survey found that was the case in 40 percent of child-molestation incidents.

"We can't make a difference in holding offenders accountable if we're unable to recognize and unable to accept that family members are committing these acts on the vulnerable children that they have access to," Kindness says. "The fact that [Desirae, Deondra and Melody Brown] recognized the potential threat to other children and chose to come forward to make sure there was some accountability there was very courageous."

In the state survey, nearly a third of Utah women said they experienced some type of sexual assault in their lifetime and for most — 79 percent — the first incident occurred before they turned 18. Only one in nine incidents was reported to police.

"It's extremely hard to come forward and talk about it, especially when it's a family member," says Heather Melton, a University of Utah sociology professor. "When anyone comes forward, it's empowering for [victims] to see there are other people out there."

The Brown sisters are part of a successful piano quintet with their two brothers, The 5 Browns, that has released three top-selling classical albums. All five of the siblings attended the prestigious Julliard School in New York.

"They survived and they've thrived," Melton said. "It's very commendable that they [came forward], even so much later."

Children who suffer sexual abuse may experience depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress that requires counseling, says Julie Bradshaw, director of the Center for Safe and Healthy Families at Primary Children's Medical Center. She said the center often sees cases of incest, which can be especially difficult because children also have to deal with distorted parental relationships and the knowledge the offending parent did not protect them.

"There are some excellent treatments out there that work. That's the good news," Bradshaw says.

To prevent child sexual abuse, Bradshaw advises parents to have age-appropriate conversations with kids about what kind of touching is OK and what isn't. She also says children need to know they can tell their parents about scary things. And parents can help children identify other adults they can trust.

rwinters@sltrib.com

Help lines for domestic and sexual violence

Utah Domestic Violence Link Line » 1-800-897-LINK (5465)

Rape and sexual assault crisis line » 1-888-421-1100