As a mom, I’ve always taught my daughter to stand up and fight for what’s right. But when her world was shattered two years ago by serial sexual predators, we both needed help to stand up for ourselves and each other. We found that help — and ultimately justice and healing — through the Children’s Advocacy Center in our hometown.

My husband died in 2015, and Abby and I struggled. She was just 11, and I was working three jobs, trying to take care of my girl and me. We had a safe place to live and food on the table, but a teenage girl needs so much more.

As I was rushing between shifts, then 13-year-old Abby, who always has been outgoing and never knew a stranger, fell victim to two older men who preyed upon her youth and vulnerability. One man, who has a record of victimizing girls, poured alcohol into Abby to the point that she ended up in the hospital with alcohol-induced psychosis, which led to months of medication and treatment. While still recovering, Abby got caught up with another man, who lied about his age, won her over with his “big brother” routine and ultimately committed statutory rape against her — a pattern of predation he’d used on other, even younger girls.

I was a wreck. My little girl had been hurt. And she was angry — fighting with me, struggling with debilitating side effects from medications. I didn’t know what to do. Even as we were involved in pressing charges against the men who had preyed on her, we ended up in the court system ourselves after she lashed out at me one night in our home.

That’s when I found the Children’s Advocacy Center.

Children’s Advocacy Centers, which were officially defined by statute in New Mexico by the Legislature in 2019, are community-based centers for children and families affected by sexual or physical abuse. Centers bring together advocates, specially trained forensic interviewers, child protective services, law enforcement, prosecutors, and medical and mental health professionals to coordinate support for victims and families. Basically, it’s a collaborative approach that helps families like mine heal and navigate the criminal justice system.

Abby and I both received counseling. Our advocate, Jennifer, walked us through every step of the court process, explaining it as many times as we needed. Jennifer was there to listen to me cry, to listen to me complain, to listen to me vent. She was there for everything I needed.

As a result, Abby and I were able to help ourselves and to hold the predators accountable. Both men were found guilty. One is in jail and the other is awaiting final sentencing. It’s been a long, hard road, but we’re almost there.

I don’t know how I would have made it without the Children’s Advocacy Center.

With the pandemic keeping many of us home and feeling more isolated these days, I know there are even more families struggling to figure out how to protect their kids, to end abuse and to stop sexual predators. The good news is that Children’s Advocacy Centers are still open, including Solace Crisis Treatment Center — Strongheart in Santa Fe. A full list of Children’s Advocacy Centers can be found at nmcacs.org.

I hope and pray no one has to go through what Abby and I did. But if the worst does happen, Children’s Advocacy Centers are here to help. I am grateful that in New Mexico, our leaders have recognized, defined and supported these centers. Our local Children’s Advocacy Center helped Abby and me find our voices and our strength again. That’s why I’m using my voice now to make sure every family in crisis knows that in New Mexico there is help, there is healing and there can be justice.

Virginia Hicks is an assistant store manager and a much happier mom after putting away the scum who preyed on her daughter and dealing with the justice system. She lives in Sierra County, New Mexico.

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