Editorâ??s Note: The Culpeper Times does not name the victims of sexual assault without their consent. While the subject matter may be controversial, Karah is a gutsy girl to share her story. Her decision to step forward in life rather than spiral out of control turning to drugs or alcohol for comfort serves as a role model for anyone faced with these challenges. She may have been molested but she has risen above her abuse choosing a path of higher education, a career and a stable relationship. Rather than choosing self pity, she has chosen a brighter path. Her story is one of hope and our intent is not to sensationalize but rather inspire.
Karah Perryman is a survivor.
The 21-year-old survived years of sexual assaults at the hands of her former stepfather. She turned those nightmarish events into a positive career.
Perryman serves as the assistant director of the Culpeper County Victim Witness program, helping other crime victims survive and participate in the court proceedings.
How she started her career is a harrowing tale perpetrated by a former family friend and respected member of the community who later became her stepfather and abuser. He had a dark side no one suspected or knew about.
For more than three years, while in the fourth, fifth and sixth grades, Perryman suffered repeated sexual assaults in silence, afraid to tell anyone, not even her mother. Perryman said that her attacker made threats to not tell anyone about his early morning visits to her bedroom.
â??I was scared that he was going to carry out his threat,â? said Perryman.
Although the attacks occurred normally between 2 a.m. and 4 a.m. almost daily, Perryman devised ways to avoid being around her abuser.
If she was home and he came home during the day, Perryman would crawl out her first-floor bedroom window and scamper to the safety of a large rock at the edge of the woods near her house. From that vantage point, she could see her motherâ??s car coming down the road, allowing her enough time to run back to the house, crawl in the window and pretend to have been home when her mother walked into the house.
â??I hated being in the house,â? said Perryman.
At other times, she made plans to sleep over at a neighborâ??s house to avoid assaults. The neighbors were lifelong friends and had children her age. It was a safe house for Perryman.
She set up a small tent in her bedroom with the opening facing away from the bedroom door through which her abuser would enter. She hoped the tent would provide a protective wall.
Perryman was molested for years.
Suffering in silence, she refused to tell anyone, including her sister. But Perryman, then a12-year-old, remembers that sometime around Motherâ??s Day in 2006 her sister prodded Perryman in front of their mother to tell her about the assaults. Somehow, Perrymanâ??s sister knew something was amiss although she had no proof.
The night before telling her mother, Perryman said her former stepfather snuck into her room early in the morning – another assault.
The truth set her free
â??I was scared and relieved,â? Perryman recalled once she told her mother, who immediately believed her young daughter. â??It was so embarrassing to tell mom.â?
â??I told her everything.â?
The assaults finally stopped.
But the pain and some of the memories from years of molestation didn’t.
â??I blocked a lot of stuff out,â? she said.
The confession to her mother brought a swift response, but she said her mother also felt guilt for letting the abuser into their lives.
â??My mom kicked him out and filed for divorce,â? said Perryman.
Then Perrymanâ??s mother went straight to the sheriffâ??s office to report the abuse. The abuser was arrested on 19 felony charges and one misdemeanor charge involving Perryman and another juvenile girl.
Like many young victims of sexual assault, Perryman was guilt ridden. She didnâ??t initially understand what she had done to bring on the abuse.
â??As I got older, I realized I didnâ??t do anything wrong,â? she said. â??Itâ??s nobodyâ??s fault, but his own.â?
She went to two counseling sessions and didnâ??t like it.
â??I didnâ??t need anybody else knowing my problem,â? she said.
She never went back.
Perryman suffered from severe debilitating migraines. Even a quiet, darkened room offered no relief. A few years ago, her natural father had to come get her from her waitress job and take her to the hospital, her migraine was so severe. She kept a diary to document her migraines in an attempt to see what might trigger an episode.
â??They stopped last year,â? she said.
Perryman played middle school, high school and travel team sports, mainly soccer and volleyball. Playing sports helped somewhat to release her aggression and anger. She had the same school coaches and teammates for her travel team.
â??They said I had a big foot,â? said Perryman, who played as a defender in soccer. â??â?I took out everything on the soccer ball.â?
Following the arrest of her abuser, Perryman faced testifying in court. It was at this time that her mother took her to meet Culpeper Victim Witness Program Director Mark Nowacki and his part-time then-Assistant Director Cindy Hedges. The pair was going to help Perryman understand the legal process and let her visit the courtrooms before she had to testify.
Convincing a young victim to trust him and the legal system is something Nowacki has a knack for.
â??I didnâ??t want anything to do with Mark and Cindy,â? said Perryman.
She just sat there.
â??She was very introverted,â? said Nowacki. â??She put up barriers.â?
But Nowacki, who has been working with victims and witnesses since 1998, wasnâ??t about to give up on Perryman just because she was withdrawn. Nowackiâ??s low-key and sincere demeanor suits him for the job.
â??I never give up on barriers,â? Nowacki said. â??Never have.â?
Eventually, Perryman opened up to Nowacki and Hedges. A bond was formed.
One day, Hedges and Nowacki took Perryman into an empty circuit courtroom where her case would finally be heard.
â??I saw the white whole picket fence. I didnâ??t like it,â? she said about the white rail that separates the courtroom. â??It still bothers me.â?
The white picket fence symbolized the perfect house in the perfect neighborhood. The courtroom was the exact opposite.
â??We prepared her for trial,â? said Nowacki.
Perryman never had to testify in circuit court, but she was present when her attacker, who was shackled, handcuffed and wearing an orange jumpsuit, pleaded guilty to several felony charges as part of a plea agreement, sentencing him to 10 years in prison.
â??I could breathe for 10 years,â? she recalled thinking to herself at the time.
She left the courtroom before the prosecutor summarized the evidence. The child molester gets released from prison in July 2015.
Not an end but a new beginning
With her attacker in prison, Perryman began putting her life back together. She didnâ??t allow the years of abuse to sweep her into drug and alcohol abuse. Instead, she graduated high school early and began working several jobs. She also graduated after 2.5 years with an associateâ??s degree in psychology from Germanna Community College.
Perrymanâ??s mother had a chance meeting with Hedges in Walmart. The two women talked and Hedges asked about Perryman. Hedges then asked Perrymanâ??s mother if she thought her daughter might be interested volunteering with the Crime Victim Witness Program.
â??She had gifts that might be beneficial,â? Nowacki said. â??Karah definitely stood out as a volunteer.â?
The decision was easy for the then-teenager. For four years, from the ages of 16 to 20 Perryman volunteered. She spent more time volunteering than anyone with the program, all the while working and going to college.
During the vetting process, Nowacki and Hedges asked Perryman what she wanted to do for a career. She didnâ??t know.
Nowacki, now her mentor, suggested she continue her education by taking online courses at Liberty University. She liked the idea, immediately applied and was accepted. With an overall 3.56 GPA,
Perryman expects to graduate this summer with a bachelorâ??s degree in criminal justice and criminal psychology.
However Perrymanâ??s biggest opportunity came when Hedges told Nowacki she was leaving. The director needed to find a replacement.
He didnâ??t need to look very far.
Nowacki called Perryman and asked her to meet him for coffee. After asking her about her goals in life, he offered her the job.
â??I thought he was joking,â? said Perryman.
â??If you could have seen her face light up, there was a glow on her face,â? Nowacki recalled.
He told her to think about it before making a decision.
â??I already knew the answer,â? she said.
She started the 30-hour per week job in June 2013.
Nowacki, who is passionate about advocating for and helping victims, offers nothing but praise for Perryman and what she has accomplished since being a victim. She shows both compassion and empathy.
â??Karah was a perfect fit,â? said Nowacki. â??It was a seamless transition.â?
â??I have lived it and want to help others who have been through what I have been through,â? said Perryman.
She is stronger and rebuilding her life in so many ways. She said she had a general distrust for men, making a relationship difficult.
â??It was hard letting them in,â? she said.
But all that has changed. She has been in a two-year relationship with a man who has supported her and stands beside her.
â??He is the only person I have really trusted,â? she said about her boyfriend.
Nowacki said Perryman brings life experience to a program that serves victims.
â??Karah is not only a survivor,â? said Nowacki. â??She is an over comer.â?
Perryman credits Nowacki, Hedges and the program he administers for much of her success coping with a nightmare.
â??Itâ??s made me who I am,â? she said. â??Itâ??s made me know what I want to do in life.â?
Wally Bunker is a freelance contributor with the Culpeper Times. You may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Culpeper County Victim Witness Program
What: Program to help victims and witnesses prepare for trial through support and education.
Where: 131 West Davis Street
Who: Mark Nowacki, director; Karah Perryman, assistant director
Clients: Contact with 1,509 crime victims in last two years, with 973 receiving a wide variety of direct services.
Referrals: Culpeper police, sheriffâ??s office, state police, counselors, court dockets, victim initiated