Tonia Byers no longer is a statistic.
At one time, she was among the 15 percent of the approximately 207,000 females who are sexually assaulted each year in this country who are younger than 12 years old.
Byers said she was sexually abused for four years, from the time she was 9 to 13 years old, in a small town in Iowa. She said she escaped by running away to Oklahoma.
“From the outside, everything seemed normal,” Byers, 36, said during a news conference Monday presented by the state attorney general's office to recognize April as sexual assault awareness month in Oklahoma.
Byers said she acted opposite from the typical victims of sexual abuse.
“I was on the honor roll, I made A's and B's, I was in gymnastics, I was a cheerleader, I was outgoing, never argued with my parents, had lots of friends,” she said. “But on the inside I was struggling.”
Byers said she turned to writing poetry to handle the abuse.
“Without my writing, I would have never survived,” she said.
At 17, while she was a high school senior living on her own in Oklahoma, she received a letter stating that her offender had died and left her $500 in his will.
“Talk about a roller coaster of emotions, I think I felt everything,” Byers said. “I just couldn't understand how my offender thought $500 was worth four years of abuse, four years of taking away my innocence.”
Byers said she wasn't his only victim; he also left money of differing amounts to others.
“It was time to let it go,” she said. “Sometimes things happen and they seem horrible or unfair, but I realized that without overcoming these obstacles I would have never realized my potential, my strength, my willpower or the true beauty of my heart.
“Yes, I was victimized, but to stay in that victim mode made him the winner,” Byers said. “To stay the victim keeps us from growing, healing and learning.
“If I choose to stay the victim, I lose — I lose all that I am now and all that I'm meant to be.”
Attorney General Scott Pruitt thanked Byers “for your courage, your bravery to stand up and tell your story.”
“Sexual assault is a crime that affects Oklahomans from every community,” he said.
The victim services unit in Pruitt's office administers funding and certification for the 29 domestic and sexual violence programs across the state. It also provides training for law enforcement, prosecutors and shelter workers.
Because of fear or stigmas, assaults often go unreported, according to Pruitt's office. Many victims suffer alone in silence and never seek assistance.
Byers encouraged other victims or those who are aware of sexual abuse to report it and to get help.
“We should feel no shame in coming forward,” she said, “because, like I said, this was done to us not by us.”
I was on the honor roll, I made As and Bs, I was in gymnastics, I was a cheerleader, I was outgoing, never argued with my parents, had lots of friends,” she said. “But on the inside I was struggling.”
She said she was sexually abused from the