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One survivor’s story

Bob Ricks, a 24-year-old graduate student, survived years of sexual abuse in his childhood from a family member. He says he's learned to move past the abuse by becoming a social worker and a foster parent. 
 (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Bob Ricks, a 24-year-old graduate student, survived years of sexual abuse in his childhood from a family member. He says he's learned to move past the abuse by becoming a social worker and a foster parent. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)

Dear Tom, the letter begins. ¶ You beat me. Gave me a black eye at four. Threw cold water on me and had me stand outside. You never called me by name. From birth on, my name was little faggot or bastard. You groomed me for sexual abuse and led me to think it was my fault. I still remember the long days sitting in school, wondering what was going to happen to me when I got home. ¶ Would you break a coat hanger over my face? ¶ Would you pull my pants down and have me stand in the corner? ¶ Or would you push me down the stairs and jump on me in a violent frenzy?

Bob Ricks won’t call him Dad. That would be too painful. Too strange. Father, yes. Thomas M. Ricks, yes. But Dad? No.

“It began so young,” Bob Ricks, 24, said, with a sigh. “As long as I can remember. I hated it, but I didn’t know it wasn’t normal. I thought that was the way the world worked.”

Only in recent years, driven in part by the priest abuse scandal in the Catholic Church, has the public begun to realize how many adult men have been affected by sexual abuse. According to one of the largest national surveys on the topic, one in six men experiences sexual abuse by age 18.

For men, the perceived American male ideal – as stoic, invulnerable providers – contributes to the problem, researchers say. Men are less likely to disclose sexual abuse and often struggle to express their emotions.

Bob Ricks and a growing body of researchers argue that speaking publicly about sexual abuse can help ease the humiliation and shame many children and adults struggle to confront. As a policy, The Spokesman-Review generally does not name victims of sex crimes. But at the request of Bob Ricks and his siblings, the newspaper made an exception.

“People need to be educated,” said Ricks, now a graduate student in social work at Eastern Washington University and licensed foster parent. “Children need to know they can survive it. It’s been hidden too long. I’m not going to be ashamed anymore.” Bob Ricks was not the only victim. In 1981, Thomas Ricks admitted that he raped his 7-year-old daughter. Two other daughters alleged that he had sexually abused them for more than a year, according to Chelan County juvenile court documents.

Ricks pleaded guilty to two counts of statutory rape, and a judge committed him to the now-defunct sexual psychopath program at Eastern State Hospital. The family settled in Spokane.

After his release in 1983, Ricks returned to his job: social worker. He and his wife, Linda, retained custody of their children. He bounced from jobs at one agency to the next, always a step ahead of background checks, according to three of his children. A judge dismissed the case in 1990, and Tom Ricks was not required to register as a sex offender.”How do these kinds of people get away with these things?” said Beverly Sanders, a retired social worker and Tom Ricks’ half-sister. “It’s absolutely mind-boggling what this man has gotten away with during his life.”

The abuse, the Ricks children said, lasted for years. As adults, they are able to function day-to-day, but the memories of abuse have never left them.

“I don’t think any of us are past this,” said Tom Ricks’ stepdaughter, Heather Bajramovic, a mother of two children. “There has been no closure. He walks around with his chest up like he’s a great father. It’s pretty amazing how long this has gone on, and how many years it has taken to deal with it.”

In an interview this month, Tom Ricks admitted sexually abusing his daughters, but denied molesting his son. He said he completed an extensive rehabilitation program in the 1980s that cured him.

“It was a real heavy duty one,” said Ricks, 60, who lives in east Spokane. “There’s been nothing since then. If there had been, my wife would have left me. This is just a deal that Bob’s trying to do. I don’t even know what his problem is.”

Bob Ricks said his father is using an old ploy: Blame the victim. He said one reason it took so many years to confront the abuse was because he feared no one would believe him – despite his father’s history.

Research on coping

In the language of psychologists, Bob Ricks is a resilient male survivor.

Those who successfully address abuse, according to a Boston University study published last year, demonstrate three main coping strategies: they identify meaning through actions, such as helping others; they construct a psychological framework to better understand the abuser and to clarify their own role in abuse; or they rely on spirituality.

“People, by and large, when terrible things happen to them, need to have in their mind a way of understanding why it happened,” said Frances K. Grossman, a Boston University psychology professor who has studied resilience among abuse survivors. “I do think there is some innate resilience, but a key piece is access to therapy.”

Lack of income, poor social support and race can be barriers to accessing effective treatment, Grossman found.

The more access to counselors who understand trauma therapy, the better the outcome, multiple studies have found. Victims who wait to disclose the abuse or blame themselves showed more severe symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, according to a 2007 study from the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Those victimized by a family member appear to be particularly at-risk for PTSD symptoms, which can last a lifetime.

For both male and female survivors, tiny moments can trigger an explosion of anxiety. For Kathleen Meader, a 38-year-old creative writing student at Eastern Washington University, the smell of smoke reminds her of camping trips with her father, who sexually assaulted her. A waft of smoke can leave her shaking.

“I’m transported back 20 or 30 years,” said Meader, who has used counseling and a guide dog to help control her fears. “That’s when the adult collides with the child. The real world fades out and the old one fades in.”A 45-year-old Spokane salesman, who asked not to be identified because he worries how others would react, recalls seeing his attacker on Easter Sunday nearly a decade ago. He had always told himself that he would aggressively confront the small, slender man with glasses who abused him in his South Hill neighborhood. But in that moment, a wave of anxiety flooded him.

“I turned around and saw him, and it literally put me to my knees,” the man said. “It just brought back this wash of memories from my childhood instantly. It was extremely shocking. It had me shook up for weeks.”

He said he felt responsible for the sexual abuse, even though he was a young boy at the time. Reading about the abuse of others can induce severe anxiety, he said.

“It destroys you, and it stays in a man’s mind for his entire life,” he said. “You don’t want to open that black box of memories, but it constantly creeps out.”

The Spokane salesman was particularly troubled that his alleged attacker, James Clarke, 51, was never prosecuted. Clarke, a former counselor at Morning Star Boys’ Ranch, has been named in a civil lawsuit by another alleged victim. Now a resident of Seattle, Clarke has not responded to interview requests.

“I’ve never really been able to confront what happened and move on,” the sales manager said. “I’d rather see him off the damn streets and put away. But I’ve come to the realization that it wasn’t my fault.”

That recognition, researchers say, is crucial to recovery. Counseling and support systems help. But questions remain in a rapidly evolving field of study.

With such a plethora of variables in the life of a child, researchers acknowledge there is no singular reason why survivors like Bob Ricks succeed and others fail.

“It’s a question that haunts me,” said Iris St. John, retired chair of the counseling psychology program at Gonzaga University, who has known Bob Ricks since he was a teenager. “With any family, what is it that makes some children suffer and then, as adults, want to lessen the suffering of other beings? It runs contrary to everything I was taught as a psychologist. What I was taught as a psychologist would make Bob Ricks a monster. Instead, Bob Ricks is a saintly soul. And I don’t know why.”

‘Just survive’

You always told me to “just shut up.” I found being quiet as a child only allowed me to be the perfect little victim for you … I’m no longer the little boy forced to hide in your basement … I’m Bob Ricks and I know where I’m going in life. I’m a survivor.

Bob Ricks’ unsent letter

to his father, Thomas Ricks

As a boy, Bob Ricks learned to run fast.

The basement closet had a hole in its wall. When trouble strolled through in steel-toe boots, the boy fled through the hole, then up the stairs, trailed by his father’s heavy footsteps.

There was no place safe in the little house, so Bob Ricks ran out into the night: three blocks through their north Spokane neighborhood, across the train trestle, onto the Centennial Trail, and then to the welcoming lights of the library at Gonzaga University – his sanctuary.

No one questioned why a 12-year-old was sleeping in the library because no one ever saw him.

“I got really good at slipping under the radar,” he said.

In the aisles of books, safely out of sight, he would push two chairs together and curl up to sleep. When he couldn’t sleep – hypervigilant, flinching at every sound – he turned to the rows of books.

“I read the Bible straight through,” he said. “Book of James: ‘Consider it pure joy whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.’ The only thing I struggled with was the ‘honor your mother and father’ part.”

He never knew how much his mother, Linda, knew about the abuse. The siblings say the mother drank frequently.

“I think she knew,” Ricks said. “She would have these moments of clarity. She’d say, ‘Did he touch you?’ And then she’d say, ‘Your father is not a faggot.’ “

Ricks sought his parents’ approval, even through the abuse, even as he lay in bed at night, listening to his father creep from room to room.

“He was a heavy guy, and the house was old and rickety,” Bob Ricks said. “It still makes my stomach turn.”

Bob grew up in a hurry. In elementary school, he learned to forge his mother’s signature on teacher’s notes. He did laundry and made dinner for his family. But his efforts often seemed only to anger his father, Bob Ricks said.

When he cleaned out the fridge as his mother asked, his father returned to find rotting food in the garbage. Then he forced his son to eat it.

Even worse than the physical and sexual abuse was the daily psychological battering. Ricks and his siblings remember being constantly on edge, unaware when their father would strike out in anger.

In an interview earlier this year, the Ricks children blanched as they recalled Tom Ricks forcing his children to watch as he pulled out the claws of the family dog with a pair of pliers.

Bob worried for his siblings. One sister suffered a broken jaw and arm, he said. Another had a subdural hematoma. For weeks, Bob wore an eye patch after his father gave him a black eye, he said.

“I didn’t know who to talk to or how to go about reporting it,” said his sister, Duana Nolan, 34. “All family contact was cut off. We weren’t allowed to call our grandma, or our Aunt Ellen. We couldn’t even have friends come over.”

Ruth Palmer, the children’s 84-year-old grandmother, said Tom and Linda Ricks took out a restraining order on her after she complained to state social workers about the children’s care.

“The agency badmouthed me something terrible,” Palmer said. “Thirty years ago, I was an angry young woman. Now, I’m an angry old woman.”

Palmer said she felt powerless for decades, fearing as early as the 1970s that the children were in danger.

In 1975, two foster parents took in Heather, then 16 months old, after a physician found six fractured ribs. Her physical appearance was heart-wrenching, the foster parents wrote in a letter to a Spokane judge and police sergeant at the time.

“She reminded us of a baby in captivity in a Nazi Prison Camp,” the foster parents wrote. “Heather had very dark circles under both eyes; her limbs were like rope in form, she had extreme malnutrition, so bad that her skin hung on her body …”

The foster parents said Heather seemed afraid of Tom and Linda Ricks. She cried and pulled away from them. When the foster parents tried to convince a state social worker that the child should remain with them, the social worker wouldn’t listen, they said.

“Tom kept saying, ‘Look at this kid’s eyes. She looks like she’s freaked out,’” the foster parents wrote. “Then he would laugh at her. He told me not to unpack Heather’s suitcase because she would be going home in a few days.”

Tom Ricks was right. Even after his conviction in 1981, the children remained in the home.

Bob Ricks said he cannot determine why state social workers did not remove the siblings because – in accordance with Washington policy – the children’s foster records were shredded by state staff six years after they left temporary foster care.

‘I could have gotten out’

Despite the emotional, physical and sexual abuse, I survived. As a child, I made the honor roll several times. I took the horrors I lived through and now I’m using them to help others. Because of you, I know what it feels like to be an alone, hurting child. I have been able to help hundreds of children who were abused.

Bob Ricks’ unsent letter

to his father, Thomas Ricks

Years were lost in a haze of fear and anxiety. As a teenager, Bob Ricks began cutting his arms with a razor blade for the thrill. He drank and smoked marijuana. He ran away from home and moved in with his sister Heather and her husband, Elvis.

At age 16, Bob Ricks attended a Christian summer camp. He made friends. Gradually, he began to rebuild his life.

He became an honor student. He finished high school. He secured a federal grant and enrolled at Gonzaga. He decided to become a social worker, like his father.

“I wanted to understand how the system worked,” he said. “I wanted to understand how this happened, and I wanted to understand myself.”

The college courses rekindled old fears. Tom Ricks began to haunt Bob’s dreams. Lectures keyed memories that made him sweat. Between classes, he ran stairs to stanch his anxiety.

He labored through painful counseling sessions. One therapist became so overwhelmed by his stories of abuse that she transferred him to another psychologist.

At home, he tore up pictures of his father. He began to speak of him in the past tense, as if Tom Ricks were already gone.

Tom Ricks continued to deny his son’s allegations.

“I’m 60 years old now,” he told a reporter. “There’s nothing. There’s nothing in the police records. This is ridiculous. It destroys somebody’s life.”

He said he may sue his son for making the allegations public.

In ways both small and large, Bob Ricks said, he continues to pay for the abuse. When he worked at an emergency shelter for foster children, he was assigned to read the children’s files. The accounts of abuse triggered more stress – heart palpitations, sweating, anxiety.

Eventually, he left the shelter.

He became a teacher’s aide at his old school, Stevens Elementary. He talked with veteran staffers about his work with children and his attempts to become a foster parent.

“They said, ‘Oh, you’d be great at that because of what you went through.’ ” Ricks recalled. “I said, ‘Wait. You knew we were being abused the whole time?’ It frustrated me. I thought: I could have gotten out.”

Today, at 24 years old, Bob Ricks is an advocate. He pesters legislators and state officials with letters calling for increased funding for foster care. He can be almost manic in his pursuit, he said, a vestige of his attention deficit disorder, a relatively common diagnosis for adult survivors of child abuse.

As a foster parent to an 11-year-old boy, he presents an unorthodox image. A thin beard covers his angular face. He wears a black skateboarding T-shirt. He speaks in bursts. Dating can be difficult because some college girls find it strange that Bob Ricks is a foster parent. Others think it’s great, he said.

“I’m not your average, middle-class foster parent,” he said. “But I have this terrible experience that I can turn into something good. I don’t view myself as a victim anymore. I think I am an asset to the social work field. I know what it’s like to be a kid and feel powerless. I see other professionals who don’t understand what that’s like.”

Beverly Sanders, Bob’s aunt, has urged her nephew to leave Spokane, to distance himself from the past.

“It seems like it never has stopped,” she said. “Every corner Little Bob turns, Tom’s there waiting for him. Little Bob’s had to fight tooth and nail all his life. I worry sometimes that he’ll give up. But last time he called me, he said, ‘My dad will never win.’ “

To Bob Ricks, leaving would feel too much like running away. He would feel too much like that child: scared and powerless. If he leaves the city, he said, it will be on his own terms.

“Why should I have to keep running from my life?” he said. “Why should I have to leave? I haven’t done anything wrong. It’s the same reason I didn’t change my last name. It’s my identity. This is my home. This is who I am.”