Dena Tartaro was hoping to find some support among other adult survivors of child abuse in South Jersey, but she found few resources or groups existed.
So she started one herself.
“I had been looking to join a group forever,” she said. “I was part of groups when I lived in other states, and there are some resources down here — but not enough.”
Tartaro will lead a new support group through a program designed by Adult Survivors of Child Abuse, a national organization with groups in several states and counties. She hopes to create a place where people can find comfort in shared experiences and grow in their survivorship.
Nearly 700,000 children are emotionally, physically and sexually abused or neglected in the United States annually, according to the National Children’s Alliance. Two-thirds of children served by Children’s Advocacy Centers nationwide reported sexual abuse in 2015.
In New Jersey, South Jersey counties had some of the highest rates of reported child abuse in the state. Cumberland County had the highest in 2015, with 97 abuse cases per 1,000 children under age 18, according to data from Advocates for Children of New Jersey.
Alliance data show children are more likely to be abused by a parent or other relative.
Naomi Jones, a doctor of psychology at Jewish Family Service, treats children with cognitive behavioral therapy who have suffered trauma from being neglected, sexually or physically assaulted, and emotionally or psychologically abused.
“Children can lose the sense of trust and safety that is required for healthy development (after trauma),” she said. “They can experience anxiety, depression and self-esteem issues, to name a few of the most common psychological effects.”
Jones said people can recover from childhood trauma and abuse, but may experience some long-term effects as adults that can be triggered by certain changes or stresses as they move through different stages of life.
Although it has been more than 30 years since her father sexually abused her, Tartaro said, she has continually sought therapy and coping resources to heal from the physical, sexual and domestic abuse aimed at her, her sister and her mother.
“We moved around all the time,” she said. “From the outside, we were this upper-class family with two parents and two kids, but in private, nobody knew what was happening.”
The Adult Survivors of Child Abuse support group, which is in partnership with the Mental Health Association in Atlantic County, will meet once a week starting Tuesday in Northfield in a structured format session to cover topics like the role of therapy, confronting abusers, support systems, self-soothing activities, abuse repercussions and more.
One chapter included in the support program focuses on self-blame, which experts say many survivors struggle with. Tartaro said she thankfully had always recognized that her father was in the wrong, not her.
Her father was sentenced in 1997 to two life terms in a Texas prison and died last year. Getting justice for her abuse and knowing he was in prison “made me feel safer to go on with my life,” she said — but she recognized that not all survivors get that closure, or the help they need.
“For those who do not get treatment, people are often anxious, depressed, angry and have high rates of suicidal thoughts and substance abuse,” Jones said.
Tartaro said the support program doesn’t replace therapy or counseling, but creates a community for people who have suffered similar abuse. Ideal participants are those who like its structured format and who already have support systems in friends, family or professionals.
The group’s members remain confidential and it is strictly for adult abuse survivors. The program is not for professionals without personal experience or abusers, and is free with suggested donations for materials.
Tartaro has since found a career in social work, raised her daughter, gotten remarried to her wife and created a home in New Jersey. She hopes the new support group will fill in some gaps in South Jersey.
“This is for anyone who has been through abuse who doesn’t want to feel like they are the only ones,” she said.