All through her childhood and her teen years, Stacy Mitby kept her trauma a secret, terrified to tell even those she trusted about the abuse she was enduring.
It was some 16 years after the first violation, and three from the last, that Mitby confided in her mother, the first step in breaking free from the shame and guilt her abuser had inflicted on her.
Now 58, Mitby has over the past three decades worked to help other victims feel safe opening up, knowing abuse thrives in silence.
"People cannot keep it to themselves," said Mitby. "You have to let it out, because the more people that know what's going on, the sooner we can hopefully end it."
With April marking Child Abuse Prevention Month, Mitby is sharing her story and supporting the Family & Children's Center, where she received life-changing counseling and support as a young adult and went on to work for several years before continuing her advocacy in other ways.
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"The Family & Children's Center not only had an impact on me, it had an impact on my kids," Mitby said. "Without the help I got there, I wouldn't be the mom I was and the mom I am."
The prevalence of abuse
Like many forms of abuse, child maltreatment happens far more frequently than most are aware. The CDC reported at least one in seven youth faced abuse in 2020, with the actual number likely far larger. According to Childprotect.org , for every instance of reported child abuse, two go unreported. And in 2020, 1,750 children died nationwide as a result of abuse or neglect.
On a state level, the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Report confirmed in 2021 Child Protective Services received more than 74,000 reports of child maltreatment, with 4,736 cases substantiated and 26 resulting in death.
In La Crosse County in 2021, there were 409 reports to child protective services, with 24 substantiated cases of neglect, five of physical abuse and 14 of sexual abuse. There were no confirmed deaths.
"Child abuse and exploitation is one of the most detrimental tragedies in our existence. It is rampant in our country, in our world, and we all need to be aware of it and we all need to talk about it," said Mitby. "You can't push it under the rug. It has to be talked about."
Statewide, nearly 90% of the perpetrators of child abuse are primary caregivers to the victim, with men the main offenders in sexual and physical maltreatment cases and women culpable in most cases of neglect.
Child Protective Services in 2021 removed 2,508 Wisconsin youth from their homes, a 22% decrease from 2019. The drop can in part be attributed to efforts by the Wisconsin Department of Children and Families "to reorient the child welfare system to a new purpose: strengthening all Wisconsin families to raise their children."
Programs are in place to support this mission, including legal advocacy, mentoring of parents, and providing access to the resources and support needed to keep youth safely in their own homes.
However, reunification is not always safe or successful. A 2016 report from the Department of Health and Human Services, which followed child maltreatment investigations for three years, found 24.6% of youth who were returned to their home were re-reported to Child Protective services with an allegation of abuse by a family member.
"Learn the signs. Know the signs. Because the signs aren't the same for everyone," Mitby said. "Behaviors are communication. So when a behavior changes, that should be a big red flag — like, what's going on?"
Changes in disposition could be attributed to many things, from depression to bullying to stress, but it is best to step in.
"If you question it, get some help," Mitby said. "You can be the support, you can be the nurturer, the caregiver, the rock for your child. But go to the experts. That's what they do and they're good at it."
A personal trauma
Mitby's earliest memory of being sexually abused was at age 3, during a monthly visit to the home of her biological father. Mitby's parents had divorced when she was very young, and while she had a safe and loving home with her mother and stepfather, she was continuously abused by her birth father through the age of 16. It was a heavy secret to carry, but Mitby felt she was to blame.
Mitby wasn't planning to tell her mom and stepfather -- who she considers her dad -- what had happened to her, but around the age of 19 she was chatting with her parents around the kitchen table when her mother made a quip about moms not getting enough appreciation from their kids.
Mitby broke down in tears and retrieved from her room a poem she had written, which described her mom as her saving grace.
"She read the poem and started crying. And she's like, 'What the hell is going on?'" Mitby recalled. "And I just poured it all out."
Her parents took action, and the next day Mitby was seen by therapist Wanda Schafer at the La Crosse location of the Family & Children's Center, a nonprofit that provides domestic and child abuse services, family support services, housing and residential programs, juvenile services, respite services, mental health support and more.
"Wanda is the most amazing soul I've ever met. And if we could clone that woman, I think we could end child abuse in itself," Mitby said. "Before I worked with her my life was not going where it should be. I was making bad choices. I was doing things that at the time I didn't realize were from the trauma that I had endured as a child."
Schafer, now retired, and the other therapists at the Family & Children's Center use trauma-informed, evidence-based practices, and Mitby started individual sessions on a biweekly basis, slowly opening up.
"She immediately built that rapport, and I felt at ease," Mitby said. "She gave me the tools to do the work that I needed and (I felt) her compassion and sensitivity."
Mitby also participated in group sessions with other abuse survivors, some of whom she is still close to today.
"It's not just the counseling, but it's the environment we were in. We felt safe. We felt heard, and it made us want to help other people," Mitby said.
Mitby worked with Schafer for years, and during a session was able to "confront" her biological father, now deceased, about the sexual abuse.
"He didn't own up to anything. But you know what? I had the inner strength from what I'd been through, from who I worked with and through that counseling to know, 'This was him, not me,'" Mitby said. "Because for years I had I blamed myself, like I did something wrong."
Even after her regular sessions ceased, Mitby could count on Schafer to make time for her, and credits the therapist with saving her life.
"If something popped up that brought back the trauma, I would schedule an appointment and I could have that base -- I hear her voice or see her face and then I'm OK," Mitby said.
Helping fellow survivors
Mitby was in the midst of her own treatment for her trauma when she felt the calling to help others.
"Once I said to Wanda in therapy, 'You know what? I'm going to work here one day.' And she actually is the one that encouraged me to go to college," Mitby said.
Mitby earned a degree in psychology and was hired by the Family & Children's Center in 2003 to lead and supervise case management for the organization's two youth residential group homes. While she is often asked if talking about her past or working with others who have been abused is triggering, Mitby said, "This is part of who I am. One of the things that I've learned throughout the years is finding grace in our past.
"I think of all the lives that I've been able to touch because of that," continued Mitby. "Had I not been abused, I would not have went to counseling, I would not have met Wanda. Was (the abuse) horrible? Absolutely. But look how much it has filled my life with good. I was given the skills to forgive it. It was my past. I don't live there anymore. What can I do to take that experience and benefit society as a whole?"
Mitby worked for the Family & Children's Center through 2008, and still receives occasional messages from the teens she worked with.
"It just warms my heart and I get tears in my eyes just thinking about it," Mitby said. "Family & Children's Center was the best thing that ever happened to me and it saved their lives, too, in my opinion."
"Stacy is a passionate person, and it clearly shows in the work she has pursued and the clients she served at FCC," said Rich Petro, the organization's director of human resources. "We are truly grateful for the time and talent she provided to help people who have been impacted by trauma, abuse and mental health challenges. In the past year, our agency supported over 5,500 children, families or individuals, and we can only do that when we have dedicated staff like Stacy."
Mitby, a mom of three, went on to earn a master's degree and worked in social and human services for a government agency. After decades in the field, in 2021 she opened the Waste Not Thrift Store at 2115 Ward Ave. with her son, Ryan.
Through the end of the month, half of all sales on child related items at Waste Not Thrift Store will be donated to Family & Children's Center programs for youth victims and their non-offending caregivers. In 2022, the organization provided services and support for 639 individuals during child protection investigations.
"We are so grateful," Director of Advancement Marketing Ellen Hongerholt said of the contribution.
In La Crosse, Steppin Stones provides a safe and comfortable environment for interviews regarding possible abuse and neglect, with staff helping the children feel at ease to reduce stress and trauma related to the investigative process.
Matty's Place provides the same service at the Family & Children's Center in Winona. The program was established by Winona County prosecutors, police, social services and the National Child Protection Training Center, with support from the Matty Eappen Foundation.
"Having a place like Stepping Stones and Matty’s Place is so important to help children, victims and their caregivers during times when things are extremely painful and scary," said program coordinator Danielle Swedberg. "We are able to provide the support to help them get through and make this difficult situation easier for them."
Thirty days is not enough to highlight child abuse prevention, Mitby said. "But at least for this one month, it keeps it in our in our forefront. It may not be your own children, but pay attention. Be a loving, caring, supportive adult."
One in four girls and one in 13 boys will be victims of child abuse.