Seeking Validation After Abuse's Scars

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By Donna Britt
Friday, October 7, 2005

On Wednesday, Burke software sales executive Rita Etter and a pal were in the middle of a night of chicken fajitas and chitchat when Etter's friend lifted a crimson-filled wineglass to her lips.

One whiff of its contents and Etter -- who hadn't moved -- was gone.

To the early 1970s, to the basement of the brick-and-stone house next door to her Arlington childhood home. Once again, she was a skinny, trusting 8-year-old; with her was the kind, thirtysomething neighbor who played catch with her and asked for her help in creating a backyard pond.

A married, churchgoing insurance agent, he was the family friend who filled some of the blanks left by her absent father and prescription-drugaddicted mother.

Noticing a glass of pink liquid on his desk, the 8-year-old Rita asked, "What's in it?"

"Do you want to taste it?" he asked. Sticking out his tongue, he told her to do the same.

He rubbed their tongues together.

At that moment, "everything changed." More than three decades since that moment, remembering it "feels like last night," says Etter, 41.

Last May, Etter told Arlington police about what happened in the basement, and about other abuses. Charged with three felony counts of "indecent liberties" with a child, the neighbor -- who is remarried and living in Annandale -- responded with an Alford plea, which stops short of admitting guilt but acknowledges that the prosecutor has enough evidence to convict if the case went to trial.

"It's the coward's way out," says Arlington police Detective Diane Guenther, an investigator in Etter's case. "It's the same as guilty. But he doesn't have to say it."

Seated in a suburban restaurant, Etter has to say it. No one wants to believe that such things happen. Too many parents -- whose suddenly withdrawn daughters have started asking odd questions, whose unusually belligerent sons refuse to see a certain relative -- fail to ask, "What's going on?"

Etter, who has wavy hair and a direct gaze, asked that her abuser not be identified by name in this column. "I don't want any money from him and didn't necessarily want him to go to jail," she says. "I wanted validation that what he did was wrong.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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