A note of warning: This story discusses sexual abuse and suicide. It may be disturbing to some readers.
Every week, Daniel Westbrooks walks through a metal detector and several locked doors to visit teens at Nashville’s Juvenile Detention Center. He weaves through the shuffle of boys in matching blue polo shirts and gray slip-on sneakers, joking and chatting.
Westbrooks says he knows what it’s like to be locked up. He cycled in and out of juvenile detention, jails and prisons for nearly two decades. All the while, he was holding in painful secrets from his past.
“I try to tell them, like, look at me. After, you know, years in prison or going through a lot of, you know, just the stuff that I went through growing up to where I am today,” he says. “I don’t want you to be 30 years old before the light turns green in your head like, ‘Oh, you know what, I can do this.'”
It’s easy for Westbrooks to connect with the teens. He asks them questions and chuckles as they spit out rap lyrics and spill the daily gossip. But he also knows many of the teens in detention have experienced trauma, just like he did. As a kid, Westbrooks was sexually abused by a close family member.
“That’s probably when I started, you know, slipping from, you know, being a good kid to jumping into my shell,” he says.
When he was released from jail for the last time in 2015, Westbrooks decided to devote his next chapter to mentoring kids at risk of traveling down the same path.
Westbrooks says their weekly gathering is a time for both the teens — and him — to reflect.
“I like coming back in here, ’cause this is where I started at,” he tells the boys, circled up on benches in the detention center cafeteria.
It’s been hard for him to open up to people about the abuse he experienced. Westbrooks says he felt like everybody knew about it, even though he didn’t tell a soul. He thought the other kids looked at him differently because of it.
“You could tell he was violated, ’cause he wasn’t never the same no more,” says Ryan Westbrooks, Daniel’s younger brother. He’s the one who discovered the abuse and brought it to a stop.
One day, Ryan found his brother and their relative upstairs and knew something didn’t look right. He didn’t know what to do.
“‘What am I supposed to do? That’s my brother,'” Ryan remembers telling himself. “He looked like he needed my help, I guess.”
After that, Ryan says, his brother’s demeanor changed.
“You could tell it took a piece of him,” Ryan says. “He wasn’t as innocent no more. It really took some of his childhood when it happened.”
In a lot of ways, what happened to Daniel Westbrooks wasn’t unique. An estimated
one in 10 children are sexually abused before their 18th birthday. And, like Westbrooks, 90% of them are abused by someone they know.
Evidence suggests that childhood sexual abuse is less common among boys. But experts say current data likely underestimates the scope of the problem.
“It becomes more complicated for male victims,” says Bonnie Beneke, director of special projects for Tennessee’s Department of Children’s Services’ Office of Child Safety. “We don’t get as many reports for male victims because often the offender is a male. And so, if I didn’t fight him off, if I didn’t do what boys are supposed to do, then everybody’s gonna think I’m weak. You know. So, later on, I’m gonna prove that I’m not weak.”
Westbrooks says that’s one of the reasons he starting robbing people at gunpoint.
“I wanted people to feel the fear that I used to feel, not knowing if someone bigger than you is just overpowering you and you don’t have no control. You know, like, with a gun you got that control. That give you that power. And so, I wanted to hurt people.”
That type of thinking is pretty common among male survivors of childhood sexuals abuse. As boys struggle to cope, Beneke says, they often act out.
“Their behaviors are telling us something. Something’s not right,” she says. “We have to kind of get away from the blaming and shaming. We’ve got to be able to think: ‘What’s this child trying to tell me?'”
When boys don’t get the help they need, they’re more likely to interact with the criminal justice system, says Gwen Bouchie. She’s the director of communications for Darkness to Light, a national organization that aims to prevent child sexual abuse.
“You see delinquency, you see poor school performance, you might have kids that will drop out,” Bouchie says. “From there, that’s where you start getting an entrance into even [the] juvenile justice system.”
As adults, victims of child sexual abuse are more likely to be arrested for committing violent crimes. And when victims are incarcerated, Bouchie says, their trauma can become cyclical.
“They might experience more physical violence in juvenile justice or in prison. They may experience more sexual abuse,” she says. “And then when they are released into the community, they’re carrying not only the trauma that they brought into the system, but now they’re carrying new trauma as they exit.”
Experts stress that not all, or even most, victims of childhood sexual abuse go on to commit crimes. With evidence-based therapy and a caring support system, they can move past their trauma.
Westbrooks wants to provide that support for kids in need. He remembers how hard it was to feel normal after his abuse. He says he even tried to commit suicide when he was in eighth grade.
“I just felt like I didn’t want to live no more, for real,” Westbrooks says. “I didn’t think I fit in. I used to just think, you know, the world was against me, knew what happened to me. I was that bad apple in the barrel. You know, I had been, I guess, tainted.”
Westbrooks doesn’t want other kids to feel isolated like he did. That’s why he started meeting with teens at the juvenile detention center. And now that Westbrooks has started talking about his past, he can see the kids he mentors learning to open up, too.
It’s still difficult for Westbrooks to talk about what happened to him all those years ago. But he’s working on letting himself be vulnerable.
“I know I need to be working with these kids,” he says. “I need to go back and give them what I have, you know what I’m saying? Try to catch some of these kids before it’s too late.”
Samantha Max is a Report for America corps member.