WHEN FIFTH GRADER DESIRAY BARTAK returned to her Newbury Park, Calif., elementary school after summer vacation in 1990, her schoolmates and teachers were mystified. Once cheerful and upbeat, the 10-year-old withdrew from her friends and began dressing in black. She stopped playing sports, and her grades dropped from Bs to Ds. At home, too, her behavior was bizarre. Cloistered in her room, Desiray cried often, couldn’t fall asleep and, when she did, had terrible nightmares. On her bleakest days, she painted her face black with Clown makeup. Although her family was desperately concerned, Desiray was unable to discuss her troubles. In January 1991, a diagnosis of depression was made, and she was sent to a psychiatric hospital for two weeks. “I didn’t have any feelings,” she says.
Today, Desiray, 13, is feeling plenty: anger toward the man who sexually abused her three years ago and relief that the abuser—her godfather, Richard Streate, 30—is now serving a three-year prison sentence for his crime. But most of all, Desiray feels vindicated. Last January, in what is believed to be the first action of its kind brought by a child, she filed a civil suit against Streate, a construction worker, asking for punitive and monetary damages to cover the cost of her medical treatment and ongoing therapy. Since Streate did not contest the suit, all that remains is a hearing set for Jan. 7 to determine the monetary award. Desiray plans on asking for “$500 for every bad dream, $1,000 for every bad day and $1 million for molesting me”—in short, around 2 million dollars. Though it is unlikely that Desiray will see much money since Streate is no millionaire, she says, “This sends a strong message that if you touch me just one time, that’s how much I’m worth.”
Although Desiray’s parents, Wayanne Kruger-Marschner, 29, who makes and sells bamboo flutes, and Greg Bartak, 31, a construction worker, separated when Desiray was 18 months old, she had never exhibited emotional problems until after a sleep-over with Streate’s daughter, Christine, now 11, at the Streate home in Littlerock, Calif., on the July Fourth weekend in 1990. It was then that Streate crept into his daughter’s room and molested Desiray as Christine slept nearby.
Ashamed of what had happened and fearful that Streate would harm her or her family, Desiray locked her secret inside. She didn’t tell her father, with whom she was spending the summer, when he picked her up the next day. And she didn’t tell her mother when she returned home at the end of August. Wayanne, however, saw the change in her daughter immediately. “She just wasn’t acting like Desiray,” she says.
At first, Wayanne attributed Desiray’s teary outbursts, reclursiveness and refusal to play with her sister, Leah, now 9, to her own recent marriage to Bryan Marschner, 34, a factory supervisor, and the fact that custody arrangements with Desiray’s father had changed. (Instead of seeing him six months a year, she began spending summers with him at his home in Indio, Calif., four hours away.) Soon, though, it became clear that Desiray’s problems went deeper. “We put her in therapy, but she would not talk to anybody,” says Wayanne. “She cried all the time and said, ‘I want to kill myself, Mommy. I can’t go on.’ ”
In August 1991, Desiray’s depression turned to terror when her father, with whom she was again spending the summer, sent her for a week-long visit with Christine—her first since the 1990 incident. Once again, Streate tried to molest Desiray. This time, however, Desiray was spared when Streate’s wife, Gina, called him away just as the assault began. “I was very, very scared,” says Desiray.
Shaken out of her silence, Desiray phoned her father the next morning, told him what had happened and pleaded with him to take her home. Bartak, who had been Streate’s closest friend since childhood, balked. “I was in a state of shock,” he says now. “I thought if there was anyone I could trust, it was him.”
Bartak arrived at the Streates’ later that day. “I flat out asked Richard if he touched her,” says Bartak. “He looked me square in the eye and said no.”
The next day, weeping on the phone, Desiray finally told her mother what had happened. Marschner rushed to Bartak’s home and look Desiray off to be examined by a doctor. That afternoon she reported Streate to the Simi Valley police. That evening, at the request of investigators, Desiray phoned Streate and confronted him while police recorded the conversation. He admitted nothing.
Streate continued to deny the charges until May 1992, when another girl told police he had sexually abused her 11 times over a period of three years. To avoid a trial, he pleaded guilty to reduced charges involving only the assaults on Desiray.
The day Streate confessed, Desiray began emerging from her depression. “I’ve seen a huge change in her,” says Wayanne. “She has a long road ahead, but I look in her eyes and see Desiray again. I’m glad to have her home.”
Not only did Desiray find the courage to speak up about the abuse but she began to do so publicly, despite her mother’s misgivings. Angry that she had not been able to testify against Streate, Desiray wrote to L.A. feminist attorney Gloria Allred, whom she had seen on TV, and asked if Allred would represent her in a civil case.
Allred agreed and also advised Desiray that she had the right to speak at Streate’s sentencing. On Jan. 12, as Streate clutched a Bible and Desiray’s parents looked on, she told the court how she felt. “He was supposed to love me and care for me as a godfather,” Desiray said. “Instead he gave me nightmares and kept me from enjoying my childhood. I can never forgive him.” The judge sentenced Streate to the three-year maximum allowed under the plea bargain. “I believe Desiray made a difference that day,” says Allred.
Desiray hopes to continue making a difference. With her mother, she has lobbied state legislators, asking them to require a minimum six-year sentence for child molesters. Her organization, Children Against Rape and Molestation (CARAM) has gained nationwide attention: Tom Arnold recently agreed to be interviewed for its newsletter, which reaches victims’ rights groups as far away as Ohio.
Unfortunately, repairing some of her damaged personal relationships has not come as easily. After telling a few school friends about the abuse, Desiray says she was taunted. “Kids were saying that it was my fault,” she says. “They didn’t understand that it wasn’t and that I couldn’t stop him.” She found some comfort when other students confessed lo her that they too had been moles led, but eventually the verbal abuse became too much. “I got sick and tired of them making fun of me,” says Desiray. In October 1992, she transferred to a nearby school in Thousand Oaks, but when the teasing continued, she enrolled in a home study program.
Desiray’s family life has suffered, too. Her stepfather, Bryan Marschner, found all the molestation talk depressing and moved back home to New York, although Wayanne says hopefully, “We’re not formally separated.” As for Desiray’s real father, she has had difficulty forgiving him for his initial reaction. “We don’t talk anymore,” she says. In fact, in August Bartak complied with her wishes and gave up legal guardianship, agreeing that “it will never be the same between us.” Yet he hopes that they can one day rebuild their trust.
Even after Desiray’s January court date, she says, she will continue encouraging abused children to follow the motto on her calling card: Talk and Tell. “The abuse is not your fault,” she tells kids at teen centers and victims’ rights rallies. “If you come forward, it will stop, and you will be able to heal.”
LYNDA WRIGHT in Newbury Park