GREAT FALLS – Tara Walker Lyons is an advocate for a number of issues.
But one issue she is extremely passionate about is one that hits close to home: childhood sexual abuse.
Tara moved to Augusta with her mom at the age of 5. Her parents’ divorce was hard on her, but things were about to get even harder.
“Right in the midst of the divorce is when my mom met my stepfather,” Tara said.
Tara said as a child she was really outgoing and always participated in school. But her true childhood passion was horses.
“I was always wearing wranglers and ropers to school. I found myself outside a lot,” Tara said.
She never expected her love for horses to ever be used against her, until she met her stepfather.
“I didn’t know at the time that he would make such a horrible impact on my life, but I still remember the very first time that I laid eyes on him,” Tara said.
Tara said the abuse started early. She was 6 years old when it first happened.
“When you are a child and you are sexually abused for the first time, it’s very, very confusing because you don’t understand what this is. You don’t understand what’s going on at all. I still remember the next day, I remember sitting there just thinking, ‘What on earth just happened to me?’ From that moment on it was just confusion, even throughout the years,” Tara said.
The manipulation continued for six more years.
“For me, my predator, my stepfather, used horses. He gave me a horse. He gave me a saddle. He gave me things that were related to my passion. They manipulate that and use that, it’s like you have this secret together that is unspoken,” Tara said.
It would be at the age of 12 that Tara finally decided to tell law enforcement. A friend, who was also a victim, joined her.
“We said we have to do something. We had told my mom at that point so many times. We told her parents even. We told everyone else and we just felt that the only person left that might be able to help us was the police,” Tara said.
In the middle of the night, Tara ran to a Lewis and Clark County Sheriff’s deputy’s house.
Tara said a woman answered the door, handed her a phone, and had her dial 9-1-1.
Moments later, they were finally allowed inside. That’s when the deputy came down to assist in the case.
“That night he came downstairs and told us we needed to fill out police reports. There was never a time that he didn’t make us feel like this wasn’t our fault,” Tara said.
Tara was then taken to a shelter in Helena.
“I got in the back of the police car and ended up riding with the police officer to Margaret Stewart Children’s Shelter in Helena. I think the feeling of riding in the back of the police car was the part that felt the most real and unfair to me because it was me after all that had to sit in the police car. My stepfather never did,” Tara said.
In fact, her stepfather would never be arrested or have to register as a sex offender.
Tara said she filed a lawsuit on her 28th birthday. That would follow a deposition where Tara would finally get closure.
“I walked in that room one person, and I left a different person because he admitted. I wish I could give every victim that. I wish every victim could have that because that feeling, that day was one of the best feelings and at the same time one of the worst,” Tara said. “I knew immediately that day that my life was going to be different and it was. I just started walking a healthier path. Mentally, physically.”
Tara said he would go on to complete a community-based sex offender treatment program.
Today, Tara tells her story to inspire other victims to share their stories.
“I think now more than ever, victims are being heard and that’s the key,” Tara said. “When I first started speaking out I started to look for advocates. I started to look for somebody in Montana that was working on this issue that I could connect with and team up with and learn from. I found out immediately that there was nobody that was really working on this at the time. I decided right then and there that I didn’t want any other victims to feel that way.”
Tara is a mom to a two year old and a seven year old. She’s making sure they have the resources to know if something bad happens to them.
“My daughter is seven and I give her honest information. I give her straight facts and I say, ‘I am always here for you no matter what and it will never be your fault if anything ever happens to you,’” Tara said.
And that’s where Tara’s Law comes into play. She hopes every child is taught about childhood sexual abuse. The bill would provide public schools with the framework to help educate both children and educators on how to address the issue.
“I found out in the newspaper that the sponsor named it after me, Tara’s Law,” Tara said.
Tara travels the country advocating for survivors. On Monday, she was in Cascade County talking with law enforcement.
“I would like officers to understand that sometimes you need to look at people and ask yourself not ‘What’s wrong with you?’ but ‘What happened to you?’” Tara said. “Come from it from an angle of compassion and empathy. I know that police officers already have such a huge job when dealing with sexual abuse cases, but just a simple gesture of making a victim feel comforted and making a victim feel heard can go for miles in that victim’s journey.”
Reporting by Elizabeth Transue for MTN News