Magness Lake, in Heber Springs, is a magnet for swans
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'Not just about Alle'
Safe Places is an amazing place," Alle says. "It makes you feel good about yourself. You're told you're good enough, you're a survivor. I think there are a lot of young girls like me who would love to go and be able to talk to someone."
Alle's parents also credit Safe Places, particularly her counselor there, Angela McGraw. "There for a while, she had nowhere to put the pain," Powell Dell says. "It had developed into a sick, toxic relationship, where they were going to be together forever. Finally, she said, 'I quit.' And she wanted to die. But since she's been with Angela, there's been such a change."
Alle now had her family for support too. "I used to always tell myself, 'One day at a time, Alle,' " she says. "That's what my dad would tell me. You can't take it all in in one day. You've got to spread it out and process it. You have to go through a bunch of different emotions.'"
Despite that advice, Alle was jolted when the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported on Whitaker's plea, even though her name was not mentioned in the article. "Basically everyone knew," she says. "It said his name, Zay Whitaker, and my age. It scared me. At the time, I didn't think I wanted people to know that I was hurt and abused. I barely wanted to admit it to myself."
Now, Annette says, Alle sees McGraw every week, and a psychiatrist, less often, for her medications. Difficult as it has been, she says, the process of "breaking these silent, generational bonds has truly helped our family."
But Annette wants to see more help for children who've been victims of sexual abuse. She is concerned that, even after she'd brought the no-contact order to Alle's school, officials there thought it applied to Powell, rather than Whitaker. And both parents wish school officials had a better understanding of the impact of sexual abuse.
"Alle went to court two weeks before school began," Powell says. "And now she has a lot of appointments. She misses a lot of school." He and Annette don't think teachers realize that she needs time to recover.
"I get the impression that they think we want them to handle her with kid gloves, and that's not what we're asking," Powell says. "We're just asking for a little extra consideration for a little while."
Both parents praise the work of police, prosecutors, social workers and the staff at Safe Places. "They were all so compassionate, so caring. They were fabulous," Annette says. But in her view, "Once it hit the court system, all hell broke loose."
Annette Dell is particularly upset about the delay—which police have told her could be as long as a year—in conducting the assessment required for Whitaker's registration as a sex offender. The Arkansas Department of Correction conducts the screening process to determine a convicted offender's community notification level.
The levels range from one to four. Level 4 offenders are considered "sexually violent predators," and require the "highest and most visible means of community notification." But the lag between a conviction and assessment, during which an offender's status is not publicized and no restrictions are imposed, has allowed many convicted offenders to skirt laws such as those forbidding them to live near schools.
In September, Gov. Mike Beebe asked the Arkansas Crime Information Center and the Department of Correction to institute changes to assess sex offenders more quickly. If the changes do not adequately speed up the process, Republican state Rep. Jon Woods of Springdale has said he will introduce legislation in January to require a faster system. Meantime, Annette Dell was distressed to see Whitaker, after his conviction, living so close to a public school that he could "see the playground from his backyard."
"Where is it that we're actually, truly standing up for our children," she asks, "especially in cases of rape and molestation? We are grateful that because of Alle, this is coming out now, rather than when she's 39 years old. But we know it's not just about Alle, it's about all children who are in this situation. I really, truly want to reform what we do for the victims."
Powell is still somewhat confounded by all that has happened concerning his daughter and his former friend. "To this day," he says, "I still cannot picture the person I know doing this. But the police and prosecutors, everyone has told us, 'People who do this hide it very, very well.' "
On Nov. 17, Whitaker petitioned the court for post-conviction relief, claiming that he signed the plea agreement, "under intense pressure and with literally no time at all to ponder it," due to the ineffectiveness of his public defender. He declined comment for this article, citing the advice of his new attorney.
Alle appears comfortable now. "Dad is in recovery," she says, "and my mom is doing a lot better because she doesn't have to run away from everything anymore."
Alle also seems comfortable with people knowing her story. "Even though I'm not quite proud of it, I am proud, in a way, because I'm healing. I'm getting a little better as days go by. I go to bed feeling good about myself."
She adds: "The good thing is, I have parents who care. Because a lot of kids don't have that."
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