Cumberland University and the 15th Judicial District Child Advocacy Center presented a child abuse awareness panel at the university’s Labry Hall in hopes of heightening awareness surrounding issues of child abuse and neglect.
The event featured two survivors, Brenda Jackson and Keith Edmonds, who spoke personally of what they endured and what they hoped for other children. Also included on the panel were Wilson County sheriff’s Detective Maj. B.J. Stafford, assistant district attorney Tom Swink, CAC forensic interviewer Amanda Dardy and state Department of Children’s Services lead investigator Patrick Cockburn.
The 15th Judicial District covers Wilson, Smith, Macon, Jackson and Trousdale counties.
When Jackson’s mother lost her and her sister and brother, they were put into the foster care system. When their biological father then got out of prison for murder, he simply went and got them and brought them home to live with him, though they didn’t know him – yet. Brenda Jackson was 6 years old at the time.
The first thing they did was put their clothes away and then were told to come into the living room to stand on one foot. Jackson was the first to falter.
“Imagine three little kids standing in front of an adult, our father, just out of prison. Of course I was the first to put my leg down. He comes over to me and tells me to strip down naked,” said Jackson saying her father first needed to humiliate her before telling her to go get an extension cord that would take the skin off her back during the first beating that night.
“That was around 7 o’clock at night, and we had to do that until 5 o’clock in the morning,” Jackson said. “That was the first day.”
There was also a ritual in which Jackson’s father would have the children stand against a wall to shoot a BB gun at them. They were allowed to move laterally but not “forward,” and they got hit, a lot, having to pull pellets out of their skin later.
The “art” wall would be a constant reminder of their father’s power.
“We had a hallway, and my father said he wanted some art. He would grab one of us, and he would just take our heads and push it into the wall,” Jackson said.
One day, her father told Brenda that she needed to stay home from school. That was the beginning of the sexual molestation. He made her stay out of school for a few days afterward, added punishment because school was an escape.
“When the bell rang in the afternoon, my heart would start to pound,” Jackson said. “There was a little girl on the playground who asked me why I was out of school. For some reason, I told her.”
She was then called into the principal’s office.
“My principal looked at me and she said, ‘You are a liar,” Jackson said. “‘I know your father, and he is a good man. Don’t you ever, ever say anything like that again.’ You can imagine this little kid just sitting there in the chair … Imagine if I would’ve had a child advocacy center… Imagine if there was a place that I could go or where I could be believed.”
At one point, the father let the children have a family dog, to which the three children became attached. Later, Jackson’s father took them all to the woods to watch their father shoot the dog. The abuse for the children lasted at least 10 years, until Jackson was 17.
Jackson said she stayed because of her sister.
“I didn’t want to leave my sister who was also being abused,” said Jackson. “We didn’t believe adults anymore. She had tried to tell her story one time, too.”
Jackson eventually confronted her father who pulled a shotgun on her; she called his bluff and walked out and continued to walk. She was picked up by a young man her age who then took her to his family, and that family took her in.
Her father started another family, which produced a number of children, including a girl who, at 12 years old, murdered someone. When she told her story of abuse, they put a wire on her to substantiate the sexual abuse, and that is when the story of the family abuse came to light, and her father was put back in jail.
Eventually, Jackson became an advocate for children. Previously, Jackson was an investigator for Child Protective Services in Wilson and Trousdale counties. She now works with veterans and their families in Memphis.
Edmonds formed the Keith Edmonds Foundation, which aims to empower victims in Wilson County.
Edmonds told Tuesday’s group that a child is being reported for some kind of abuse every 10 seconds in America. However, he said the events prior to reporting are even more critical.
“The one thing that stuck out the most when Brenda was talking was how important it would have been if that principal had listened,” Edmonds said. “A lot of times if a kid is going to confide to an adult, they are only going to do it one time. When a child is confiding in you, you have to take the proper steps.”
Then Edmonds began telling his own terrifying tale.
“When I was 18 years old, I set out to kill a man,” Edmonds told the crowd at Labry Hall. “I got in my 1989 Chevrolet Beretta, and I was ready to settle the score … When I was 14 months old on Nov. 18, 1978, my face was held to an electric heater, resulting in the third-degree burns over 50 percent of my face, the scars that you see today.”
That night in 1978, his mother’s boyfriend drugged her because he knew of his intentions.
“My mother’s boyfriend took me and held my face to an electric heater, laid me on the bed covered my face with a washcloth and left me there to die,” said Edmonds.
At that time, Edmonds said, the Department of Children’s Services got involved.
“This was 1978, and things are a little different today,” Edmonds said. “My mother was assigned a social worker. Eventually, my mother was cleared of any wrongdoing. My abuser was sentenced to 10 years in the state of Michigan prison. I was given a life sentence of feeling alone, alienated and angry.”
Every year until Edmonds was 18, he had to go to the Cincinnati Shriners Burn Institute to have surgeries done on his face. Also until he was 18, he had to wear a plastic mask to stretch out the scars.
The scarring of his face brought both physical and emotional pain. The name calling started in school immediately, he said.
“Scarface was a big one … Burnt toast baby was a good one, too, and then in the ’80s when I grew up, there was a very popular movie around this time of year. I was called Freddy Krueger I don’t know how many times,” Edmonds said.
“I just get through the seasons, because it always triggers that stuff for me. So, I had to live my whole life realizing that there was a man who set out to kill me and did not succeed,” Edmonds said. “That was a heavy thing to bear.”
Dardy talked about the process of bringing a child to the Child Advocacy Center. There are two aims, she said, to try and find out what happened and to not traumatize the child again.
“They are in a room that is a kind of play room where they feel comfortable,” Dardy said. “I talk to them, really about them. I get to know them first. I don’t go into what has happened to them immediately … Then, at some point I ask questions, but it is always child-focused.”
Dardy said it is important to get the information that is both safe for the child but will also hold up in court. The interview is videotaped, so law enforcement can use it, if necessary.
“It allows them to review the tape without having to ask the child multiple times what has happened,” Dardy said. “The child doesn’t get re-traumatized by telling the story.”
Swink said the statute of limitations for abusers has grown with the understanding of what happens to abused children when they become adults. Many need years of therapy to process it enough to come forward.
“The statute of limitations is a very complicated thing … Here is the good news though, the statute of limitations generally for these types of offenses is getting longer and longer. For rape of a child under 13 years of age, the statute of limitations is now 25 years after that child becomes 18,” Swink said.
Reporting child abuse is confidential. To report suspected child abuse, call 877-237-0004.