First of two columns
This story ends with tears of joy at a young couple's wedding. It begins with a little girl forced into sex with her stepfather from before her eighth birthday.
In between is a tale of institutional indifference and personal courage.
Nevaeh Ingham — now Miller — fought to redeem her life from a childhood of unremitting sexual abuse. But she wouldn't have made it without the woman who rescued her from two years in a mental ward, adopted her and gave her someone to trust.
I met Nevaeh and her mother, Laura Ingham, while looking into problems with how child welfare authorities use North Star Behavioral Health Services hospital to house problem kids. For Neveah, two years in the hospital felt like punishment for being abused. I'll say more about those problems in a second column.
But first, meet Nevaeh, the girl who survived the unspeakable.
Alaska's Office of Children's Services had taken her from an abusive and neglectful mother, court records say, but gave her back after the mother married Jason T. Rogers. At least that's what he called himself. Before he left his military service without leave, his name had been Larry Lemon.
Rogers, ultimately sentenced to 43 years in prison, started abusing his stepdaughter soon after she returned to the family. When she refused him, he would beat her mother and siblings.
"He would say I have to do whatever sexual act he wanted, or that would continue," Nevaeh told me. "I couldn't handle that kind of responsibility. I was, 'I'll sacrifice myself for my family.' "
What happened to Nevaeh is sickening. But she asked me to tell as much of her story as I could stomach. She isn't ashamed. She didn't do anything wrong.
(Editor's note: This column breaks with normal Anchorage Daily News policy of not identifying sex assault victims by name. Nevaeh Miller specifically requested her name and image be used to demonstrate that perpetrators and not victims should be ashamed of these crimes.)
Rogers controlled every aspect of her life. For punishment, he took away her food and made her ask permission to go to the bathroom. At night, he slept with her, sexually assaulting her several times a week, and sometimes every night.
After she began having her period, he took her for birth control. He bought her rings and talked about marriage.
Nevaeh's biological mother was there, living in the same small trailer, but prosecutors accepted that she didn't know what was going on and she was not charged. She has broken off contact with Nevaeh and refused to talk to me.
Nevaeh defended her. She said her mother was disabled by illness and had seizures that created mental gaps. But Nevaeh also said she had caught her husband in the act.
"She said, 'I really think he's cheating on me,'" Nevaeh said. "And I'm, 'Oh, wow, I'm the other woman.' And I was in middle school."
As a birthday gift — for himself — Rogers made Nevaeh bring home her best friend for a sleepover in seventh grade. He sexually abused them both. Nevaeh lost her friend.
In high school, Rogers began homeschooling her, letting her out of the house only to work.
When she was 14, Nevaeh's co-workers at the Carrs Aurora Village grocery store saw her stepfather walk her to work arm-in-arm and, on parting, grope her and kiss her on the lips. They reported the incident to the Office of Children's Services, but Nevaeh was too scared to tell the truth. She denied the abuse.
By that time, she couldn't remember any life other than being the mother of the family, protecting the other children and sleeping with the stepfather. She had never controlled her own body or made any decision for herself.
"I have these few, handful of memories of a decent family. And even those memories are tainted. I can't think of a Christmas without thinking of my stepdad, being together sexually," she said.
Finally, in 2009, at age 16, she ran away. After training her younger sister how to handle her mother's seizures, she took her grandmother's car and left. For a time she lived in the car, giving rides for gas money, alcohol and drugs.
She hoped to take enough drugs at once to overdose and die. Rogers was sending a stream of threatening text messages. She thought dying was the only way to get away from him.
Rogers had reported the car stolen. Nevaeh got stopped in Midtown Anchorage by the police. It was her first good break.
Rogers showed up, but when the officer saw that Nevaeh was terrified of him, he took her to North Star hospital. In a psychological emergency, including a threat of self-harm, police and OCS officials have the authority to put a young person in the mental health facility.
That's where Nevaeh met Laura Ingham.
A harsh system, a caring mom
Laura had been a foster kid once too, starting at age 6, with a mother hooked on drugs and alcohol. She had relied on her brother as they passed through many homes. Then child welfare workers separated Laura from her brother too.
During her senior year at East High School, 1999, Laura stayed in 15 foster homes. She was a hard-edged kid, not easy to handle. But she also got good grades and starred on East's basketball team. She won Alaska Player of the Year before heading off with a full-ride scholarship to Ohio State University.
Leading the University of Nevada as a guard after transferring, Laura came back to Alaska and won the Great Alaska Shootout basketball tournament.
She earned a business degree, but after graduation a fluke brought her to mental health work. At North Star, she became an activity therapist, organizing games of dodgeball, teaching poetry and Bible groups, and writing messages in journals she exchanged with as many as 30 teens a night.
Nevaeh said the kids gathered around Laura when she arrived in the morning and gave her side hugs at the end of the day.
At first, Nevaeh didn't like that. She was angry with everyone. She would try to shock Laura by blurting out the ugly things that had happened to her.
But Laura couldn't be driven off. Nevaeh could see she cared. Laura kept coming back. And she listened.
"I do know how to listen," Laura said, "but to this day, I don't know the right thing to say. That's why I listen."
Nevaeh didn't feel that caring from others at the hospital. To her, it was a prison. She couldn't control her body or her time. She was safe from sexual abuse, but she felt as controlled as she had with her stepfather. All she could control was her own thoughts.
Other former patients in foster care said they also felt being in North Star was a punishment. For Nevaeh, being there was like being punished for the crimes that had been committed against her.
Hiding erasers she could use to hurt her own skin was a bid for some control of her world. Despite her history of sexual abuse and violence, she was strip-searched to find them.
She carried a teddy bear that a sex abuse investigator had given her and she wouldn't let it go. But one day, when she wouldn't move because she couldn't stop crying, a frustrated staff member took her bear away to punish her. She threw an apple at him.
She said patients easily overheard the staff talking about their cases. They all knew each other's clinical details — including the staff's pessimism about Nevaeh's own future. She understood they didn't expect her to make it.
The hospital won't comment on anything that happened to former patients and insists care is appropriate and needed. Nevaeh was a troubled teen, and it's natural to discount some of what she says.
But, as we shall see in my next column, many former patients and staff report similar problems with care and unnecessarily long stays at North Star. Laura Ingham had those concerns too.
Nevaeh said she received no therapy for her sexual abuse in her two years in North Star, only talk about peripheral issues. The court had ordered silence to avoid interference in the stepfather's criminal case, according to what she and Laura said they were both told.
But I investigated and found there was no such order. The court did order release of some of Nevaeh's confidential therapy notes to her stepfather's attorney — a fact she never knew until I told her.
State law prohibits release of victim counseling records even by courts without consent of a minor or her legal guardian. If consent was given, it wasn't by Nevaeh.
In a recent ruling, the Alaska Court of Appeals found Superior Court Judge Gregory Miller had made important errors in Rogers' trial, but it did not overturn his conviction. It did not consider the legality of the release of Nevaeh's records.
After Nevaeh had spent two years in the hospital, the case finally came to trial. Rogers' defense claimed Nevaeh had made up the abuse allegations because he was a strict disciplinarian. She had to testify explicitly about the abuse for five days.
"It was an awful trial," said prosecutor Brittany Dunlop. "It was truly awful."
When Nevaeh turned 18 she gained the right to refuse psychiatric medication, and did. But she remained in the hospital. A state social worker told her otherwise she would be on the street.
Finally, a foster home took her, but on her first night another teen offered her alcohol. The foster mother gave strange advice. The place felt weird.
In the hospital, Laura had given her phone number to Nevaeh and told her to memorize it. When she called, Laura took her in. Laura stopped working at North Star.
Through the nighttime terror and unstoppable tears, Laura was patient.
"She was consistently there, and consistently spoke that this is temporary, it's not forever," Nevaeh said. "Lots and lots of scripture, tons of Bible study time, and church. She knew that I needed that close, motherly consolation and care."
Instead of controlling Nevaeh to stop her self-harm, Laura let her know that she, Nevaeh, was in control. She helped her learn to distract herself and use other coping skills.
"Those were the things she instilled in me, helping to use my free will," Nevaeh said.
When Nevaeh woke in terror at 3 a.m., she could climb into Laura's bed.
"It's just that comfort. I'm not alone in this. I can listen to her breathing and get out of my past," Nevaeh said.
The process took a long time. While it went on, OCS sent other sexually abused girls to Laura. Nevaeh counseled them and told her story. She tried to give them hope.
She said the girls would ask, "How are you so put together now? How are you not a hot mess? How are you so well-formed, and articulate, and mentally centered, after you've gone through that?"
Nevaeh lost her shame. She began to see her own value.
A new start
Laura and Nevaeh spoke out about problems at OCS and North Star hospital, adding their voices to others collected by the advocacy group Facing Foster Care Alaska. Nevaeh lobbied the Legislature.
Laura adopted her, then adopted two more girls. They're planning to get puzzle-piece tattoos to show how they fit together.
Nevaeh has been working on a degree in auto technology. And she has a boyfriend who respects her.
Tucker Miller is a solid, clean-cut young man, a member of the Army National Guard, an infantryman due to be deployed overseas next year.
Nevaeh said he is the first guy she could say 'no' to. Until Tucker, she did whatever guys wanted, even if she didn't want to.
But Tucker said that wasn't right. With him, she began to believe that her body belongs to her.
On a morning in April, in a conference room in an empty suite of offices in downtown Anchorage, Tucker and Nevaeh stood in a suit and a wedding dress, watched by his parents and their partners, in front of Laura, who was officiating. Laura had taken the morning off from East High, where she coaches basketball and works security.
When Nevaeh gets up in the morning, she sometimes still sees a flash of her stepfather's face in the bathroom mirror. But today was about trust and the future.
The young people read their vows to each other.
Nevaeh read, in a breaking voice, "I vow to always love life. …"
She had to stop. Slowly, she pulled herself together and read again.
"It is my vow to always love life, with you, and to help you love yours, and to give all faith, trust and loyalty," she said.
There were tears all around.
Coming: In part 2 of this series: Alaska routinely houses children at North Star hospital who don't belong there.
The views expressed here are the writer's and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to firstname.lastname@example.org or click here to submit via any web browser.