What would you do if you discovered your 15-year-old daughter was in a relationship with a man 30 years her senior?
Late one night in 2002, after investigating an extremely large cellphone bill, full of late-night phone calls to a family friend from their church, Doug and Lisa Cherry found themselves facing the unspeakable truth: this man had been sexually grooming their daughter Kalyn for nearly two years.
LG: Kalyn, you were essentially groomed by this man over a couple of years. How did this progress?
Kalyn: This man was a family friend, and so he had trust within our family. He was on the praise and worship team at our church. I didn’t really think anything of his initial contact with me. He would say, “You have a really pretty singing voice,” or “You look nice. That’s a really pretty dress.” He would kind of pay me special attention, I noticed. It didn’t really catch me off guard at all.
I would say it was maybe a year into the process that he began to IM me on the Internet. His chatting wasn’t sexual in nature, but it was really progressing. Nothing overtly sexual, but beginning to cross a line that perhaps if he’d started at that place, I may have recognized it, but I didn’t at the time.
It was really just the last short period of time through his cell phone that he began to solicit me for sex and began to talk through very graphic things of a sexual nature with me.
LG: Were there other things going on in your life that your parents didn’t know about?
Kalyn: I actually began to overachieve in settings that my parents would notice because I didn’t want them to recognize that there was an underlying problem. I would spend lots and lots of time talking to my parents about anything possible except for this.
LG: A study in 2002 concluded that 75% of sexual predation cases involved girls ages 13-15 years old – same as you were – and half of the victims actually said they were in love with the offender. Did you feel like you were in love with this person?
Kalyn: I can definitely identify with that. I felt like I was in love with him, like there was no-one else I could ever love…all these very strong emotional feelings that were obviously very confused.
It was really just the fact that my parents were going to take him away from me that made me flip out as much as I did.
LG: Lisa, how did you guys progress in dealing with the situation?
Lisa: We did not understand the full story for nine months. Kalyn became so sick at that point with a very deep depression mixed with a crazy form of rebellion that emotionally she just collapsed.
We became her enemy. We were the ones who were taking away this man that she had to have.
I look back, and I realize how much I did not understand about this issue of sexual abuse. We unfortunately did a lot of subtle blaming of her, and did not give her the immediate help that someone who’s making a sexual abuse disclosure should have. Unfortunately, that is incredibly common.
The person who’s perpetrating, if it’s a known person like ours was, grooms the whole situation to work for them. I had a very difficult time, even when I had the facts in front of me, believing that this man, who was a personal family friend, would do this. Now of course, that’s because he had earned our trust in a way that was not warranted.
This age-range relationship has almost become a little trendy in our culture. You see it in Hollywood, you see it being played out online. She age-progressed herself. I remember going to my husband one day, about three weeks before we uncovered her secret, and saying, “Doesn’t it seem to you like Kalyn’s aged about five years in the last month?” Honestly, that’s a warning sign.
LG: What signs should adults be looking for when it comes to secret sexual predation? How can you notice it when there’s so much work done to try to hide it?
Kalyn: There can be a lot of different responses from teenager to teenager. For me, I was overachieving, but you see a lot of teenagers begin to underachieve. I know I was saying things and behaving in ways that it appeared that I was much older than what I was.
Be aware of the technology that your teenager is using. I was finding excuses to stay home from family events so I could spend time chatting with this man, hours and hours, whenever no-one was home. I was very sleepy during the day because I was staying up at night to talk on the phone to this man.
Lisa: Here’s where I think our biggest vulnerability point was. We did not believe it could happen to us. The statistics are so overwhelming right now. The latest statistics I’ve seen say that one in three girls are sexually abused in some way by the age of 18. I did not know that in 2002. That is the kind of statistic that every parent in America needs to stare square in the face. If we think we’re immune, we’re silly.
When you see your teen start to head in to different kinds of other problems, like depression, rebellion – what we would call “troubled teen issues” – many experts say that underneath a lot of those teen challenges are actually sexual abuse wounds. As parents, even if we’re dealing appropriately with other kinds of teen problems, always dig back and say, “Is there something here I’m missing that might be causing this problem that needs to be addressed?”
Lisa and Kalyn have shared their full story in a book, Kalyn’s Secret, and now tour the country with Acquire the Fire to tell their story. They are also forming a new group, POTTS (Parents of Tweens and Teens), to help parents combat issues like the ones they faced. Find out more about their ministry at kalynssecret.com.