Wasilla residents Shawn and Mailiea O'Shea-Grantham told a Palmer judge today that they're not guilty of sexually abusing two young children over a 10-year period. Their arrest comes five years after Sky Johnson, Shawn's adoptive daughter, started opening up about what happened to her inside the family home, which included extensive abuse at the hands of what she called a "cult-like" family.
Shawn, 71, is the matriarch of what is emerging as an unusual family structure, with Mailiea, 40, a daughter-like figure raised from infancy by Shawn but who was never formally adopted. Mailiea was formerly known as Caire Ann Bishop, until legally changing her name in 2008.
The women were arrested Friday, and stand accused of hurting two children starting in 1993 and continuing through 2003. One of those children was Sky Johnson, who came forward and opened up about her abuse years after she left the family home. Shawn is her adoptive mother; Mailiea is like an older sister.
Alaska Dispatch does not normally publish the names of sexual abuse victims, unless the victim consents. This is one of those cases. Johnson wants her story told.
“It's not just because we were hurt. This is because there is so much wrong and there probably would've been no stop to it if we hadn't done something,” Johnson said in an interview Tuesday.
A history of 'cult-like' abuse
It wasn't until she'd gotten out of the home and met someone she loved and trusted that Johnson first uttered a single word about what had happened to her. The result has been a five-year quest to put a halt to what she calls a “cult-like culture” under Shawn O'Shea-Grantham's rule. In that culture the children, isolated from the community and kept out of public school, were told to keep quiet. Or else.
“She always told us that no one would believe us because she was a sweet little old lady and we were just stupid kids,” Johnson said. “When we were younger kids she told us if we ever talked about our family secrets that we would be put into foster care, split up, and raped and beaten every day.”
The person Johnson first told about the abuse was the man who would later become her husband, a man who also happened to be a retired law enforcement investigator.
State prosecutors have charged Mailiea with three counts of sexual abuse of minor in the first degree. Shawn faces three first-degree and two second-degree charges. First-degree sexual assault indicates investigators believe sexual penetration took place. Second degree relates to sexual contact.
Johnson would have been 7 years old when the abuse started. The other child in the home, who is now also an adult, would have been 2.
Alaska law allows for prosecution of crimes related to sexual abuse of a minor as far back as 1991, and in some cases, even earlier. Crimes committed before 1991 require more specific analysis, like taking into consideration when the victim turned 18.
If found guilty, the O'Shea-Granthams face a possible eight years in prison for each count of abuse. Had the abuse happened more recently, they would be accountable for 25-35 years for each count, since the crimes would fall under Alaska's stricter sentencing schemes implemented in 2006.
A delay of reporting
“Child sexual abuse is one of those crimes that is very rarely reported at the time it occurs. There is almost always a delay,” said Keeley Olson, program director for Standing Together Against Rape, a non-profit advocacy and support organization for victims.
“The grooming that takes place kind of prepares their victimization so that they don't have the resources to tell about what was going on. It generally takes some removal from that environment or some distance before children or adults feel comfortable disclosing what had happened to them. The grooming process normalizes the abuse. If I am 5 years old, I don't know what is right and wrong. I am relying on the adults in my life to do that for me,” she said.
And, it can be even more difficult when the caregiver -- the one in control of basic needs and affection -- is the one inflicting the pain.
What Olson describes parallels much of what Johnson said she went through as an isolated child growing up in a family that made sure every public interaction was well rehearsed, and geared to hide what was really going on.
“Most of this stuff I didn't know was abuse,” Johnson said. “It's like an indoctrination into a cult.”
Johnson said she first went to the Office of Children's Services, then to the Alaska Court System. Finally, she went to the Alaska State Troopers, hoping somebody would listen. If they listened, cases were soon closed because they couldn't be substantiated, she said. Still, she kept on.
“I have lost count of how many people I have told this story too in the process of trying to get some kind of intervention,” she said. “Everyone poses a risk. She's not going to stop. Eventually if you keep telling the truth over and over it will fix something. That's why I came forward.”
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com