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Mentoring Those Who Faced Sexual Abuse

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Sexual abuse, especially of children, is notoriously underreported. And experts say that without help, survivors can fall into patterns of behavior that can land them behind bars. One survivor in Nashville is talking about his experiences in the hopes he'll help others.

Samantha Max of member station WPLN accompanied him to a juvenile detention center where he mentors teens.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPING)

SAMANTHA MAX, BYLINE: Every week, Daniel Westbrooks walks through a metal detector and several locked doors to visit teens at Nashville's juvenile detention center. He weaves through the shuffle of boys in matching polo shirts and slip-on sneakers joking and chatting.

DANIEL WESTBROOKS: Look; he ain't have no bath or nothing. He didn't even take a shower. You can't even take a bath (ph).

MAX: Westbrooks was locked up for a range of minor and serious crimes on and off over the course of nearly two decades. All the while, he was holding in painful secrets from his past. When he was released from jail for the last time in 2015, Westbrooks decided to devote his next chapter to mentoring kids at risk of traveling down the same path.

WESTBROOKS: Who wants to be a leader in here? You know what I'm saying?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I want to be my own boss.

WESTBROOKS: You want to be your own boss?

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Yeah.

WESTBROOKS: But not in here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Not in here.

WESTBROOKS: Not doing the dumb stuff that'll get you locked up. You feel me?

MAX: Westbrooks knows many of the teens in detention have experienced trauma, just like he did. As a kid, he was sexually abused by a close family member.

WESTBROOKS: That's probably when I started, you know, slipping from, you know, being a good kid to jumping into my shell.

MAX: In a lot of ways, what happened to Westbrooks wasn't unique. An estimated 1 in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. And like Westbrooks, 90% of them are abused by someone they know. Evidence suggests that childhood sexual abuse is less common among boys. Even with heightened awareness about the issue, experts say current data likely underestimates the scope of the problem.

BONNIE BENEKE: It becomes more complicated for male victims.

MAX: That's Bonnie Beneke of Tennessee's Department of Children's Services.

BENEKE: We don't get as many reports for male victims because, often, the offender is a male. And so if I didn't fight him off, if I didn't do what boys are supposed to do, then everybody's going to think I'm weak, you know? So later on, I'm going to prove that I'm not weak.

WESTBROOKS: I want people to feel the fear that I used to feel, not knowing if someone bigger than you is just overpowering you and you don't have no control.

MAX: That's Westbrooks.

WESTBROOKS: And, you know, like, with a gun, you got that control. It gives you that power. And so I wanted to hurt people.

MAX: Something changed during his last stint behind bars. Westbrooks realized he could use his power to help people after he was released, instead of hurting them. Last winter, he was invited to speak at a middle school. After he shared his story, two kids came forward with their own experiences of sexual abuse.

Hearing from an adult survivor can be intensely powerful for a child, says Gwen Bouchie of Darkness to Light. It's a national group that fights child sexual abuse.

GWEN BOUCHIE: Just because you were abused as a child does not doom you to a future that is negatively impacted in some way.

MAX: With evidence-based therapy and a caring support system, Bouchie says, victims can move past their trauma. Westbrooks wants to do just that by working with kids in need.

WESTBROOKS: I need to go back and give them what I have - you know what I'm saying? - try to kiss some of these kids before it's too late.

MAX: Westbrooks says his abuse is still difficult to talk about, but to help others, he's trying to let himself be vulnerable.

For NPR News, I'm Samantha Max in Nashville.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.