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Childhood sexual abuse may have contributed to Miranda Barbour's issues later in life

Jill Burke
Miranda Barbour was arrested in Sunbury, Penn. last year for the murder of 42-year-old Troy LaFerrara. Photo courtesy the Daily Item

Second of two parts. Part one details the sexual abuse Barbour suffered as a toddler.

Much about the life and recent arrest of former Alaskan Miranda Barbour is discomforting. The troubled young woman, a teen runaway who turned to Satanism, heroin, and has since given birth to a child, stands accused of murder for the stabbing death of a man police say she lured through an ad on the online  bulletin board Craigslist. But one unnerving detail of her bizarre and traumatic story may resonate more profoundly with Alaskans than others: the childhood sexual abuse she suffered as a toddler.

Barbour was preyed upon by a man her family should have been able to trust: her uncle.

That man, Richard Fernandez, has served time in jail, where he remains after unsuccessful releases on parole and getting slapped with a new criminal charge for possession of pornography.

How often child sexual abuse happens in Alaska is difficult to assess. The best estimates are flawed because not all agencies that respond to abuse share uniform data, and it’s widely held that many victims never report the abuse. Those that do come forward sometimes wait years before doing so.

Alaska’s rate of child sexual abuse is six times the national average, according to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

How many children that rate represents in real life is difficult to say. Alaska CARES, the Anchorage-based Child Abuse Response and Evaluation Services center, sees about 1,200 children each year. Of those, two thirds -- as many as 800 children -- are there because of suspected child sexual abuse. In 2013, 10 child advocacy centers across the state reported seeing 1,726 children.

Early trauma, profound wounds

Outcomes for young children who are sexually abused are highly variable. Severity and duration of abuse can make a difference, as can how supportive and stable their home life is after the abuse is revealed. While some victims are more resilient than others, the prospect for significant life struggles is real.

In 2013, a trio of university researchers from Canada published a summary of decades of study on the topic of child sexual abuse and its prevalence, outcomes and prevention strategies. They found that child sexual assault “… alters a child’s cognitive and emotional orientation to the world and causes trauma by distorting their self-concept and affective capacities.” Traumatic sexualization, betrayal, powerlessness, and stigmatization that occur during the abuse may have lasting impacts. Post traumatic stress, dissociation symptoms, mood disorders, depression, behavior problems, inappropriate sexualized behaviors, substance abuse, self harm and suicide are all possible effects on these young victims of abuse, researchers found.

Additionally, when very young children experience sexual abuse, it can be difficult for them to process the trauma. While turning into a killer isn’t a foretold consequence, aspects of Barbour’s personality and life story appear to parallel the known, lasting impacts on sexually abused children.

At 3 years old, children are beginning to form narrative memory to be able to remember their own experiences. But the less verbal a child is, the more difficult it can be to connect memories and to have an accessible awareness about a bad thing that happened -- or about something that made them sad or fearful. 

“A 5-year-old can form a verbal representation of the events, the abuse. When younger, the child may sense something is wrong but is not able to describe it,” explained Dr. Jeff Sugar, chief of the Child and Adolescent Trauma Psychiatry Program at the University of Southern California. “Kids this young do not have the same verbal access, so the trauma is harder to process.”

Instead, these traumatic memories get encoded visually, emotionally and somatically (bodily sensations) rather than with words, Sugar said. Some children, unable to comprehend the abuse, will fear they will be killed.

A host of challenges

In an interview last week, Sugar shared some of the ways in which traumatized children are also harmed later in life.

Early sexual abuse, he explained, can cause something known as developmental trauma disorder, or complex post-traumatic stress disorder -- a term coined by Harvard University School of Medicine psychiatry professor Judith Herman. Different than simple trauma, complex PTSD can disrupt belief systems and create a clinging dependency on the abusive caregiver.

As the Canadian researchers identified, children who have experienced early-life trauma may experience a host of challenges as they mature: trust issues, substance abuse to cope with memories they are experiencing but aren’t quite clear, difficulties with relationships and sexual relationships, and difficulty regulating emotions. They may seek out risky behaviors. 

"Sometimes they will try to recreate scenarios that capture the essence of (their) trauma to experience it from a different perspective or to experience being in control," Sugar said.

Barbour’s history of running away, of mental health treatment, heroin addiction, choice of older, abusive boyfriends, supposed fascination with sex, skill at manipulation and fantastical tales are consistent with someone with a history of early sexual trauma, Sugar said, making a general observation. He hadn’t been aware of Barbour’s situation prior to his interview with Alaska Dispatch.

Being a victim of child sexual abuse doesn’t mean you are destined to live a messed up life, or to become an abuser yourself, said Adam Muhr, Manager of Alaska CARES, who often finds himself reassuring concerned parents that there is hope for their child.

“Children who are victims of sexual abuse can overcome the abuse when they are believed and when they have a chance to speak openly with caregivers who are non-judgmental,” he said.

Barbour's father has doubts

According to statements contained in court records, Barbour’s family did what they could to support her. They went to police right away and sought counseling. But by the time Barbour was a teenager, their relationship was on rocky ground, and would end a few years later in divorce.

New traumas, like ongoing sexual abuse or problems within the home, can compound problems that may have been caused by the first incident, experts say. According to interviews given by Barbour and her parents, she is said to have had an older boyfriend she met during one of her periods as a young runaway and to have fallen victim to a cult or a gang whose leader claimed to “own her” and used her for sex.

How much of Barbour’s personal narrative is rooted in truth is difficult to assess. But her father, Sonny Dean, has said he doesn’t believe much of what his daughter has to say, calling her a skilled manipulator whom he doesn’t readily believe. 

Barbour, a newlywed, remains in custody in Pennsylvania, as does her husband, Elytte Barbour, who’s a codefendant in the alleged killing of 42-year-old Troy Laferrera.

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com