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Utah teen shares her story of sex abuse to empower others

Jaime Heiner, who was abused by her former teacher, started an organization called I Am to help victims of abuse.

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Breaking point » Heiner said she tried to break off the relationship several times, but ultimately it was an announcement during the fall 2012 LDS General Conference that finally gave her a way out.

Up until that point, she had resigned herself to marrying Niedzwiecki when she turned 18 — "I figured, who else would want me now?" she said. But when it was announced that the female missionary age had been lowered from 21 to 19, she decided she wanted to serve a mission.

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She texted Niedzwiecki and told him her plan.

"He said, ‘Well, my biological clock is ticking. If you do that, I’m not going to be in your life,’ " she said.

The relationship was officially over.

Several months later, Heiner had the meeting with her bishop, which set in motion a yearlong court process. During a May 2013 preliminary hearing, Heiner testified against Niedzwiecki, detailing their sexual encounters.

In late January, Niedzwiecki pleaded guilty to four third-degree felonies — two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a minor and two counts of unlawful sexual activity with a 16- to 17-year old. Prosecutors said at the time that because the inappropriate acts happened after Niedzwiecki was no longer her teacher, they could not prove that he held a "position of special trust" with the teen, which had initially allowed for the first-degree felony charges to be filed.

Instead of a possible life term in prison, Niedzwiecki faces, at most, up to 20 years behind bars — which infuriated Heiner.

"I came forward so he couldn’t have access to kids anymore, and here he is not being held accountable," she said.

In January, prosecutors argued that Utah statutes and recent Utah Supreme Court rulings made it clear that in order for Niedzwiecki to be convicted of the more serious violation of holding "a position of a special trust," the sexual activity would have had to occur while Heiner was still his student. She was his student the first time they kissed, but Heiner said their relationship didn’t become sexual until after she graduated from the charter school.

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Davis County Attorney Troy Rawlings has said that he felt the prosecutor, Cristina Ortega, made the right decision to offer the plea deal.

"[Her] plea negotiation was based on a valid assessment of fact and law," Rawlings said. "It is a disservice to victims to give them erroneous information, false expectations or go to trial when we cannot prove all elements of a particular charge."

Activism » While Niedzwiecki’s case wound its way through the legal system, Heiner said she coped with her feelings by making blankets for the Children’s Justice Center. It was quiet "grief work" done behind closed doors, she said.

One day, she came home to flowers left on her Kaysville doorstep by a student from a nearby high school involved with Backyard Broadcast, a high school program that brings awareness to child abuse and human trafficking in the United States.

This act of kindness — and reassurance that she was not alone, and that others had gone through similar experiences — inspired Heiner to start a Backyard Broadcast chapter at her high school, the Northern Utah Academy for Math Engineering and Science.

But it wasn’t until Niedzwiecki took that plea deal in January that she went public by advocating for Prevent Child Abuse Utah and starting her own victim-empowerment organization, I Am.

"My biggest thing is abuse awareness and victim empowerment," she said. "Throughout the time I was being abused, I didn’t know what abuse was. I thought I was the only one and that kept me silent for a really long time because I didn’t realize that one in three women are sexually abused."

Heiner said she hopes I Am helps others.

"As a victim, we’re told so many things that we’re not by our abusers," she said. "That we’re worthless and broken. But I think it’s important to emphasize all the things that victims are."

Heiner feels she is not a victim. She’s a survivor.

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