Liaison comes out of the shadows of others' pain to enjoy light of life

Victims' advocate retires after decades of service

Howard County

February 16, 2004|By Lisa Goldberg | Lisa Goldberg,SUN STAFF

Sheila Begg never forgot the silence that surrounded the rape of a friend on their college campus 40 years ago. She never forgot the isolation or the shame - or the way they never talked about what happened.

It was, in hindsight, a defining moment in her life, a shadow that would never quite go away, even after graduation, after a job as a teacher, after marriage and babies.

So it was, perhaps, no surprise when, seeking an outlet for her energies years later, she fell into a new profession - one that looked out for the needs of the innocent and the sexually abused.

"I did personalize it," said Begg. "I think that's what drove me to give the victims that kind of help I couldn't give my friend."

Nearly two decades after the Ellicott City resident first offered a sympathetic ear to sexual assault victims in Howard County, she is trading interview rooms and courtrooms for a more laid-back life of retirement and travel.

And the victims she's helped say they don't know what they'll do without her.

As a victim support liaison for the Howard County Child Advocacy Center, Begg was the one who bridged the gap between the police investigation and the judicial process. She was the familiar face for families as they moved through the system, as they met each new player and encountered each new experience. She was the grandmotherly soul who offered hugs and encouragement.

"She always kept me in the loop. She made me feel we weren't just part of the process. We were people," said the mother of one of three girls who have accused Ellicott City ballet teacher Jose Anibal Macedo of sexual assault.

Her 14-year-old daughter's case is scheduled for trial in April. "[My daughter] literally cried when we heard she was leaving because she gave [her] that security that girls need and the reassurance."

Looking ahead

That's not to say that the 12-year-old center is planning to leave victims and their families in the lurch. There are plans to fill the position. But officials at the center say Begg, 62, who retired Thursday, will be a tough act to follow.

"Sheila will be just tremendously difficult to replace. This isn't just a job that comes with a set of criteria," said Dale Jackson, the county's Children's Services administrator.

" ... It's really a job of somebody who can relate to children and agency personnel and can relate to families."

For Begg, the Child Advocacy Center was a last stop in her efforts to help victims of abuse, which started in 1985 as she looked for ways to "get out of myself" after her parents died within a few months of each other.

Begg, who taught elementary school until 1968, had been encouraged to volunteer for hospice work, but the pain of her parents' deaths was still too deep.

When she saw an advertisement for hot line volunteers at the county's Sexual Assault Center, now the Sexual Trauma, Treatment, Advocacy and Recovery Center, something just "clicked," she said.

Begg remembered her friend who had been sexually assaulted while they were at Carlow College in Pittsburgh. She had lost track of the friend, but had never forgotten the sense of loss and isolation after the assault.

She started by answering phones on 12-hour shifts from home, accepting calls at all hours of the night and listening as victims vented their fears and frustrations.

A few years later, she slipped into a paid role as volunteer and hot line coordinator and developed the court advocacy program at the center.

Life training

As she helped victims and developed training programs at the center, she said she drew on her own experiences - from the trauma of her parents' death to the death of her daughter's boyfriend.

"I know how being in crisis, how it skews everything. How it skews the whole rest of the world," she said.

She said that people in turmoil often have trouble digesting information. Sometimes, she said, they need to be told something over and over before it sinks in.

She has worked full time at the Child Advocacy Center, reassuring and guiding young victims and their families, since 1997.

"Basically, she's our right-hand person on these cases," said Howard County prosecutor Mary Murphy. "She's just a wonderful person."

In court recently, Begg sat quietly by the side of a young woman who had been victimized as a child in the 1980s. Begg gave her a bear hug after the hearing, where the woman shared her story.

"Just revel in how strong you were," Begg said.

Begg said she would have liked to have seen all of her cases resolved in court before she retired, but she knew there would always be judicial delays, always another case to take. And she had just completed a tiny, rain forest-themed room on the lower level of the circuit courthouse for children waiting to testify.

She knew it was time to move on.

"I'm sure there's some volunteer work in my future - probably with kids," she said. "I don't know quite what. I haven't planned that far ahead."

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