JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – A hero is someone who shows great courage in the face of overwhelming odds, and that's exactly how 17-year-old Dawn could be described.
Starting at the age of 5, she was terribly abused in her own home and then thrown out only to be attacked by a vicious dog. Dawn finally got out, and thanks to proper therapy and a strong spirit, she has gone from tragedy to triumph.
"I love it here," Dawn said about her new home in Jacksonville with her foster mother Barbara Nelson.
Dawn said she feels happy and safe with Nelson, but life was never this easy or peaceful for her. She said when she was in kindergarten, her mother married her stepfather and life became unbearable.
"He did a lot of other stuff like, sexual," Dawn said.
Dawn's life consisted of constant worry. She feared that she would somehow violate the arbitrary rules her stepfather set and the punishment she would face. For example, she said he made her dress like a boy and wouldn't let her wear a scoop-neck shirt.
"My stepdad wants it all the way up here [demonstrating], that's his rule. It has to be all the way up to my neck. So, if my shirt was down here [demonstrating], I'd be like, 'Oh, I have to go change, or else I'm going to get yelled at and then I'm probably going to get beat.' So I'd be worrying about small stuff like that," Dawn said.
Another time in middle school, her stepfather found a note written by a boy who liked her.
"He asked me what it was, and I was kinda scared so I had to think of an excuse but I couldn't really. So he took a wire and hit me with it," Dawn said.
She said she faced that on a regular basis and seemed like a normal ways for her to live.
"If that is how someone is raised to believe life is, then holidays and celebrations and hugs and love and laughter are abnormal to them. And so it can be very challenging for someone to reach out because they may not know any different," said Shirley Pattan, a licensed social worker with Daniel Kids and currently Dawn's therapist.
Pattan said tragically, Dawn's experience is common. Abused children get so used to their circumstances, they think every kid must go through the same thing and perceive how they are treated as normal.
Dawn realized that what was happening to her wasn't normal after talking to a friend at school. And at the age of 15, she reached a breaking point. She said a fight that started with her mother escalated when her stepfather walked in.
"He started beating me and dragged me by my hair and locked me outside," she said.
That's when she was attacked by a dog.
“First he bit inside my mouth and knocked a tooth out. Then he had grabbed my leg, jerked and I had fell. And then after that he let go of my leg, went to this side [demonstrating] and ripped through the skin on this side," Dawn said.
She showed News4Jax the scars on her side.
"I was bleeding a lot, on my leg and on my side," she said.
She also showed the scars on her hand, where she punched the glass door to get back into the house. Dawn ended up running to a neighbor who called police.
She finally ended up in the care of Daniel Kids, Florida's oldest child-service agency. Dawn eventually moved in with her current foster mom, and Pattan, her therapist, said she has made amazing progress in two years.
"She went from knowing you can't blow up at people and punch walls and hit people. But then there was the transition period of knowing what to do with how she was feeling which is what we spent a lot of time working on," Pattan said.
Dawn entered the Daniel Kids residential treatment program where she received intensive, comprehensive counseling and psychiatric treatment from a dedicated team of professionals. She is in a place now where she wants to tell her story.
"To help people that went through the same thing, or who are going through the same thing," she said.
Daniel Kids said the following are warning signs a child may be being abused or neglected.
- Unexplained injuries such as bruises or burns. (Or wearing inappropriate clothing to hide such injuries- ex: long sleeves in hot weather).
- Changes in behavior. Abused children often become scared, anxious, depressed and withdrawn. Changes in sleeping or eating patterns can be red flags also.
- Doing poorly in school or lack of regular attendance in school.
- Remember that child neglect is really a form of child abuse. That’s why it’s also important to look for a lack of personal care or hygiene or even hunger.
Dawn said lack of hygiene was a definite sign with her.
"Not very good hygiene, because for me, he didn't let me take showers. Probably about once a week. And for a few years, he didn't let me brush my teeth at all," she explained.
Both Dawn and Pattan encourage children to find someone they trust to tell about the abuse. And they said that someone should be away from the home, like at school, away from the abuser.
Dawn said abused children need to keep one very important thing in mind.
"The time will end. You're not going to stay in that situation forever," she said. "If you guys believe in God, pray to God because that's how I got out."
Under Florida law, it is the duty of any person living in the state to report suspicion of child abuse.
Anyone who feels a child is in immediate danger, is asked to call 911. Anyone who suspects a child is being abused or neglected, is asked to call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE.
As for any criminal charges filed against the stepfather, Volusia County Sheriff's deputies told News4Jax they conducted an investigation against the stepfather then sent the details to the State Attorney's office, but prosecutors later decided not to pursue the case due to insufficient evidence.
Daniel Kids says if you suspect a child is being abused, you can do the following:
- If you feel a child is in immediate danger – like it was in Dawn’s case with dog attack – always call 911. If you suspect abuse in a student, neighbor, etc., call the Florida Abuse Hotline at 1-800-96-ABUSE (1-800-962-2873). Although you do need to provide your name to those filing the report, your name will NOT be provided or used with any of the parties involved.
- You can also report online at https://reportabuse.dcf.state.fl.us/ (again, if it’s not an immediate threat). Remember, Legislation, signed by Gov. Rick Scott, requires any individual who suspects that a child has been abused to report it. (It’s actually a felony not to – and more importantly, it can save a child).
- Also, keep in mind that abuse is not just physical harm; it also includes abandonment and neglect – with neglect being the most frequent form of abuse. This includes the child not having enough to eat, living without electricity, being alone for extended periods of time and more.
Daniel Kids explains how a child can get therapy through the organization:
- DCF does refer children – mostly foster children struggling with emotional issues or trauma – to Daniel Kids. However, because the team in our residential care unit is experienced in dealing with emotionally troubled children who have undergone abuse or trauma, Daniel Kids also accepts kids from traditional families who may or may not have experienced trauma, but struggle with severe emotional issues.
- The easiest way to see if a child can be accepted to Daniel Kids for acute treatment is by contacting Daniel Kids' admissions person, Erica Seery, at 296-1055 x 2350 and she’ll guide you through the process. You can also send an email to her online by visiting danielkids.org, choosing “contact us,” and choosing the admissions email.
How Daniel Kids helps children in our community:
- Established in 1884, Daniel Kids is Florida’s oldest child-service agency.
- It assists an average of 2,000 children and families each day through a diverse range of innovative and nationally recognized programs.
- Daniel Kids offers abused and emotionally troubled children refuge and counseling, connects kids with foster and adoptive homes, helps homeless teenagers find housing and jobs and more.
- It also operates Daniel Academy on its campus - a K-5 private elementary school specially designed for children with learning disabilities and/or emotional issues.
- For more information, visit DanielKids.org.
Daniel Kids has a wide variety of programs, but its core programs focus on:
The Daniel Kids Statewide In-Patient Psychiatric program (SIPP) provides children exhibiting the most severe symptoms of mental and emotional distress with intensive residential treatment over four- to six-month periods. Some of these kids were abused, neglected or abandoned – all are emotionally-troubled for various reasons. Each child receives comprehensive care that includes individual, group, and family counseling, as well as psychiatric treatment, from a dedicated team of professionals, consisting of a psychiatrist, licensed therapist, behaviorist, nurse, and recreation specialist. This program was created at Daniel Kids in 2000 as a pilot program and has become a statewide model of care.
The Daniel Academy is a K-5 private elementary school specially designed for children with learning disabilities and/or emotional issues. The Daniel Academy offers a safe, nurturing environment with personnel who are specially trained to understand the unique problems these children face, which range from autism to ADHD to emotional issues. Although it’s a private school, costs are often supplemented by the McKay or a Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA), which allow parents of students with disabilities to choose the best learning environment for their children.
Many children are unable to live with their biological families or reside in traditional foster care due to severe emotional or behavioral issues often stemming from prior neglect or abuse. The Daniel Kids Specialized Therapeutic Foster Care Program provides a safe and nurturing family-centered environment for these children to work through their issues. Specially trained and licensed foster families work closely with program therapists to model, teach, and help children practice new positive social behaviors in a supportive family setting.
Daniel Kids also finds adoptive families for select specialized and traditional Foster Care children who can never return home safely. And, Daniel Kids works with the Florida Department of Children and Families to oversee the Florida Adoption Information Center — the state’s single source for all information about adoption. They receive an average of 18,000 calls per year and have been helping since 1994.
The staff of Daniel’s Project Prepare Program helps approximately 60 homeless youth each year by providing temporary residence in a twelve unit efficiency apartment complex called Independent Living Village on Parental Home Road or by helping them secure other low-cost housing. Once these critical needs are met, the Daniel Kids team teaches program participants enduring life skills including personal health and hygiene, how to obtain and maintain safe housing, how to comparative shop, how to make transportation arrangements, social skills, basic finance skills, banking and budgeting, job search skills, and employment stabilization.
Ways the community can help Daniel Kids serve First Coast kids in crisis:
- Donate (especially unrestricted dollars so they can be used where needed most)
- Sponsor a child at the Daniel Academy
- Corporations can sponsor events or do fundraising drives at their businesses
- Volunteer at an event or as a mentor
- Consider becoming a therapeutic foster parent
- Invite Daniel Kids’ representatives to speak at your religious institution or business