Survivors of childhood sexual assault share stories to raise awareness and prevent abuse
When Fatima M. Smith and two of her friends told parents and police that their cheerleading coach had sexually abused them, they were ostracized by the families of their teammates.
Years later, in high school, that experience — the death threats, namecalling and testifying in a court trial where their coach was acquitted — made her feel like she shouldn’t say anything about the boyfriend who had raped her.
“I just ... couldn’t understand as a child, like, how you could not believe a child,” she said.
Smith, a communications specialist and advocate for sexual assault survivors, shared her experiences in a panel discussion with another former student-athlete survivor, parents, therapists and other advocates Wednesday to raise awareness about sexual abuse and predatory grooming in youth sports.
The Virginia Sexual and Domestic Violence Action Alliance, Richmond YWCA, Hanover Safe Place, Henrico CASA and Smith sponsored the online event.
Sexual assault cases involving coaches at universities and hypercompetitive national sports programs are often detailed in investigative news reports and documentaries, but the problem is widespread, perpetrated by relatives, close family friends, teachers and coaches in homes, churches, schools and gyms.
Jeannine Panzera, executive director of Henrico CASA and moderator of Wednesday’s discussion, said an estimate 400,000 infants born this year are expected to become victims of sexual abuse before their 18th birthday.
Henrico CASA, or Court Appointed Special Advocates for Children, is a public agency that oversees a team of volunteers who assist the children of families with cases before the county’s Juvenile and Domestic Relations Court.
“The impact of child sexual abuse is devastating for survivors, but it also affects those close to them, as well as everyone in our community,” she said. “It is a root cause of so many social and health issues; it impacts our economic, medical, behavioral health, criminal justice, child welfare and education systems.”
Smith said she was 12 when her cheerleading coach came into her home and molested her while she was asleep in her bed. The family trusted the coach, so it didn’t seem unusual when he volunteered to come to their house and return house keys that Smith forgot in his car after he dropped her off after a training session a few days earlier.
About six months later, local authorities charged Maurice Jerralds with committing a sexual crime against two other underage students. Smith testified that she knew about the abuse but never disclosed what happened to her.
Smith’s mother, Sanora Frampton, said other families isolated the victims and their parents. She said other team parents who she thought were close friends started to treat them differently or stopped communicating with them altogether.
“I’ve never ever in my life experience so many emotions,” she said.
“Even today when I think about it, it just tears me apart because all of us were such a family there.”
Jerralds was acquitted of the charges at the time, but was found guilty more than a decade later on several felony counts involving multiple teenage and preteen students.
Smith said she wonders if he would not have assaulted other girls if she had been more vocal and if the other families had taken them more seriously.
“It was a rude awakening to have parents and adults say I’m a liar,” she said. “I always tell people this: for every one survivor you don’t believe, it creates five more.”
Abbey Philips, a volunteer with Henrico CASA and the other youth-athlete survivor on the panel, said she was 13 when her karate instructor molested her. She said he asked to examine a shoulder injury in his bedroom, not far from where his students trained at his home studio.
She said she was unsure about whether to report it, as she had grown to love competing and knew he was a beloved member of her church community.
It was about a decade later that she felt compelled to report what happened to law enforcement.
“The practice of martial arts talks a lot about discipline and character and structure, and so some families were relying on him to help their children build character and discipline. Some these were single-parent homes and they needed assistance and support and resources, so they would turn to him,” she said.
“It took a lot of years before I put all the pieces together to realize that I had been abused, and that there were others that had been abused.”
But she said authorities told her there was nothing they could do about her case at that point, as that statute of limitations had expired for what they concluded was misdemeanor child abuse against her.
In 2020, Virginia lawmakers passed legislation extending the statute of limitations for misdemeanor sexual offenses involving minors, allowing victims to pursue charges until they are 23 instead of the previous limit at 19.
Smith and Philips, who is chief of staff to state
Sen. Jennifer McClellan DRichmond, helped advocate for the law’s passage. They and other advocates said extending it gives more time for victims who might otherwise be reluctant to disclose what happened to them.
Smith said youth sports organizers and national athletic organizations must also be more accountable for protecting student athletes. She said parents must not be blamed when their children are assaulted, but that they should teach their children about affirmative consent so that they can set their own boundaries and be more inclined to speak out if they are sexually abused.
A package of local and national resources on sexual assault and child abuse can be found online at tinyurl.com/fypk5.