Speaking out against abuse

  • Signs of support outside of Ben’s Parkwood home. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

  • Justice served: Ben stands with his parents, Michael and Melissa, outside their Northeast Philadelphia home. Ben was sexually abused by their next-door neighbor when he was 10. On Sept. 20, his abuser was sentenced to prison. MARIA POUCHNIKOVA / TIMES PHOTO

The col­or­fully cheer­ful ban­ners hanging in the front yard of a Park­wood town­home ex­tol the vir­tues of the de­term­ined teen­ager who lives there.

A mes­sage on one of the plac­ards praises the 14-year-old as “A Brave & True Hero.” On the young man’s wrist, he wears ID bands with the slo­gans “Brave” and “Justice,” both re­mind­ers of his laud­able ac­com­plish­ments.

Some friends call him “Turtle,” but his real name is Ben. And he hasn’t al­ways been such a vis­ible role mod­el to his neigh­bors, peers and loved ones. For years, he re­mained si­lent, with the sexu­al ab­use he suffered as a 10-year-old at the hands of a next-door neigh­bor para­lyz­ing his psyche.

But he has emerged from his shell, con­fron­ted his ab­user in a court of law and taken con­trol of his own cir­cum­stance, trans­form­ing him­self in­to an un­abashed ad­voc­ate for fel­low vic­tims.

“I feel I’ve reached the top of my goals, but I still want to help oth­er people with theirs,” he said dur­ing a re­cent in­ter­view at his home.

Weeks pri­or to his ab­user’s Sept. 20 sen­ten­cing hear­ing on a rape con­vic­tion, the teen­ager com­pelled his par­ents, Mi­chael and Melissa, to con­tact the North­east Times to re­quest the in­ter­view. The youth had a power­ful story and he wanted to tell it, his par­ents said.

Ben pro­posed that his full name and photo be pub­lished in the news­pa­per, but his par­ents de­cided against that, cog­niz­ant of the sens­it­ive nature of his case. Still, Ben is de­term­ined to make a last­ing im­pact on what he de­scribes as a gen­er­al lack of aware­ness about child sex ab­use.

“People don’t really think of it as any­thing,” he said. “They hear about it and say, ‘That’s sad,’ and go on with their life. But you need a lot of sup­port to get through it. … If someone tells you it truth­fully happened to them, be­lieve them.”

Ben’s per­son­al or­deal began with a seem­ingly harm­less swim in his neigh­bor’s pool one day in June 2009. The neigh­bor was 19 at the time. The two fam­il­ies had lived next to each oth­er and shared a com­mon drive­way for the pre­vi­ous nine years. Ben didn’t think twice about ac­cept­ing the teen­ager’s in­vit­a­tion.

“He seemed pretty nor­mal at first,” Ben said. “He and his fam­ily would let me swim and when I was done, I would go in­side for a drink.”

Some­times, Ben’s older broth­er would go swim­ming, too, but Ben was usu­ally the last one out of the pool “be­cause that’s what I liked to do.”

After swim­ming one day, the neigh­bor cornered Ben in­side the house and as­saul­ted him sexu­ally. The young­ster in his na­iv­ety didn’t know what had hit him. It happened twice more that sum­mer, as the ab­user routinely urged Ben to use their pool, while fur­nish­ing him with vari­ous gifts.

The gifts in­cluded a cus­tom bi­cycle con­struc­ted from salvaged parts, an old hand-held video game and a used video game sys­tem. At first, Ben’s par­ents al­lowed him to keep the gifts, fig­ur­ing them to be hand-me-downs with little value. But as the gifts star­ted get­ting more ex­pens­ive, Ben’s par­ents put an end to it.

Ben was still try­ing to com­pre­hend what had happened to him in the neigh­bor’s house, but he had a bad feel­ing about it and wasn’t telling any­one.

“I didn’t know at the time it was wrong,” he said. “I had a feel­ing but I wasn’t sure.”

The end of sum­mer also sig­nalled the end of the as­saults and the start of Ben’s sixth-grade school year.

“I star­ted health class in school and that’s when I learned,” he said. “I felt ashamed so it took me a while be­fore I re­por­ted it.”

The weeks turned in­to months and then years. Ben stashed his secret be­neath a shroud of shy­ness, in­ter­rup­ted only by hos­tile out­bursts.

“It put my grades down a lot. I had fights and ran away from school a couple times,” he said.

“I kind of kept to my­self, but I did think about it at least once every day. I star­ted get­ting real de­pressed and I didn’t like that.”

The young­ster had many thoughts ra­cing through his head, all of them bad. If he told someone about the ab­use, would his peers os­tra­cize him? Would his older broth­er or dad seek street justice, ex­pos­ing them to leg­al per­il? He couldn’t even con­fide in his sis­ter.

“I didn’t tell her be­cause I really didn’t want any­body treat­ing me dif­fer­ent be­cause of it,” Ben said.

“He was hold­ing it all in,” mom Melissa said. “We knew something was wrong, but we nev­er would’ve thought that.”

Everything changed on March 8, 2012. Ben, who had just turned 13, heard some of his school­mates mak­ing light of sexu­al ab­use, spe­cific­ally rape.

“There were some kids us­ing the word as a joke, talk­ing about it like it was noth­ing,” Ben said. “I told them it’s not a joke. I said it happened to me. At first they didn’t be­lieve me.”

He re­peated his ad­mis­sion with a ser­i­ous­ness that one of the oth­er stu­dents could not dis­miss. The youth per­suaded Ben to tell a school guid­ance coun­selor. He couldn’t verb­al­ize the de­tails, so he wrote them down. The school called his par­ents im­me­di­ately and showed them what Ben had writ­ten.

“He just had this look on his face, like ‘Do you love me?’ ” Melissa said. “I said I did. We hugged him and got him the help he needed.”

None of Ben’s deep­est fears came to pass. At his school, teach­ers and fel­low stu­dents were largely sup­port­ive of him. And his par­ents al­lowed the au­thor­it­ies to seek justice for him.

“He flat-out said, ‘I need both my par­ents to get through this,’ ” Melissa re­called. “We wanted to prove him right, that he did the right thing in the end.”

Yet, Ben and his fam­ily were soon con­fron­ted by an­oth­er unanti­cip­ated tor­ment. Even as po­lice in­vest­ig­ated the case, the ab­user was still liv­ing with his par­ents next door.

Po­lice ar­res­ted Rick Jastem­ski on April 11, 2012, and charged him with 11 of­fenses, in­clud­ing rape, un­law­ful con­tact with a minor, un­law­ful re­straint, sexu­al as­sault, reck­less en­dan­ger­ment and cor­rup­tion of a minor. He pos­ted 10 per­cent of $25,000 bail that day and re­turned home.

“We spent the next year in our front win­dow, watch­ing him be­cause we didn’t want Ben get­ting hurt any­more,” dad Mi­chael said.

As the case made its way through the court sys­tem, an­oth­er troub­ling real­iz­a­tion struck Ben’s fam­ily. Most of their Fairdale Road neigh­bors seemed to blame the boy for the trouble on the block.

“They would ant­ag­on­ize us by star­ing at us and talk­ing be­hind our backs,” Ben said.

The few neigh­bors who con­tin­ued to speak to Ben’s fam­ily got sim­il­ar treat­ment.

“Ba­sic­ally they were shun­ning us,” Melissa said.

Ben found a ther­ap­ist through the Net­work of Vic­tim As­sist­ance in Bucks County. In school, he spoke of his ab­use to teach­ers and friends and tried to start a sex ab­use aware­ness group among his peers. The school ad­min­is­tra­tion nixed the idea, however.

“Some­times, when you raise aware­ness, you raise fears,” the boy’s dad said.

But Ben was still try­ing to come to terms with his own set of fears, his dis­trust of oth­ers, his anxi­ety about hav­ing to con­front his ac­cuser in court or in the drive­way out­side their homes.

“He was still afraid to be in his own house,” Melissa said.

One spe­cial friend has helped Ben over­come the fear. A man named “Khaos” entered Ben’s life after the boy’s mom found an In­ter­net link to Bikers Against Child Ab­use. With 165 chapters across the coun­try, BACA is a group of mo­tor­cycle en­thu­si­asts whose mis­sion is “to cre­ate a safer en­vir­on­ment for ab­used chil­dren” and “em­power chil­dren to not feel afraid of the world in which they live,” ac­cord­ing to the or­gan­iz­a­tion’s web­site.

Typ­ic­ally, a BACA chapter will ride to a child’s house or an­oth­er pre­arranged meet­ing place upon a pro­fes­sion­al re­fer­ral and re­quest from the fam­ily. If the young­ster chooses, a friend­ship de­vel­ops. The bikers can provide ca­marader­ie, ment­or­ing and pro­tec­tion.

“We come in­to his life and show him he’s not alone,” said Khaos, who de­clined to provide his real name for pub­lic­a­tion. “He knows no mat­ter what he does, he’s not go­ing to be judged. He knows whatever he says stays with us.”

“So they’re able to vent and get things off their chest, and to a child that’s so im­port­ant,” Melissa said.

Khaos is still a big part of Ben’s life, even with his ab­user out of the pic­ture. Jastem­ski’s fam­ily even­tu­ally moved. On June 21, Jastem­ski pleaded guilty to rape. On Sept. 20, a judge sen­tenced him to 11-1/2 to 23 months in pris­on, fol­lowed by five years of strict house ar­rest and 18 years of pro­ba­tion. He must re­gister as a Megan’s Law of­fend­er for the rest of his life.

After the fi­nal court hear­ing, Ben texted to friends that it was the best day of his life.

“I thought it was ob­vi­ous,” he re­called, smil­ing.

Mean­while, he con­tin­ues to work on a vic­tim ad­vocacy cam­paign that he launched as a school pro­ject. That’s one of the reas­ons why he con­tac­ted the North­east Times. He also talks dir­ectly to oth­er kids and has cre­ated the Face­book page “Shat­ter the Si­lence (Erad­ic­ate Child Ab­use).”

“People like it,” Ben said. “Me and my mom post stuff. People can com­ment. People are talk­ing about it.” ••

You can reach at wkenny@bsmphilly.com.

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