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Unchain Our Children In Conversation With Olivia Jasriel

Survivor, Activist and Founder of The Jasriel Foundation – Athletes against Child Abuse (AACA)

Unchain Our Children is immensely privileged to announce the partnership with The Jasriel Foundation in order to combat sexual abuse against children as a joint effort and together assist victims and survivors to seek justice and accompany them on their recovery journey.

“The Jasriel foundation athletes against child abuse (aaca) is a first in South Africa! A victim-centric organization run by survivors for survivors!”

Both organizations are results-driven and in synergy with envisaged outcomes and dedicated to address the injustices and sexual crimes against children. Solidarity in their approach, conduct and extensive activities solidifies the partnership which has one goal – to pave the way for more survivors to speak up and come forward.

“If we don’t have honest conversations, how else are we going to get the awareness out there! I have eight grandchildren; my job is to make sure what happen to me doesn’t happen to them.”  – Olivia Jasriel

Oliviaan Epitome of Strength

Olivia, a survivor of sexual abuse at the hand of her then tennis coach, Bob Hewitt, emerged from unimaginable trauma and today offers a safe place for victims and survivors to speak out.  Her quantum leap from victim to Founder of The Jasriel Foundation, an organization liberating survivors from silence to celebrating justice, is simply extraordinary.   Her tenacity is astonishing and fundamental to her recovery.  To break away from the past, she decided to change her name from Suellen Sheehan to Olivia Jasriel to distance herself from the connotation that name holds.  Sharing her heart-breaking story is still shattering and evokes not only immense empathy, but also sheer admiration, awe, and respect by her audience.

Although the sorrow of the past still lies shallow in her soul, her exuberance, joy, and kindness spur her on. She is gentle but strong, like fine-spun silk.  She is accessible to survivors and victims that are failed by their families and even the justice system.  She exudes compassion and kindness.  She has wisdom.  She is alert and spot red flags far ahead of any smooth talk. Her presence fills a room.  Her understanding comforts the vulnerable.

We were most fortunate to have met with her and heard her speak passionately about dedicating her support and assistance to victims and survivors of sexual child abuse. We witnessed the strength in her gentle demeanour. We learned from her so we could share the content with our audience.

Background

A talented 12-year-old tennis star in the making never expected that those she trusted and loved would one day turn against her and not believed the life-shattering trauma she desperately wanted to share. But, Bob Hohler, a Boston Globe journalist believed her, and he broke the story in August 2013 exposing Bob Hewitt who violated his position as tennis coach when he became a serial sex offender by sexually assaulting and raping the children in the 80s and 90s that trained with him.

Raped by Hewitt in 1982, this 12-year-old pursued her own justice as an adult bravely despite the disbelief of her parents, friends and even the cover up by the Tennis Federation and eventually got her day in court as an adult where she could testify to the horror of the sexual assault and rape.

Although Hewitt plead not guilty to all charges at trial, he was convicted on 23 March 2015 and found guilty of two counts of rape and one of sexual assault. He was denied an appeal on the rape conviction. Olivia was present during his sentencing and his stone face remained expressionless while he was sentenced. Hewitt was Imprisoned on 21 September 2016. He was subsequently expelled from the International Tennis Hall of Fame and his name was already removed in 2012 after the sexual abuse allegations came to light and following an international investigation by the International Tennis Hall of Fame.

From conviction to sentencing to imprisonment was 1 year and six months.

“Justice must be seen to be done, even to ageing offenders and even after the expiration of many years after the crime”, said Judge Bert Bam.

During the case, the court heard Hewitt boasting during his testimony, “In all instances, rape is inevitable and when it happens, you must lie back and enjoy it” The judge was astounded, asked him to repeat it, which he happily and precisely repeated and added audaciously, that he meant it as a joke.

Hewitt got away with sex crimes for 30 years but, “…. time doesn’t erase crimes”, judge Bam reiterated.

Olivia opposed the decision of his release on parole but despite her best efforts, the 80-year-old Hewitt, convicted for raping and assaulting young girls he coached in the 1980s and 1990s, was released from prison on parole on 24 April 2020 after only serving three years, six months, and 22 days of a six-year prison sentence.

“The one thing I can thank him for is that he taught me tenacity – that you should get every ball back. When I started training with him as an 11-year-old child, I remember him saying to me something that remained ingrained in me, “You run every tennis ball down, even if you think you can’t get it, try and get it!” And I followed that very advice in pursuing justice. From the time I laid the criminal charges in 2011, I decided that I was going to treat everything as a tennis match and get every ball back.”   – Olivia Jasriel 

Child Sexual Assault is an old and evil phenomena

Depravity, and in particular sexual abuse of children, has been part of all the generations and civilizations. The difference now is that more survivors are speaking out because of the results they notice – convictions, sentences, and imprisonment.  Survivors empower each other and are encouraged by platforms like the Jasriel Foundation and Unchain Our Children.

“I recently assisted a survivor with a sexual assault case and the 74-year-old offender who was abusing his own daughter 45 years ago, got convicted and received a 10-year sentence.”  – Olivia Jasriel

It takes long before victims/survivors will come forward due to the way they were inhibited, threatened, and violated during the grooming process where brainwashing, gaslighting, control, manipulation played a huge role. Another factor is their disappointment in immediate family members, friends and even their social- and professional networks, persons in authority. No-one believes the trauma they endured.

“When I told my mum, she immediately dismissed it and rubbished it right away. Her cruel reaction equalled Hewitt’s, he said to me at the time, “Nobody would believe you”. I believed that nobody would believe me! My mother even asked me if I was pregnant when I was about 13 years old because she admitted in 2013 she knew I was sleeping with him, indicating that she stood with the ones in the know but denied me her trust and safety.”  – Olivia Jasriel

Reputation and public image are priorities, even if it is all pretence. and they will sacrifice a child’s trust, treat it with disgust and scepticism and accuse the child of lying, choosing good social standing and discarding a child’s sorrow. The child’s career and/or future are also factors that are ‘protected’ rather than the child’s being.  Irreparable damage is done. Later in life, trust- and relationship issues occur.  Families want to “move on from it” there are other things more important.

“Why would a child lie?  Why would the 294 people, that came forward during a petition we set out, and admitted that they have either being abused by Hewitt or they had direct knowledge of someone that was abused by Hewitt.  The judgement shows a clear modus operandi, it was one of a serial abuser.”  – Olivia Jasriel

Can NPOs and NPCs work in tandem to make a viable difference?

“This is a very contentious issue as many organizations are hangers-on, not doing the work but pitch to bask in the limelight when trials begin and judgements are read, with the sole purpose to credit themselves purely in their presence and not by their contribution, either in funding or preparational work.”  – Olivia Jasriel

Real contribution is sharing the workload before the case, it is about taking hands and working together from start to finish, walking alongside the survivor with practical advice, support, assistance and accompanying them throughout the sometimes 4, 5 or even 6-year long journey to justice. It can never be about credit, personal fame, or any gain.

The irony is that many organizations with great funding are not doing much and often have no statistics to present. Social media postings have almost been reduced to a commercialism of a heinous crime instead of a celebration of survival.  Proven results are essential for survivors to gain faith in the system again and stay empowered so they can encourage other survivors to speak out.

“I am beyond blessed by my life partner, Etienne, providing me with huge support so I can continue with my pledge to change the dynamic so necessary to bring justice to victims and survivors.”  – Olivia Jasriel

What is the biggest challenge in pursuing justice for Survivors and Victims?

“The authorities’ treatment of victims and survivors. The way the victims are treated is a big deterrent and has kept victims silent. We at The Jasriel Foundation go the extra mile to prepare all the documents and get victims court ready. We offer court support and liaise with authorities continuously to monitor progress.  Often we actually do the work of investigating officers, making sure statements are collected and provide other relevant services.”  –  Olivia Jasriel

Caring is costly.  Despite big corporates who drive campaigns to end GBV and abuse against children, NPOs and NPCs hardly ever receive funding for essential operations to do just that.  Neither are the authorities able to provide the resources for the work to be done.  Huge budgets are applied for frivolous marketing material that shouts out the message, but little change happens on the ground, especially during the annual Child Protection Week and 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children.  Child abuse statistics increase year on year, but available funding doesn’t.

What does it take to not only survive the abuse, but to survive life after the abuse?

“I’ll call it light-bulb moments.  Special encounters, people who believed me, occasions where I wasn’t ridiculed, mocked, or shamed. Someone, who knew I was a victim of Hewitt’s abuse, alerted a reporter from the Boston Globe who called me.  He believed me, he called me, he asked me a direct question, I responded and that is how the story got out and then, there was no turning back. That was a light-bulb moment.”  – Olivia Jasriel

My case is often being used in court as a case study. In many judgements, my case has been used as an example and that makes me proud and encourages me to continue on a path that is extremely difficult and has caused an immense struggle with Olivia’s health in general.  But, then the light-bulb moments lit the road ahead of me and when I look back, those people and occasions stand like sentinels of my growth and progress, and I sense it guards me against giving up.  I learned to rest, rather than quit.”

“In 2019 I realised the massive sexual abuse phenomena in SA sport and had a golden opportunity to address it on an international platform when I was invited as a guest speaker at a safeguarding conference for the Olympics in London by sharing my story. The audience had many comments and questions.  The most surprising question though, came afterwards.  Outside the facilitator asked me, “Do you think the abuse you all experienced was because of the type of clothing you wore?”  Such a sad perception that is still held by many today! She didn’t know that, after I was abused by Hewitt the first time, I started to train in tracksuits despite the summer heat. This also proved that her task was most important and that she had to change the sad perceptions of the public.

When no-one believes you, what keeps you going?

“I didn’t manage, I had a horrific relationship with my mother and became extremely withdrawn at the time up until just after matric. My high school years, are a vague memory, I don’t remember much.  I received a tennis scholarship but hated every minute of it.  Relationships up until my 50th were abysmal.  I chose the wrong men and had a warped sense of what real relationships were about because I had been taught that sex equals love.”

“I suffer from two autoimmune diseases, and presents with chronic PTSD, sleeplessness, depression, and must avoid triggers – all directly linked to the trauma of brutal sexual abuse I suffered as a child.”

“Recovery is a work in progress, every single day, I decide to be OK, or to not be OK. It is exhausting. People came afterwards and said they knew what was going on, but they didn’t reach out then and helped me.”

“How do I cope?  I struggle.  Every day is a struggle. It is tough.  Survival is not for the fainthearted, but you have to get up and apply yourself to continue and go forward.  I have off days, when I want to end things again, but then those days pass and new days come with new opportunities and new grace.”

What is your message to children?

“Share without fear”                                                  

“We, at The Jasriel Foundation and Unchain Our Children, will believe you and we will help you. If your parents don’t believe you, call us. We will believe you, protect you and act.”

Abused children can report abuse via the reporting mechanism on The Jasriel Foundation’s website and to call Unchain Our Children’s national crisis line.

“I’ll go above and beyond for victims and survivors because I was there.”

“I’m working with more than 20 sporting federations, where I have established trusted working relationships with victims of abusive coaches within each of these federations. Across the board of those, except for water polo federation, I am supporting and assisting 220 victims.  In the Ackerman versus Kennedy case, we assisted with, Ackerman was convicted on 740 counts and another case was successfully closed when a 74-year-old sex offender was sentenced to 10 years. My own case will always be my first victory. There are currently 11 cases in the court system, meaning trials are about to start.  My successful results are the reason victims and survivors trust me to act.  Once a case number is allocated, I immediately start to contact the particular bodies, school, federation, place of employment where the abuse occurred and make sure an alert goes out there.”

What is your message to sex offenders?

“I want every sex offender to know that I’m watching you.  We all are watching you.  The net is closing.  In some cases, we know who you are and where you are.  If we don’t know your identity, we’ll find out and we will come and we will find you.” 

Should names of sex offenders be made public?

“Yes, I certainly think so. They walk among us. They move and live and have their being and hide in the light of everyday life. They are neighbours, fathers, mothers, grandfathers, grandmothers, teachers, uncles, aunts, and siblings and please note that female abusers are not excluded here.  Unless victims and survivors, and people that are aware of sexual crimes against children come forward, sex offenders will be kept hidden. “

“Don’t be complacent, recognise the red flags, take children seriously and don’t deny them the right to be heard and helped.” Olivia Jasriel 

Why is self-hate and guilt the survivor’s burden to carry?

“There is a lot of shame because of what happened to us because we were led to believe that we deserved what happened to us, that it is our fault.

Guilt and self-hate don’t always manifest immediately after the incident. It surfaces in adult years when I realized I couldn’t hold relationships. I thought something was wrong with me because of what happened to me.”

How important is therapy and counselling?

“Speak about your trauma, sooner rather than later, get good, specialised therapy.”

“During therapy I came to the realization that I had a wrong perception of what relationships are. I learned that I don’t have to carry the guilt and shame. I was blessed that my therapy was sponsored. I attended every day for 8 months. Therapy changed things but I still made wrong relationship choices until I met my life partner late 2019.  I celebrate our relationship daily.  We met on a Monday and every Monday without fail we wish each other “Happy Mondayversary!”).

I know now that I am worthy of a good relationship. Don’t rely on therapy only, though.  Engage in personal development and self-help and don’t get stuck in victim mentally mode where the world owes you. The world doesn’t owe you anything, quite frankly the world is also not really interested.  Plan some exercise time daily.  Face yourself, face the situation whether you are bulimic or anorexic, suicidal, or manic, depressed, or delighted.  You can’t change something you don’t acknowledge.”

“I’ve been ugly, I’ve been pretty, I’ve gone through it all but now I’m comfortable in who I am.  I can rebuild my capacity to trust.  Everyone is worthy of one’s trust, until they break it.”  – Olivia Jasriel

Trauma scars for life

“I bath in bleach every day. I still feel dirty, tainted and the smell of bleach sooths my obsession to feel clean.  I can’t function without that daily ritual, otherwise I won’t feel clean from that crime committed against me.”

“Besides this drastic measure, I still battle with the other effects of trauma – depression, exhaustion, confusion, sadness, anxiety, agitation, numbness, dissociation, confusion, and blunted affect.  This is how the damage done to us impacts our lives. I can’t get past this. The lesson here is for parents to look out and notice when their children present with strange behaviors.  They need to investigate the reasons and address it instantly.”

Is recovery an event or a journey?

“You never recover, it is pretty much like an addiction. I reinvented myself, changing what people see, knowing that their perception is their reality, and that I can’t change that. I changed my name, Suellen Sheehan, which I hated.  I hated how its sound rolled in Hewitt’s strong Australian accent. I hated that person he abused. I put her in a box and still keep her in a box. It should be only her that can still be triggered by the smell of a sweaty man or the sound of a car riding on stones, but tragically, I still collapse under the weight of sensory reminders, catapulting me back to Suellen.

“A lot of thought went into the choice of my new name. I decided on Olivia, meaning ‘peace’ and extending the olive branch’. I combined the names of two of my grandsons, Jasper, and Gabriel and Jasriel became my new surname. It was the exodus of the old and the beginning of the remake of me.”  – Olivia Jasriel

“After the trial, I applied for a job. The interviewer recognized me and commented, “You know, you are unemployable because of what you have done.” I was stunned, but the day when Hewitt was imprisoned, I went back and confronted the woman.”

For the past 13 years, Olivia has earned international accolades for her dedication to survivor’s causes, and she has become a speaker of note on international platforms, advocating for the rights of survivors of sexual abuse and to bring sex offenders to accountability.  The Council of Europe invited Olivia to participate in a series of planning meetings and workshops to be held in London between 30th May and 2nd June 2023.

 Visit The Jasriel Foundation: https://thejasrielfoundation.org/

Unchain Our Children National Crisis Line:  067 323 7116