- Associated Press - Tuesday, June 6, 2017

GEORGETOWN, Del. (AP) - One of the contestants in this year’s Miss Delaware pageant has overcome incredible odds and chosen her platform based on her tragic past.

“I chose not to let him win anymore,” Jenna Hitchens of Georgetown told WDEL.

Hitchens found herself among the scores of victims of Dr. Earl Bradley - the notorious Lewes pediatrician who made national headlines after being convicted of sexually abusing children sometimes as young as 1-year-old. He is serving consecutive life sentences in a Connecticut prison.

“When you’re a victim, you get a life sentence … I have such a relief knowing that my perpetrator is never going to see the light of day again … I feel for other victims that don’t have that luxury.”

Bradley saved her life at six months old, she said, while simultaneously nearly destroying it. He discovered an abscess in her throat, and was able to remove it. Later, he would molest her.

“(My family) just always trusted him,” she said. “I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for him, but I also wouldn’t have all of this extra sadness and struggle had it not been for him.”

She said the abuse began at age 3 and continued over the next decade, until she was 13.

“At 3, I just knew I was afraid to go to the doctor, but at 3 years old, everyone’s afraid to go to the doctor, so I felt that was normal, and then … I knew something was different, but I just assumed because you’re told from a young age - the only people allowed to touch you are your mom, your dad, and your doctor, and I just assumed that it was normal. The older I got, the more I realized I did not want to go there.”

Hitchens showed signs of abuse, but no one knew to look for them.

“I would wear my belt so tight on my pants that it was cutting off my circulation,” she said.

She also had trouble sleeping out of fear that Bradley would come to her home and assault her. While that never happened, this kind of post-traumatic stress often happens in survivors of sexual abuse.

Long after the abuse ended, Hitchens remained too scared to speak up. But she remembers clearly the moment when everything changed.

“I spoke up (at age 16) because he had gotten arrested, and we were discussing it in my Spanish class, and all of a sudden, I just had a panic attack in the middle of class and had to be taken out,” she said.

Hitchens came forward to police to tell them what happened to her

“We had to send in a picture of me every year from the age of 1 to 13,” she said. “They didn’t know your name; they knew you as a number.”

She was #1208. When she asked the significance of her number, she said investigators told her there were 1,400 potential victims of the pedophile doctor.

“Having to sit there and tell them … you remember vivid details of rooms, but don’t remember what’s happened in them and for them to look at you and say, ‘OK, we’ve heard what’s happens in this room,’ and knowing that your brain has blocked out what happened, and so, that’s a little scary, knowing that they know things that you’ve blocked out.”

Now at 22, she’s come a long way. Through therapy with Survivors of Abuse and Recovery, Hitchens is working to uncover repressed memories and work through them. As part of her recovery, she wants to ensure that sexual abuse isn’t swept under the rug.

“One thing I do regret is, I wish I spoke up sooner, so maybe there would be less victims,” said Hitchens. “It’s so scary, it is the hardest thing you’ll ever go through, but once you are through it and are getting the help you need, it is a total 180 in your life, and you feel so much better,” she said.

The Miss Brandywine winner and longtime pageant contestant is courageously using sexual abuse as her platform in her run next week for Miss Delaware at Cape Henlopen High School on June 16. Hitchens admits it’s uncomfortable to talk about, but important to lift the veil of secrecy so that victims feel less stigmatized and ashamed.

She hopes her story will inspire others to come out of the shadows.

“It makes you feel like you’re in control and you’re in the power - and when you’re a victim, that’s what you lose - your sense of control and empowerment. I hope that it makes them feel that they are more than their abuse; they’re more than a victim and that they’re survivor and that they’re a victor,” she said. “I’m not going to let him win any longer than he did. He lost.”

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Information from: WDEL-FM, https://www.wdel.com/

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