'I trusted them': The pain of sexual abuse


MARIE HAVENGA • MAY 11, 2019 AT 9:00 AM


SPRING LAKE TWP. — Sasha Neulinger's childhood pain still lingers. Family members, people he trusted, betrayed and violated him.

Neulinger, now 29, said he was sexually abused by two uncles and a cousin as a child growing up in Pennsylvania.

“It's been a real journey for me as a survivor, but also as a human being,” Neulinger told a packed ballroom at the Spring Lake Country Club on Friday afternoon during a fundraiser for Holland's Ed and Nancy Hanenburg Children's Advocacy Center.

Child sexual abuse is one of the greatest social epidemics of our time, according to Neulinger, who last week debuted an autobiographical documentary film at the Tribeca Film Festival. “Rewind” chronicles his life as a survivor of multi-generational child sexual abuse. He said that, according to current statistics, one out of every four girls and one out of every six boys will be sexually abused before age 18.

Neulinger sprinkled home-movie clips and television news broadcasts into his presentation.

“At 3 years old, I was the happiest kid on the planet,” he said. “I felt safe, supported, and felt free to express myself. Unfortunately, that joy and happiness was violently interrupted.”

At age 4, he said his uncle sexually abused him for the first time.

“I only knew what my uncle was doing to me was extremely painful,” Neulinger said. “I thought I was awful and that I must have done something to deserve it. At that moment, the world became a dark place and I felt dirty.”

But the abuse didn’t stop there. For the next four years, he said two uncles and a cousin raped him, often during family gatherings in his own home.

“Uncle Howard said to me, 'If you tell anyone, I'll kill you.' And I believed it,” he said. “With each rape, I felt increasingly numb. My sense of self-worth, my identity, my ability to see beauty in the world was deteriorating rapidly. At some level, I believed I deserved this.”

One day, when his cousin Stewart summoned him to a room in the attic, Neulinger saw his little sister exiting the room, tears rolling down her face.

“It was at that moment that I finally realized what my abusers were doing was wrong,” he said. “My little sister didn't deserve to be hurt like that. And maybe, just maybe, I didn't either.”

Neulinger approached his mother, telling her about the “secret club” that was doing bad things. His mom asked his sister to draw pictures.

“My sister drew pictures that no 4-year-old child should know how to draw,” he said.

The experiences carved a deep hole in Neulinger's soul. He suffered from insomnia, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. He jumped out of a moving car in an attempt to kill himself.

He began to see a psychiatrist, and eventually revealed his deep, dark secrets.

“I was 8 years old at the time of disclosure,” Neulinger said. “I felt this huge sense of relief. For the next nine years of my life, I was in and out of courtrooms testifying against all three of my abusers.”

In those days, Neulinger had to travel to physicians offices, detective offices, Child Protective Services and various other government buildings, telling his story over and over, dozens of times. It was traumatizing, and tiring, he said.

His Uncle Larry Nevison was sentenced to 14-22 years in prison, and served 11 years. Stewart asked for a plea deal and served 11 months in prison.

Uncle Howard Nevison, a prominent Manhattan Jewish cantor, used defense attorneys to drag out the legal process, filing multiple motions over many years. After a plea bargain, Howard was sentenced to 12 years probation, when Neulinger was 16.

“After four years of abuse and nine years of prosecution, I was ready to move forward with my life,” Neulinger said. “I was unwilling to make my entire young life about prosecution. He only got 12 years of probation, but the multi-generational abuse was over.

Neulinger had learned that his Uncle Larry, father and others were sexually abused.

“After 13 years of fighting to get my life back, the war was finally over,” he said. “It was a triumphant moment.”

The legal minds who helped prosecute Neulinger's case reached out to him to set up a Children's Advocacy Center in his home county. Like many similar advocacy centers across the country, including the one in Holland, it's a child-friendly space where kids can share their stories, undergo forensic medical exams, experience play, art and psycho-therapy, all under one roof. There's no running from place to place, retelling the story dozens of times, like Neulinger had to do. And there's no cost to families.

“Everything is under one roof with access to justice, physical, emotional and mental healing,” Neulinger said.

For more information on volunteering or donating to the Ed and Nancy Hanenburg Children's Advocacy Center, call 616-393-6123, visit cac-ottawa.org/prevention 

Crazy Hat Day!

Our prevention team visits every first and third grade class in Zeeland Public Schools teaching lessons on body safety and sharing these lessons with students’ families through informative and fun take home body safety magazines. The students can be a part of raising valuable support for the Center by paying $1 to wear a crazy hat during the week following Spring Break. ZPS raised a total of $1,223.05 for the Center!

A huge thank you to the following schools full of kids helping kids!

Lincoln Elementary

Woodbridge Elementary

New Groningen Elementary

Quincy Elementary

Adams Elementary

Roosevelt & Z Quest Elementary

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April is Child Abuse Prevention Month!


At the Children’s Advocacy Center, we are excited to celebrate Child Abuse Prevention Month in April 2019. In Ottawa County, at least 1 in 10 children will be sexually abused before they reach adulthood; that is the equivalent of 6,800 children in our county today1. We understand that those statistics can be overwhelming, producing fear or even apathy. However, these numbers are slowly declining due to sustained and evidence-based prevention efforts, and that is something to celebrate and use as motivation to continue! As members of the Ottawa County SCAN Council (Stop Child Abuse and Neglect), it is our goal to live in a community in which no child experiences any form of abuse, and we want you to join us in our mission.  

With this goal in mind, we are taking the month of April to join national efforts to increase awareness around not only child abuse, but the power that each of us has to keep the children in our lives safe.  Prevention is not complicated or difficult; by building resilience, awareness and knowledge of child abuse and how to prevent it we can improve the safety of our families and community for every child2.

How can you add tools to your power to prevent child sexual abuse? Here are some options to start:

  1. Join us at our Guns and Hoses Dodgeball awareness and fundraising event on April 13th at Macatawa Bay Middle School Gym from 12:00p to 3:00p. This event is open to the public and all proceeds will go to the Children’s Advocacy Center’s efforts to eradicate child abuse in our community. A special thanks to our local police and fire departments who are sure to be locked in friendly competition.

  2. Visit our Prevention page at the CAC website to see a variety of training options and tools that you can implement today: http://www.cac-ottawa.org/prevention/

  3. Get more information about our national, evidence-based Darkness To Light adult training that focuses on how to prevent, recognize and react responsibly to child sexual abuse. More information and registration can be found at: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/D2Lregistration

  4. Visit www.childwelfare.gov/topics/preventing/preventionmonth/ to get more tips and tools that you can begin implementing today.

  5. Most importantly, do not let your voice go unheard!

  1. Townsend, C., & Rheingold, A.A., (2013). Estimating a child sexual abuse prevalence rate for practitioners: studies. Charleston,S.C., Darkness to Light. Retrieved from www.D2L.org.

Prevention Program Expansion


Hello! My name is Cassandra Kiger, and I am the new Prevention and Diversity Director at the Children’s Advocacy Center in Ottawa County. I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to fill this role and to join an already amazing team.


Ottawa County currently has the highest rates of reported child sexual abuse in the state. I believe, along with my teammates, that no child should ever have to become a survivor of sexual abuse. I believe that every one of us has within us the power to protect children in our lives and in our community and give them every opportunity to thrive. It is my job to expand on the amazing prevention work that is happening at the CAC and ensure that every adult and child in our community combines their power with a set of simple, straight-forward tools to reduce and eliminate child sexual abuse. If you’re interested in learning more about the tools you can add to your power, visit our prevention page at http://www.cac-ottawa.org/prevention/, or register for our Darkness To Light training at https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/D2Lregistration.

As the Diversity Director, I am working hard to take a close look at the work that we do and to listen well to the community to ensure that every person or family who walks through our doors feels valued, understood and empowered. We recognize that many individuals walk through our doors during some of the most frightening and painful times in their entire lives; and we also acknowledge that child abuse may not be the only difficult thing those individuals are experiencing. Therefore, we want to ensure that this is not our CAC, but that this is the community’s CAC, and that every member of our community is given power and voice to receive the best possible care that we can offer, and that every community and staff member can bring their whole self to the CAC. We strive to do this work well every day, but we are always striving to do better. 

One way that we are working towards this is through language access. Spanish is the second most spoken language in our county, and we are transitioning our materials and resources to reflect this. All our adult and youth prevention trainings are now provided in-person in Spanish, the website is slowly being translated so that Spanish speaking members of our community can learn about services before they arrive, and we are working to provide more in-person interpretation services for Spanish speaking community members.

Lastly, I am new to the Holland/Ottawa County community, and I would love to be able to meet you and learn from you. Feel free to contact me at ckiger@cac-ottawa.org, or 616-393-6123.

¡Hola! Yo me llamo Cassandra Kiger, y yo soy la nueva Directora de Prevención y Diversidad en el Centro de Abogacía de los Niños. Lo considero un honor para tener la oportunidad de trabajar aquí e involucrarme con un equipo maravilloso.

Hoy en día el Condado de Ottawa tiene los índices más altos del abuso sexual de los niños reportado entre todo el estado de Michigan. Creo yo, junto con todo el equipo, que ningún niño debe tener que sobrevivir el abuso. Yo creo que cada uno de nosotros tiene el poder para proteger a los niños en nuestras vidas y en nuestra comunidad, para que ellos tengan la oportunidad para prosperar. Es el trabajo mío crecer y aumentar los programas de prevención que ya tenemos en el CAN y asegurar que cada adulto y joven combine su poder con herramientas simples y lógicas para reducir y eliminar el abuso de niños. Si usted tiene interés en aprender más sobre las herramientas que se pueden aumentar su poder, visita el enlace de nuestra página de prevención en http://www.cac-ottawa.org/prevention/, o regístrese para un entrenamiento Darkness To Light en https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/D2Lregistration.

En mi rol como la Directora de Diversidad, trabajo fuertemente en repasar nuestro trabajo y escuchar a la comunidad para asegurar que cada persona o familia que pasa por nuestras puertas se siente valorada, entendida y empoderada. Reconocemos que muchas personas pasan por nuestras puertas durante algunos de los días más miedosos y dolorosos en sus vidas; sin embargo, también entendemos que pueda ser que el abuso no es la única dificultad que llevan. Por eso, queremos asegurar que el CAN no pertenece solo a nosotros, sino a toda la comunidad, y que cada miembro de la comunidad se recibe el poder y se puede usar su propia voz para recibir el mejor cuidado posible; incluso que cada miembro de la comunidad y cada empleado se puede llevar su ser entero al CAN. Nos esforzamos en llegar a esta meta todos los días, pero siempre podemos luchar más.

Una manera en que estamos trabajando hacía esta meta es por el idioma. El idioma segundo más hablado en el condado es el español, y hoy en día estamos trabajando para que los materiales y recursos que ofrecemos lo refleja. Cada entrenamiento de prevención para los adultos y los jóvenes ya se ofrece en español, poco a poco estamos traduciendo el sitio de web en el español para que los hispanohablantes en la comunidad también se pueden aprender sobre nuestros servicios antes de que llegan, y estamos trabajando para proveer más interpretación en español en persona para los servicios que ofrecemos.

Por fin, acabo de llegar en el área de Holland/Ottawa, y a mí me gustaría conocerle a usted y aprender de usted. Me puede contactar por correo electrónico en ckiger@cac-ottawa.org o por teléfono en 616-393-6123.


April is Child Abuse Prevention Month!

April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

By its very nature, the pinwheel evokes whimsy and childlike wonder. It serves as the physical embodiment and reminder of the great childhoods we want for all children.

This April 2018, blue and silver pinwheels will be on display in 60 pinwheel gardens throughout Ottawa County to raise awareness for Child Abuse Prevention Month. On Tuesday, April 10, the SCAN Council (Stop Child Abuse and Neglect) planted a pinwheel garden at the Ottawa County Fillmore Street Complex.

MDT Members, Detective Tyler Kempema and Detective Dave Bytwerk plant pinwheels at the Ottawa County Sheriff's Department

MDT Members, Detective Tyler Kempema and Detective Dave Bytwerk plant pinwheels at the Ottawa County Sheriff's Department

Board Member Pat VerDuin and Exectuive Director Darcy Komejan plant pinwheels

Board Member Pat VerDuin and Exectuive Director Darcy Komejan plant pinwheels

Members of the Ottawa County SCAN Council

Members of the Ottawa County SCAN Council

The schools in Ottawa and Allegan counties are partnering with the Center to help raise awareness and funds for the children we serve.  We are so excited that this year there are new ways that kids are helping kids.  Blue Star Elementary from Hamilton School District had a Helping Hat Day and the entire Zeeland Public School district's elementary schools participated in a Crazy Hat Day to help raise awareness and funds for the Center.  We LOVE it when #kidshelpkids!

Teisha Kothe, principal at Blue Star Elementary, Hamilton Community Schools.

Teisha Kothe, principal at Blue Star Elementary, Hamilton Community Schools.

Woodbridge Elementary, Zeeland Public Schools

Woodbridge Elementary, Zeeland Public Schools

Adams Elementary, Zeeland Public School

Adams Elementary, Zeeland Public School


Our community partners are displaying pinwheel potted gardens at their workplaces and businesses to help raise awareness that #preventionispossible. 

Cook's Kitchen & Pantry in Grand Haven  http://cookskitchenandpantry.com/

Cook's Kitchen & Pantry in Grand Haven http://cookskitchenandpantry.com/

We are also selling our Keep Calm and Protect Children t-shirts again this year!  Purchase yours here.

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Grateful for all of YOU who support #CAPMonth and the children and families we serve!

We know what we do works. We help children develop into happy, healthy children and adults. Pinwheels are the symbol of a happy, healthy childhood and we believe that every child deserves to get that back.  We believe that child abuse is a community problem and can only be solved with the help of the community.  We could not do our work without you.

Larry Nassar Victim to Keynote Children’s Advocacy Center’s 9th Annual Advocates in Action Luncheon

Hudsonville, MI –The Children’s Advocacy Center of Ottawa County is excited to hold our 9th annual Advocates in Action Luncheon at the Pinnacle Center in Hudsonville on Friday, May 4, 2018 at 11:00 am. All proceeds from this event will go directly to the Children’s Advocacy Center of Ottawa County.

This year the keynote speaker for the Advocates in Action Luncheon will be Rachael Denhollander. Rachael is the first victim to come forward in the Larry Nassar child sexual abuse case.  Rachael began a career in gymnastics at the age of 12 which would put her in the path of one of the country’s most prolific pedophiles: Michigan State University’s (MSU) famed osteopathic physician, Larry Nassar. Nassar was an expert in gymnastics-related injuries and served as the Olympic team physician and National Medical Coordinator for the women’s artistic gymnastics programs. Rachael began to see Larry Nassar for treatment shortly after her 15th birthday and was sexually assaulted by him under the guise of medical treatment for nearly a year. 

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In 2016, the Indianapolis Star published an explosive report on the United States Association of Gymnastics (USAG) detailing decades of mishandling sexual assault allegations against member coaches. Reading the report, she knew it was the first chance that someone might finally believe that USAG’s own team physician was also a sexual predator.  She contacted the IndyStar immediately to report her abuse by Larry and told them she would do whatever was needed to make sure Larry could no longer prey on women and children.

Following her initial report, Larry was arrested and then indicted for charges related to child pornography and to sexually assaulting minors in two Michigan counties.  In July of 2017, Larry plead guilty to three charges related to child pornography and in November plead guilty to ten counts of first-degree sexual assault, including the charges brought in Rachael’s case. To-date, more than 125 women have filed police reports of sexual assault against Nassar and more than 140 have accused him in criminal or civil complaints of sexual assault.

Rachael has continued to advocate for the victims and speak publicly to confront the institutional and societal dynamics that made it possible for Larry to abuse women and children for more than 20 years.  She has appeared on NBC, CBS, HLN, CNN, ESPN and numerous state and local news services.  Rachael has advocated for victims through print journalism in The Washington Post, Fox News, PEOPLE Magazine and many state and local newspapers and has been interviewed on many state and national radio programs. Her passion is to help others understand the impact of sexual assault so that each person is better equipped to offer help and care to those affected by sexual assault, to explore and understand the societal dynamics surrounding sexual assault, and to advocate for the societal and institutional reform necessary to better protect women and children from sexual violence.

The Children's Advocacy Center provides child sexual abuse intervention and prevention services to residents of Ottawa County completely free of charge. Child sexual abuse is an often unseen, but devastating problem in our local communities as well as throughout the country.  One in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. The Children's Advocacy Center helps reduce the trauma to children and their families and educate parents and children about body safety. We cannot do it without you. Join us for our 9th Annual Advocates in Action Luncheon to raise community awareness and offer your support. 

For ticket information or sponsorship opportunities, contact Rebekah Bakker at (616)393-6123 or by email: rbakker@cac-ottawa.org


April is Child Abuse Prevention Month

We All Can Play a Part in Building Community, Building Hope

The CAC will hold a groundbreaking ceremony on April 14th to kick off a building expansion and capital campaign that will nearly double the Center’s current footprint. The goal of the expansion is to increase space to meet the growing demands for innovative treatment therapy, expand resources for children and families, and increase prevention education and outreach throughout the community. 

April is nationally recognized as Child Abuse Prevention Month, and the Children’s Advocacy Center encourages all individuals and organizations to play a role in making Ottawa County a better place for children and families. By ensuring that parents and community members have the knowledge, skills, and resources they need to care for their children, we can help prevent child abuse by making meaningful connections and providing education and awareness.  The CAC has partnered with local businesses and municipalities to help raise awareness by displaying banners, hosting pinwheel gardens, and decorating parks with blue ribbons as a visual reminder to help protect children and in support for those who have been victims of abuse.

“April is a time to celebrate the important role that communities play in protecting children and strengthening families,” said Executive Director Darcy Komejan. “Everyone’s participation is critical. Focusing on ways to connect with families is the best thing our community can do to strengthen families and prevent child abuse and neglect. We are thrilled that our groundbreaking ceremony and capital campaign begin at the same time that our community is coming together to support Child Abuse Prevention Month. To learn more about the programs, resources offered by the CAC please call 616-393-6123 or visit cac-ottawa.org.

We would like to thank the following businesses downtown Holland for displaying Pinwheel Gardens to help raise awareness about child sexual abuse:

Holland Peanut Store, Cranes in the City, Orange Leaf Yogurt, Peachwave, Hops, Crust 54, Subs N More, Globe, Bores Shoes, Gliks (women), Gliks (men), Home, Chicos, Trends on 8th, Merle Norman, Design Works Interiors, 8th Street Grill, JosABanks, Engeti Salon, Sand Castle,Blue Veranda, Teermans , Fustinis, 8th St. Salon, Seasoned Home, Karla's Place, Francescas, Readers World, JB & Me, and the Bridge.

There will be large blue bows in Centennial Park in Holland as well as banners located throughout the county.

You can help raise awareness and protect children by purchasing our limited edition Keep Calm and Protect Children Prevention Month t-shirts here: https://goodink.com/keepcalmprotectchildren or you could win a shirt by taking a selfie by one of our pinwheel gardens located in businesses throughout Holland and tag #hollandpinwheels2017 and uploading it to Facebook and we will randomly select one selfie to win a Keep Clam and Protect Children shirt!