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'You're taking away a child's dignity': Survivor shares story as Iowa passes sexual abuse laws

'Sophia', now 21, was assaulted by two separate relatives between the ages of five and seven. Two laws passed in April make it easier to prosecute child sex abusers.

DES MOINES, Iowa — EDITOR'S NOTE: This story contains depictions of sexual abuse that may be considered graphic or traumatic. If you are someone you know is the victim of sexual assault or abuse, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

Every nine minutes, a child in the US is sexually assaulted, according to the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN). 

This April, during Sexual Assault Awareness Month, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed two bills making it easier to prosecute sex crimes, bringing hope to Sophia.

One law changes Iowa's criminal code to expand the state's definition of sexual assault. Another law deals with maximum penalties for abusers.

Before, the maximum sentence was reserved for perpetrators who abuse children under age 12. Now, the age is raised to 14.

Local 5 spoke with an Iowa woman who survived sexual assault as a child. Sophia was assaulted by two separate relatives between the ages of five and seven.

NOTE: Local 5 is choosing to protect the identity of the woman in this story by calling her "Sophia"

First, it was her uncle, who started abusing her in a bathroom when she was five.

"He started touching my private area, and I remember telling him 'no,'" Sophia, now 21 years old, said. "I was like 'That’s weird, why are you touching me?'"

Then, it was her cousin, someone she really trusted. He was 10 years older than her.

"We would do activities together, play Nintendo 64 together," Sophia said.

Her cousin took advantage of her in the family's camper, trying to pull down her pants and grope her. It took her more than a decade to tell someone in her family, but she's still afraid to tell others or confront him. She was afraid no one would believe her.

"He was always praised as this golden boy. This golden child. All my male cousins look up to him," Sophia said. "But I understand. They don’t know what happened to me."

Laura Palumbo, communications director for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center, said it's especially hard for survivors to come forward if they were assaulted by a family member.

"It can feel as though the only way for the victim to come forward is to betray their family and loved ones," she said.

It's also hard for family members to believe their own relative may have committed a heinous act, according to Palumbo.

"It's often difficult for us to imagine that person committing these behaviors," she added. "But what we know is that people from all walks of life commit harassment and abuse. So it's very important for us to really lead by listening to survivors."

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Jessica Reynolds, executive director of the Iowa County Attorneys Association, says Iowa's new law changes will make it easier to put criminals behind bars.

"Although [the new laws] may look like small changes, for prosecutors, they're huge," Reynolds said.

Before, Iowa's definition of sexual assault was "limited," Reynolds noted. One law adds a few more sexual acts to the definition.

"What prosecutors around the state and law enforcement are seeing is that all kinds of sex acts that you wouldn’t even dream of," she said. "We are seeing perpetrators who are making children masturbate in front of them, or they’re masturbating in front of them. That wasn’t incorporated into the current definition of sex abuse.

"Obviously, that’s clearly sexual abuse, and so we need to be able to prosecute that as such."

Sophia still struggles with the trauma she experienced as a child, saying it's caused anger issues, among other challenges.

"I sexualized myself a lot more," she said.

She never pressed charges against either family member. She says her grandpa told her mother to not press charges against his son (Sophia's uncle who abused her). 

Sophia has wrestled with that over the years.

"Press charges," Sophia tells other survivors. "Just do it. Do what you need to do for your children. Don’t have them suffer."

She hopes her story empowers other survivors to come forward to someone close to them.

"Tell someone. It’s going to eat you up inside. It’s going to drag you down. It’s going to not want to make you be here, when you need to be here."

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