Rape survivor is prolific advocate at Fla. Capitol

AP News
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Posted: Apr 25, 2011 2:33 PM
Rape survivor is prolific advocate at Fla. Capitol

Sometimes sexual abuse survivor Lauren Book deals with anger by smashing plates against the side of the house. Other times, she channels her energy into changing laws, efforts that began soon after she turned in her nanny for repeatedly raping her. Nine years later she has a reputation as Florida's most effective advocate for getting bills signed that help victims, prevent abuse and make it easier to prosecute offenders.

She and her lobbyist father, Ron Book, have helped create more than a dozen laws ranging from HIV testing of rape suspects to abolishing the statute of limitations to prosecute or sue child rapists. While Ron Book is considered one of Tallahassee's most powerful lobbyists, it's the daughter's work and her story that clinches support for their proposals. She says it's difficult for lawmakers to look in the face of a victim and not support her efforts.

"I know how to work it, and I know that's how I can make a difference," Book said about her work at the Capitol. ""I say, 'It's not an option.' What are they going to say?"

The law that removed the statute of limitations for prosecuting or suing child rapists was filed as a bill six straight years with no success before Lauren Book started advocating for it.

"There were a lot of people who for six consecutive years over here did not allow the statute of limitations bill to get to the floor until we took it," her father said. "Putting her face on it made all the difference in the world. We didn't have a 'no' vote in committee in either house. We didn't have a 'no' vote on the floor in either house."

Changing laws isn't all she does. She runs a foundation called Lauren's Kids that helps other survivors and educates parents and children about how to avoid abuse. She's walking 1,000 miles around Florida and talking with victims along the way. She finishes the trek on Tuesday.

Book grew up in an affluent family in the South Florida city of Plantation, yet says that she was bred to be a victim. The Associated Press generally does not identify victims of sexual abuse, but Book has allowed her story to be told in news articles and in a book she wrote called "It's OK to Tell."

Her mother had mental health issues and couldn't take care of her. Her father worked long days and spent a lot of time in the state capital, 400 miles away. Waldina Flores was hired when Book was 11 to take care of her, her sister and brother.

Flores made a little girl starved for attention and love feel special. Flores would tell Book how beautiful she was, comb her hair, give her special treats and tell her how much she cared about her. Book trusted her.

The abuse started slowly with a single inappropriate kiss and then fondling. It escalated to sodomy and physical violence.

After years of being told not to talk about family secrets because of her mother's mental health, Book was afraid to say anything. She also didn't want her father to think she was a lesbian, or to lose the stability Flores brought to a chaotic home.

Book eventually confided in a boyfriend, who convinced her to reveal the abuse. Flores is now serving a 25-year prison sentence.

Her book describes the abuse but doesn't go into as much detail as it could have. It explains how predators choose and control their victims, why children are afraid to tell and how sexual abuse can be prevented.

"I could have written a book that was so sensationally disgusting that people would read it, but that's not what the goal was," she said. "The purpose was a tool for parents to realize what happened and what can happen, and a tool for survivors to become a thriving survivor."

The first time she helped get a bill passed at age 17, she was battling anorexia, sleepless nights and crying fits because of her abuse. She flew to Tallahassee and met with lawmakers, who passed a bill requiring rape suspects to get tested for HIV and victims to be given the results. She stood with then-Gov. Jeb Bush when he signed the bill.

"I remember a sweet girl and a proud and loving dad. I have followed her efforts since then, and am very, very impressed," Bush said in an email.

She's since helped pass laws that have set residency restrictions for sex offenders, created a revenue source for rape crisis centers, increased penalties for offenders, required law enforcement to tell victims where they can get treatment and care. This year she's seeking a law that would require rape suspects to get tested for hepatitis, include Internet safety courses in public school health curriculums and provide relocation assistance to victims.

She realizes she wouldn't be in a position to change laws without her father, even though he credits her as the more effective member of their partnership.

"If he was a chef or a fireman or a doctor or a teacher, I wouldn't have the pulpit or the box that I do," said Book, who taught kindergarten for three years before working full time with her foundation.

Book speaks to survivors, works with rape crisis centers and encourages people to get help even if they've kept their abuse secret for decades. While listening to stories of rape every day is difficult, she smiles a lot and exudes positive energy that comforts other survivors.

"I need to be strong for them so that they know they can come to me. They can see, `Wow! She's OK,'" Book said.

Still, there are times when she does cry. And she also gets angry. Angry about the people hurting children, angry about a legal system that lets rapists strike plea deals and angry that rape crisis centers often don't have enough resources.

She says that she sometimes buys cheap glass plates just to hurl them at the side of her house.

"I'm not hurting anyone, and I'm angry," she said. "And it's OK to be angry and it's OK to want to just break something, because Lord knows I've seen enough to make me angry."

After those moments where she does step back in anger or sadness, she finds the strength to continue with her work.

Last year, Book came up with the idea of walking 500 miles across Florida. Victims started coming out at each stop and telling her their stories. This year she expanded it to a 1,000-mile trek from Key West to Pensacola to Tallahassee.

"It's not only an awareness campaign and a way for me to get in touch with other survivors and empower people _ it does so much. It shows what a healing journey is," Book said as she walked to a child abuse center in Gainesville.

Among those who have joined Book is Coleen Clark, who walked 22 miles with Book earlier this month from the Alabama line to downtown Pensacola.

Like many victims, Clark, of Lillian, Ala., kept her secret for years. She was sexually abused by a relative when she was 7 until she was 13. It wasn't until last year that she revealed the abuse and sought counseling. It's changed her life.

"God bless Lauren, because she went ahead and she said something and she's doing something about it. And all of that positive energy that she has is healing not only her, but everyone around her," said Clark, who also agreed to be identified.