- Associated Press - Friday, May 13, 2016

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) - In Kellie Henderson’s recurring nightmare, she runs through her home in a futile attempt to flee her older brother Andrew, who outweighs her by 100 pounds.

It’s always Andrew, though her brother Matt raped her too.

Sometimes in the nightmare she climbs onto the roof to hide, like she and her twin sister, Kathie, did for real. For a few years, when they were little girls, their father, Brad, raped them too.

The Wichita Eagle (https://bit.ly/1TDXnz9 ) reports that the twins got raped nearly every day for nine years, starting at about age 5. They rebelled at age 14 after their brothers started abusing their younger sister, Rachelle, age 13. The twins told a neighbor whom they trusted. The neighbor called the cops.

Five years after their 2005 rescue, they made their story public, first to The Wichita Eagle, then on “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

They were only 19 then, still enduring nightmares, but they insisted the newspaper use their names. They wanted, as Kellie said, “to shout from the rooftops” what had happened to them. “I was sick of living in fear,” Kellie said.

They’re talking again now to tell how they turned out, and because they want to say things that they say we need to hear.

It’s not all pleasant to hear, Kellie said. “But it’s the truth.”

Police say the twins were incredibly brave when they turned in their brothers and father. They were only 14. They had no adults they trusted except neighbors Shelly and Jim Vasey, and Andrew had warned the girls that he’d kill them if they ever talked.

Shelly was brave, also, Kellie said. She called police even though she was worried about the safety of her own home, where she was raising her own children.

Eleven years after the rescue, that kind of adult decisiveness remains rare in Kansas, Kellie said. She’s speaking here not just as a victim but as a social worker helping vulnerable children in Wichita.

She works sometimes with sexually traumatized children. Part of her job involves being a “rapid responder,” showing up alongside Wichita police and other professionals to care for and find shelter for human trafficking victims after rescue. She’s met nearly a dozen such victims.

She suspects there are still hundreds other victims in Kansas. In and around those houses of abuse are people who know or suspect what’s going on. Unlike the Vaseys, many people don’t do anything.

“We hear reasons,” Kellie said. “‘I didn’t want to get involved.’ ‘I don’t want to get them in trouble with police.’ ‘I am the person who told on them, so I will get in trouble.’ ‘I was afraid.’”

“Or they are not sure whether there’s abuse, just a suspicion, and they don’t want to call about a suspicion. We all need to get past that. The police are there to investigate.”

They are not sure whether there’s abuse, just a suspicion, and they don’t want to call about a suspicion. We all need to get past that.

Kellie learned that some people think social workers and police sometimes act too aggressively to interfere, or take children from families, or that the state should make extra-strenuous efforts to nearly always keep families together. Doing that in her case probably would have ended in her death, she said.

She and her sisters grew up in a house in a high-market-value neighborhood in southeast Wichita, she said.

“Nine years - and nobody picked up on it in the neighborhood, in the schools, even though there were clues,” Kellie said.

“Most kiddos like me who get abused, it’s almost always by someone they know. What happened to me doesn’t just happen once in a while; it happens sometimes every day in some homes.”

Police and social workers who work child sexual abuse cases say she’s right. They say sexual abuse, including incest, is more widespread than most people realize. The investigation numbers in the last four years have trended steeply upward.

Police and Sedgwick County’s Exploited and Missing Child Unit investigated 185 reports related to sexual abuse of children in the first quarter of this year, said EMCU commander Lt. Travis Rakestraw. They investigated 620 last year, 552 in 2014, 502 in 2013, and 570 in 2012.

The worst part, Rakestraw said: “Unfortunately, there are still many cases where the signs were evident and no one reported it to law enforcement.”

People need to take this problem seriously, he said, because it’s not only about jailing abusers but helping victims.

“Once the case is disposed of through court or other means, the victim still has the scars they have to deal with,” Rakestraw said. “Whether it is substance abuse, mental health issues or just problems with their own relationships in life . there are struggles. It is important for the victims to know there are resources out there for help.”

As Kellie Henderson said, police and child advocates also sometimes have to counter opinions that police and social services investigators work too aggressively to break up families.

“The system is not infallible,” said Diana Schunn, director of Sedgwick County’s Child Advocacy Center. “But if we all continue to be our own judge about where there is a concern in a home, we will continue to have cases with abused children that fall through the cracks.

“It’s OK to report suspicions. The system was developed to carefully figure out whether there is a concern.”

Nobody in the system plots how to break up families, Schunn said.

Instead, what really goes on is dark, ugly and frustrating, she and Rakestraw said.

Child sex cases are unusually hard to investigate.

“Children are easy targets for those who choose to abuse them,” Rakestraw said. “Often times, the victim is too young to be able to talk, or their communication skills are not fully developed. The same person that is abusing them is someone they care about or depend on for food, shelter and such. Other times, an offender may threaten the child with harm or to do harm to other family members.”

Traumatized and threatened child victims often lie to the first investigating police officers, fearing they’ll lose their provider of food and shelter. Or they lie because they were threatened, he said.

“We lied,” said Kathie Myers, Kellie Henderson’s twin. “We told Shelly about the rapes, but when the officers showed up, we lied and lied. We were children. We lied to protect ourselves. Andrew had threatened to kill us.”

But the officers kept asking, and the girl’s mother, who had let the abuse go unreported, finally told the girls to tell the truth.

As bad as they had it, they were all lucky, Kellie said.

Many kids don’t have a Shelly Vasey up the street, she said. Or the courage to tell.

The Vaseys stayed in the Henderson sisters’ lives after the rescue. They took Kathie and Rachelle into their home for long stays and watched all three girls struggle.

The girls became women, found happiness, established long-term love affairs with guys they say are the loves of their lives.

Police and social workers say that kind of recovery is unusual, considering their past. Many other victims end up in depression, incarceration, substance abuse, mental problems, homelessness, unplanned pregnancies. Or they drift through life and poverty.

The Henderson sisters say they have thrived in contrast. But nine years of abuse left marks. All three still have nightmares.

Kathie Myers at 25 is a stay-at-home Wichita mom with a month-old son, Elliott, and a husband, Jonathan, “who drowned me in love.”

“I thought what had happened to me would affect our sexual life, but it didn’t,” she said. “He loves me. He doesn’t hurt me, and that’s the difference.”

Deeply suspicious of all other people at first, Kathie started going to church, “where I got drowned in love by many people.” She has many friends.

Besides her husband and child, her sisters are her other great loves, which surprised her. In childhood, in their twisted household, Kellie and Kathie sometimes betrayed each other: “Take Kathie tonight, and leave me alone.” Anger over betrayals sometimes boiled up in arguments on the sets of “Oprah” and other talk shows.

“But we’re not doing talk shows now, and Kellie is always, always there for me,” Kathie said.

Rachelle, now 23, is the mother of an 8-month old daughter, Amelia, and lives with Francisco Borrega, “a wonderful guy who loves me no matter what.”

Kellie found love also, with Frank Becker, a gentle and protective IT analyst with a flair for lifting her out of dark moods. “When I throw a fit, he keeps in mind what I went through, and he talks me down.”

Frank has proposed, given her a ring. He has stuck with her for nearly seven years.

He helps her recover, she said. But she has failed at some things.

The rest of her story is not exactly happy-ever-after.

After the rescue, in spite of feeling more safe, Kellie Henderson closed off her life to everyone except Frank. She became distant even to her sisters.

The nightmares kept coming.

She buried herself in school work, then university studies, and in hours-long athletic workouts.

She’s still driven by compulsions. She showed up for the interview for this story carrying a thermos filled with hot black coffee, and a full gallon jug of water. She drinks a gallon of water a day, eats small portions at mealtimes, and puts herself through punishing gym workouts.

The workouts are about an upcoming bikini contest. It’s not about looking good in a bikini, she said. It’s about control - over her body, her self-image, what she wants to look like.

To this day, she counts the total number of “loved ones and close friends” on four of the five fingers of one hand: Frank. Kathie. Rachelle. A friend from her job.

As her sisters point out, Kellie can sound blunt about how she assesses them and others, but she’s blunt about herself also.

“Everybody else, I push away. I always find a reason to push people away. Every person I meet, I watch them, trying to pick up on vibes. There’s this fight-or-flight survival thing that kicks in. Even here, talking to you, I’m watching you. And one reason I can talk to you now is that we’re here in this public place. I am always on guard.”

The fight or flight response is something all people have, she said. But it is heightened in people who have gone through major trauma.

She never went to parties in college, worried that the genes she got from her hard-drinking parents would turn her into an alcoholic.

She earned a master’s degree from the University of Kansas in social work. Part of it was obsessive behavior; part of it was the hope that what she went through should count for something, “that what happened to me had a purpose. That I was put on this Earth to help other people.”

She works for St. Francis Community Services in Wichita, a nonprofit that oversees foster care, adoption and treatment facilities for children. She supervises cases of youth about to age out of the system. In a previous role there, she worked cases face to face with vulnerable children, some of them abuse victims like herself.

It’s a job where other people’s damaged children “became like your own children,” she said.

Sometimes that didn’t work well.

“Talking with some of the victims set off triggers. Listening is very important to be a case manager, and sometimes I wasn’t listening enough. Instead, I looked at their situations through the eyes of my past. But every child and every case is different in how victims handle it. So sometimes at work my background helps; sometimes I let it get in the way.”

Sometimes a thought creeps into her mind.

She thinks about Andrew.

The Henderson men remain incarcerated - their father, Brad, their brothers, Andrew and Matt.

Most of the sisters’ anger (and past hatred) concerns Andrew, who made many of their sexual encounters violent.

Sometimes Kellie ponders the word “forgiveness.” She and her sisters say they’ll likely never talk to their brothers and father again, but to relieve their own suffering they’ve tried to let go of the toxic hatred they felt for them.

Years ago, when Kellie went public with her story, Andrew wrote letters from prison saying he was sorry, a move that only made Kellie furious.

There was this one night just before his arrest where he caught her and yanked her feet-first down the basement stairs, with the back of her head bouncing off every step.

Those old visions still seriously intrude.

She learned coping skills, some big, some small.

“Sometimes I look at this watch on my wrist. Because it tells me the time. And the day.

“And because it is an object fastened to my arm that would not have been there 20 years ago, it tells me in that moment that I’m not living back then.

“I’m here. Now.”

Kellie stops talking, looks down at her watch.

“Sometimes I have this thought: That I could one day pull up a chair. And sit down. And hear what Andrew has to say.”

She stares into the distance for a few moments. She shakes her head.

“And then I just stop thinking about him.”


Information from: The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, https://www.kansas.com

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