Sisters, survivors

Camas residents Jennifer Chilton and Kimberly Abell are working to protect other sexual abuse survivors

As children, sisters Jennifer and Kimberly never felt safe. Never.

At a time when most youngsters are being loved, protected, cared for and nurtured, their reality instead was a home filled with abuse, mistreatment and secrets.

While growing up in California, from the time they were toddlers to into their teen years, Kim Abell and Jennifer Chilton suffered sexual, physical and psychological abuse at the hands of their father, a former police officer, private detective and Marine.

“He knew how to hide his tracks, he knew what would be noticed and what wouldn’t,” Chilton said. “We were groomed from a very young age to pretend that we were Daddy’s best friend, that we were Daddy’s little girls — all of that.”

Nobody, not even their mother, knew the abuse was happening until a series of events played out that resulted in the long-kept, dark secrets finally coming to light.

Their father was subsequently convicted in 1991 on child sex abuse charges, sent to jail, then released in 2002.

By that time, Abell and Chilton had moved on with their lives. Abell was living in San Francisco and Chilton was married with children — living in a home not far from the one where she grew up.

Unfortunately, all of the horrible feelings and memories of their childhood resurfaced again when their father sent Chilton an email.

“It was a very scary moment,” she said. “It had been 11 years, we had started lives and families, made ourselves safe and confidential in a lot of ways, and created this whole world. And now he’s out. What do we do with that? Is he going to come get us? There is still that fear, even as adults.”

Chilton contacted law enforcement officials, and others who had been involved in their case. While they all empathized with the sisters’ situation, they admitted there was little that could legally be done. There were no laws restricting offenders from contacting their victims after they had served their sentences and been released from jail.

The suggestion was made that they consider lobbying legislators to get the law changed.

“I was angry and fueled, so I did,” Chilton said. “I wrote to every single one of them.”

California State Assemblyman Todd Spitzer, a well-known victim advocate, stepped forward to help propose legislation that automatically prohibits sex offenders from contacting their victims when released on parole. Chilton and Abell testified in support of the bill, and in 2006 the legislation passed and was signed into law by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Today, Chilton, 39, and Abell, 35, call Camas home and are working with State State Sen. Ann Rivers (R-La Center) to get similar legislation passed in Washington. Their hope is to protect the victims of sexual abuse, so they aren’t re-victimized by their abusers.

“We are aware of how much power they have over you, particularly when you are a child and it’s a family member that’s been grooming you,” Abell said. “There’s this power that we have to combat.”

‘Like a war zone’

The sexual abuse started when Jennifer and Kimberly were just toddlers.

Their father had a difficult time holding down a job, which put their mother in the role of being the family’s primary breadwinner.

“She was not around a lot,” Abell said.

They said Jennifer, the oldest daughter, was groomed as their father’s “girlfriend,” often receiving gifts and praise from him.

“When you are young and you are groomed in this way you are made to feel like this is happening to you, and even though it’s torture and it’s painful and there are so many horrible things about it, it makes you special. It makes you stand out in some way,” Chilton said. “I knew that it was wrong, but I also felt maybe this kind of thing is happening in every home, we just didn’t know it because nobody knows it’s happening to me.”

Abell, on the other hand, was put down, often demeaned by their father. She fought against his abuse, once even threatening to call the police.

Several factors kept the sisters from sharing the details of their abusive situation with anyone.

Their father used intimidation — he would threatened to kill them, their mother or their friends.

“It was constant mind battles,” Abell said. “It was like a war zone.”

There was also fear over what would happen to them if their father wasn’t in their lives.

“So if I tell, my daddy is going to jail,” Chilton said, explaining her thoughts at the time. “But he was also feeding me and clothing me and taking care of me because my mom was absent. He was making sure I had what I needed, participating in school stuff — he was the involved parent. So it was a weird dichotomy. If you lose one side of the parent you have to lose the other, and as a child that feels like everything.”

Unexpected events

The uncovering of the sexual abuse that was happening in their home came unexpectedly.

Their mother discovered their father was having an affair with a co-worker. The couple fought over the issue and, believing his daughters, ages 13 and 16 by then, would soon reveal the sexual abuse, he immediately fled to another state.

“He assumed we were going to spill our guts right away, so he never came home,” Chilton said.

But fear of his possible return continued to keep them quiet — at first.

Both girls were happy and relieved to see their father leave — reactions their mother found strange.

“She thought we were suppressing our feelings, so she took us to a therapist to talk about it,” Chilton said.

That is when first Jennifer and then Kimberly admitted to the therapist, and then their mother, that their father had been sexually abusing them for many years.

Their father remained at large until he was finally captured by police six months later.

In videotaped testimony, both girls helped to convict their father on 17 counts of child sex abuse. He was sentenced to 20 years in prison, but was released on good behavior after serving only half of that.

That’s when his email showed up in Chilton’s inbox.

“You could tell that he hadn’t grown a day or learned a thing while he was in prison,” Chilton said. “He was still talking to us as if we were children, and not as if we were 30-something adults.”

Protecting others

When Chilton saw that email, she figured it was her father’s ticket right back to jail.

“I was so elated that he contacted me at first because I thought, ‘now he is going back to prison — I can feel safe again,’” she said. “We had no idea that he was allowed to contact us while he was on parole. We assumed it would be against the law. Then when it wasn’t, I was so angry and so let down.”

“We felt victimized again,” added Abell.

Motivated by the desire to protect the vulnerable, the sisters helped to get the law passed in California in 2006 that now automatically prohibits convicted sex offenders from contacting their victims while on parole.

The following year Abell moved to Camas with her husband, Marc. Chilton, her husband David, and their four children followed in 2013.

With the help of Sen. Rivers, this year the sisters again decided to work to make similar changes to Washington law.

On Feb. 12, the State Senate approved SB 6069. It allow victims to request notice from the state Department of Corrections when a specific sex offender is released or transferred. The bill also authorizes the DOC to require a sex offender to refrain from having contact with the victim of the crime or an immediate family member of the victim as a condition of the offender’s parole.

“We need to do whatever we can to protect victims of sexual abuse and their families,” Rivers said. “And if something as simple as notification of an offender’s status and whereabouts helps a victim feel a little bit safer, then it’s a no-brainer ‘yes’ vote for me.”

Under current law, the judge or the DOC has the option to require that perpetrators not contact victims when they are released from prison.

“But it’s rarely implemented,” Abell said.

SB 6069 is currently being considered by the House of Representatives. The proposal has so far seen no opposition, so Chilton and Abell are cautiously optimistic that it will pass during this legislative session, then be signed into law by Gov. Jay Inslee.

Once again working to advocate to protect victims of sexual abuse has brought emotions to the forefront for both women.

Abell said she has mixed feelings about discussing the abuse she suffered as a child, primarily because with the help of cognitive therapy she has learned to cope with and overcome it. She has gone on to have a successful career, and build a happy life with her husband and their daughter.

“I have come so far, and I don’t want to be labeled a victim,” she said. “If you don’t know me, it sounds like it is a label I wear on my shoulder. It’s not a badge. I am a strong woman and my past has helped shape me. But I don’t want to be defined by my past, so that’s what’s hard.”

Alternately, Chilton said talking about the abuse publicly has in many ways helped her move forward.

“I feel like every time I say it, a little piece of it comes out and is gone.”

Sisters, survivors

Through it all these sisters have come to rely on each other, and along the way built a relationship that is unbreakable.

“We have just become a good team together,” Chilton said. “I don’t think any of this could happen, we couldn’t be the people we are fully, or conquer what we conquer together in the world, or even separately, without each other. Without being able to lean on or bounce things off of each other. You know you have the support of one other person in the world so strongly, who knows where you come from.”

Today, they have created their own niche in the world — a place where they feel confident, powerful, loved, protected and maybe most importantly — safe.

“I woke up one morning, after several years of being married, and it just hit me — we are safe,” Chilton explained. “Nobody is going to hit us, nobody is going to yell at us, nobody is going to hurt us. People take it for granted that they are just safe. I never thought that there would be such a thing as true safety.”