Child abuse survivor shares her story

By Tara Morgan - bio | email

RICHMOND, VA (WWBT) - A Louisa grandmother will soon be sentenced for the horrific abuse she dealt to her own eight year old granddaughter.

Authorities could not prosecute Laura Jewell for torture as originally charged, but her case is sparking an effort to re-write Virginia law to better protect children.

One woman tells us it must be done. In fact, such a law could have saved her from a life of terror.

This is a harrowing story about a woman who grew up thinking abuse was the norm. She now considers herself a warrior for abused children in Virginia.

Debbie Shelton did not have a normal childhood by any means. From the time she was born, Shelton lived in a house of horror.

"My brother and I would be captive in the corner of a room where we were forced to watch my mother held down on the floor with her head beaten against the bathtub," said Shelton.

But as a little girl, Shelton thought that's how life was supposed to be.

"I knew of the abuse all my life but it was such a way of living that to me it wasn't abuse I didn't know it to be abuse," said Shelton.

Born in 1954 in Virginia Beach, Shelton was the third of four children.

She said her father was a well liked, successful businessman.

But at home, she said she saw and felt what outsiders didn't -- physical, sexual and emotional abuse.

"My dad was a very loving man and many people liked him I loved him but inside was a monster," said Shelton. A monster Shelton said that would strike often without warning.

The triggers Shelton said would be as trivial as a television set turned on during the day.

"When he would come home he would place his hand on the television and if the TV was hot he knew the TV had been turned on during the day and therefore he would abuse us horrifically," said Shelton.

But there were days Shelton said she knew a beating was coming.

"Most often I would see it in his eyes first and then his whole demeanor would change and I knew it was either get out of the room or be trapped," said Shelton.

She would take shelter in the woods.

"My brother and I would sometimes have to escape in he middle of the night go out the back door in our pajamas in the freezing cold," said Shelton.

Later as an adult, Shelton became an alcoholic and drug addict.  She would also cut herself to relieve the emotional pain.  At one point, turned suicidal.

She's sharing her story as lawmakers tried to stiffen penalties for child abusers.

Delegate Bill Janis introduced legislation after prosecutors in Louisa reached out to him about an eight year old girl tortured by her own grandmother for wetting her bed.

Laura Jewell pleaded guilty in November to felony child abuse, neglect and malicious wounding.  But not torture after prosecutors withdrew the charge questioning whether it could apply to the case.

Right now, the torture statute falls under a subsection in the child labor law.

Delegate Janis wants to make it a stand alone criminal code.

Shelton said her father, who died in 1981, was never successfully prosecuted for abuse.

"Without this house bill they are not in prison long enough to be able to deliver the safety that's needed for these families," said Shelton.

The proposed legislation did not make it out of committee. Supporters hope to bring it back up next year, including Shelton, who said she can't understand what could be more important than a child's life.

Shelton heads up Prevent Child Abuse Hampton Roads.

She's often troubled by the horrific stories other children tell, but says she is now able to give them a voice.

"I am allowed to be able to help in any way possible to be a warrior for children who are being abused to help them find justice," said Shelton.

Louisa's top prosecutor tells me the bill was tabled because it was deemed such a law would cost the penal system too much to house offenders.

It will be taken up again next year.

Meantime, Jewell will be sentenced February 23. She faces up to 30 years in prison.

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