Keeping the flame of hope alight in Kansas: Courageous survivors show how it’s done

April 2, 2023 3:33 am
Sen. Cindy Holscher speaks at a March news conference.

Kansas Sen. Cindy Holscher, D-Overland Park, speaks at a news conference in March about reforming criminal and civil statutes of limitations for childhood sexual abuse. (Clay Wirestone/Kansas Reflector)

I’ve had three conversations in the past week with three different Kansans, all about the same question.

How, they wondered, can we keep the flickering flame of hope alive in a state that seems determined to extinguish it?

Each one of us has to answer that question separately. But I have found that hope recently in the efforts of a group of child sex abuse survivors. They have persisted against outright opposition, a pandemic and institutional indifference. On Thursday, they saw a compromise bill extending criminal and civil statutes of limitations cleared the Senate. The legislation, now known as Senate Substitute for House Bill 2127, passed on a unanimous vote. It now heads to the House.

These survivors overcame not because they wielded enormous power at the Statehouse, or because they hired expensive lobbyists. They succeeded because they believed, acted and persisted. Simply feeling hope wasn’t enough for them: They actually turned up and did the work.

Even the most despairing among us ought to take note.

Survivor Lesa Patterson-Kinsey has shared her personal experiences over and over again. She said that watching the Senate discuss the bill was far more emotional than she expected.

“As tears ran down my face as I sat in the Senate gallery, I felt the weight of all our work for the last four years at that moment,” she said. “I’m so proud and honored to take part in this first step in protecting children from sexual predators.”

Some of the survivors who told their stories were, in fact, lawmakers themselves.

Sen. Usha Reddi, D-Manhattan, revealed her own childhood abuse when testifying in favor of a similar bill three years ago. She has continued to share her experiences, which included pursuing criminal charges against her father. On Wednesday, Sen. Cindy Holscher — an Overland Park Democrat who has worked on the issue through this session — talked about her life. When she was 5 years old, a farmhand attempted to sexually abuse her.

You can watch her account here:

“When I first started working on this issue, I honestly hadn’t come to the realization that what happened to me was an attempted sexual assault,” Holscher told me via email. “I had always categorized it in my mind as a ‘creepy interaction’ that happened when I was a child and avoided thinking about it. After hearing survivors talk candidly about their experiences and the things their abusers said to them, it hit me that I had been ‘set up’ by this individual who was older than me, knew my patterns, and where to find me alone.

“As the bill was moving this year, I initially didn’t plan to share my experience as I didn’t want to detract from the survivors; I mean, my story is nothing compared to what some of these individuals endured. But, as I thought about it, I felt there were some strong correlations that could be made. … I waited decades before coming forward; my thought was if it took me that long to talk about abuse that almost happened, surely that would help my peers understand why the average age of disclosure of sexual abuse is 52.”

Holscher describes passing the reform as an “arduous journey” of four years.

Few lawmakers originally supported the legislation, from either party, she said. Early efforts were derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic and continued opposition from those inside and outside the Statehouse. Many simply didn’t understand why survivors would take years to disclose their abuse.

David Clohessy, former executive director of the Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, told me last month that state legislatures were often reluctant to take action.

“Unfortunately, lawmakers are often moved by scare tactics like ‘every nonprofit here will go bankrupt’ and ‘our courts will be clogged,’ ” he said. “Despite the fact that dozens of states have enacted similar reforms with very little or no real ill effects, except that those who’ve committed or concealed child sex crimes are exposed, embarrassed and sometimes lose their jobs and prestige.”

Kansas survivors and their allied legislators made a new plan for the 2023 session and found additional support after a Kansas Bureau of Investigation summary of clergy abuse in the Catholic Church.

I was personally shocked and surprised that more than 400 children had been abused since 1950 and more than 200 clergy investigated. Then-Attorney General Derek Schmidt should have released the full report and named names, but at least a broader conversation began. Current Attorney General Kris Kobach could still do so, if he wants.

Which brings us back to hope.

Childhood sexual abuse can be difficult to talk about. I’ve seen how many Kansas Reflector readers follow articles and columns on this subject as opposed to, say, stories about medical marijuana legalization. People want to dwell on happy things rather than trauma. But these Kansas survivors have transformed their accounts of suffering into stories of bravery and fortitude. They have dared to hope beyond despair.

Patterson-Kinsey thanked both legislators who worked on the bill and Senate leadership for helping find a path forward.

“This is the furthest we have ever reached before, and (I’m) cautiously optimistic that it will pass in the House next week,” she said.

Here’s to hope. No matter what.

Update: The Kansas House of Representatives passed this legislation unanimously April 3, the day after this column was published.

Clay Wirestone is Kansas Reflector opinion editor. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Through its opinion section, Kansas Reflector works to amplify the voices of people who are affected by public policies or excluded from public debate. Find information, including how to submit your own commentary, here.

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Clay Wirestone
Clay Wirestone

Clay Wirestone serves as Kansas Reflector's opinion editor. His columns have been published in the Kansas City Star and Wichita Eagle, along with newspapers and websites across the state and nation. He has written and edited for newsrooms in Kansas, New Hampshire, Florida and Pennsylvania. He has also fact checked politicians, researched for Larry the Cable Guy, and appeared in PolitiFact, Mental Floss, and cnn.com. Before joining the Reflector in summer 2021, Clay spent four years at the nonprofit Kansas Action for Children as communications director. Beyond the written word, he has drawn cartoons, hosted podcasts, designed graphics and moderated debates. Clay graduated from the University of Kansas and lives in Lawrence with his husband and son.