From Bradenton Herald

MANATEE — When Bradenton resident Ken Followell was 2, a relative began sexually abusing him.

It stopped 12 years later when the family member moved on to another child, allowing Followell to began his healing process.

“I know how hard it is for victims when dealing with emotions and trauma,” Followell said Thursday during a public forum when local government officials and candidates for office met with victims and their advocates to share views and concerns regarding victims of crime.

The forum, hosted by the Manatee County Victim Rights Council, took place at the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Building on U.S. 301.

Followell, now president of the Victim Rights Council, emceed the hour-long session during which crime victims spoke emotionally of their experiences and sought insight regarding domestic violence and sexual and mental abuse.

They told their stories to an audience that included Manatee County Sheriff Brad Steube, law enforcement victim advocates, certified domestic violence center representatives and mental health representatives.

One woman asked about protection from abusers in the workplace.

Another woman talked about her financial woes that stem from an attempted rape.

County Commissioner Carol Whitmore and Robert Rotundo, a candidate for Palmetto commissioner, said they attended the gathering because they care about victims and support the Victims Rights Council.

Shirley Groover Bryant, running for mayor of Palmetto, said she understands victims’ needs on a personal level.

When she was 16, she had a police escort for weeks after a man threatened to kill her if her parents didn’t come up with a ransom.

“The impact that has on families is just devastating,” Bryant said. “Fighting criminal activity is a priority for me having experienced it like I did. I think every elected official should ... help network and provide that security for victims.”

Bradenton Councilwoman Marianne Barnebey, who said she came from a family that experienced domestic violence, commended the victim advocates who attended the forum.

“I appreciate very much what you do,” she said. “It’s a very difficult job.”

Calvester Benjamin-Anderson, a write-in candidate for state House District 55, said more funding is needed for victim advocates and agencies. One victim in the audience agreed. “They help me and keep me stable,” the middle-age woman said.

Benjamin-Anderson said she understands some victims struggle with sharing what happened to them.

“But if you have someone to help, it makes a difference,” she said. “You can’t help everybody, but you can help somebody.”

Susie Brown said she’s seen a lot of changes in the 17 years she worked as a victim advocate with the Manatee County Sheriff’s Office. “Unfortunately I’ve seen a step back in victim service throughout the state as far as funding and community support,” she said. “We need your support, we can’t do it alone.”

Denni Stolze, a victim advocate with Hope Family Services, a local certified domestic violence center, said domestic violence needs to be a community issue. She added that 95 percent of victims have never contacted an agency like HOPE for help.

Richard Jackson, candidate for state House District 67, said if elected he will strengthen victims’ rights and reward victim advocates.

“We know with a roomful of people like this we are headed in the right direction,” Jackson said.

Followell thanked the victims for attending, and for their courage to speak about their issues.

Hopefully, he said, their stories and concerns will help others in need.

Ken Followell

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