Pennie Saum has made it her life’s mission to protect children from sexual abuse and predatory behavior – in large part because she lacked the same basic safeguards when she was a child.
“I am a survivor of child sexual and emotional abuse at the hands of my biological father who was a U.S. Army officer, now retired,” Saum says. “My brother was also abused.”
After civil judgement and award of $5 million, Saum’s civil suit was thrown out of court due to the Washington State Statute of Limitations – and she began fighting for the passage of HR1103, the “Child Abuse Accountability Enhancement Act.”
“Our abuser paid nothing,” Saum says. “The U.S. Government doesn’t allow garnishments of military retirements. I fought to have that law changed. It was introduced federally to the Senate in January 2017 and was signed into law by the President on December 12, 2017.”
Saum says, “When you have dealt with years, not just five or six, but a childhood of years being raped, sodomized, beaten and many other things that occurred, it takes time to heal. It takes therapy and doctors and time and money. Yes, he served time, but that time ends and he created a new life, living. Child abuse leaves long-term effects, some of which never go away.”
In Washington state, a person convicted of a sexual crime against family is most often served a Level 1 sex offender ruling.
“What that means: You are on probation for a year after release and you are registered and only shown on the sex offender registry for one year,” Saum says. “After that, you are free. There is only one system that he can be found on currently, its federal and you have to have special clearance to be able to find it there.”
Saum is currently working to change this law as well.
“He received an exceptional sentence of 17.5 years and, of course, only served 11,” she says. “When he walked out of prison, his punishment was over. I am not done yet.”
Saum now has two children, both currently under the age of 18.
“The number one thing [for me] is stopping the cycle of abuse,” she says. “I made very sure that I sought the support and help that I needed to heal. I never wanted there to be a chance that anything would happen. In my home growing up, sex was never discussed, never. We joke now, but I could only watch G-rated movies until I was 15. My mother tried so hard to protect us, having no idea what was going on in her own home. I assure that we discuss sex, implications, consent, bad touching, and open communication. Always wanting my children to talk about things even when they are hard.”
She offers guidance now to parents seeking help in talking with their kids about serious subject matter with lifelong implications.
“Talk to your children, be honest. Kids are smart,” she advises. “Use proper terms for anatomy; talk about age appropriate topics that apply. There are many great resources out there. But talk to them. Be honest and open. They need to know you are there and you are hearing them. So many adults in my life didn’t see, or didn’t hear me, or didn’t want to ask the ‘hard’ questions. Do it! Your children’s lives depend on it.”
Saum still struggles with finding her footing in public and private life, but she’s on the mend.
“Life is good,” she says. “It has taken a long time for me to be my full authentic self and life isn’t perfect, but I have found a space to be myself. I do believe that what happened to me has shaped who I am today and that doesn’t mean there wasn’t tons of hard work. The work continues, sometimes daily, but when anyone strives to be their best self, it’s a journey not a race.”
She has found that her story can be overwhelming for some, but she continues to tell it regardless.
“I have been blessed with wonderful family, friends and professionals who have helped me have the best life possible,” Saum says. “Standing beside me during my best and worst times. I have peace. I have to be careful because I am so comfortable talking about my story I scare people sometimes. The reality is, societal pressures cause us to not speak our truths. Especially when it comes to something that is seen as dirty and wrong.”
Saum tells abused children and functioning adults in hiding, “It’s not your fault, that’s the most important thing I can say. It’s not your fault. I went through my childhood believing what I was told, that not speaking up protected my mom and my brother. The fear and worry about never seeing them again kept me from every finding my voice. Honestly, I’m thankful to my brother for finally speaking up and telling our mom what had happened. After that, I realized that the secrets that were kept were not protecting anyone and I deserved to be taken care of. When I realized that, I realized that it was my responsibility to protect everyone, I found my voice.”
And that voice now echoes in a stirring memoir on sale May 20, 2018 called Brave and Unbroken: A Memoir of Surviving Child Sexual Abuse and Great Loss. Signed copies will be available via Saum’s website. The book will also be available at the following: Amazon, Powell’s Books, Books-A-Million, Barnes & Noble, as well as some independent book stores.
“To each of you, that are holding in your dark secrets of abuse, you are not at fault,” Saum says. “You have done nothing wrong and you deserve to have your life back, no matter what threats or things you were told, none of those are true. You are worthy to be loved, just as you are. Your story matters, but more than anything, you matter. Please talk to someone. You can email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.”