For the first time in nearly two decades, Rosalynn McGinnis is thinking about a future that doesn’t include Henri Piette, her former stepfather and the man she says allegedly held her captive for 19 years.
“My future seems bright — a lot brighter,” she tells PEOPLE in an exclusive interview. “Life still is hard, but it’s not near as hard as it ever was with him.”
In June 2016, McGinnis managed to flee, with eight of her nine children, from a remote village in Mexico where she had been raped, beaten and tortured since she was reported missing on Jan. 31, 1997, when she was 12 years old and in the sixth grade. That’s the day, she says, Piette abducted her.
As the FBI conducts an “ongoing investigation” into what happened, Piette, 62, remains at-large and has not been charged with any crime.
McGinnis, now 33 and living in an undisclosed location in the Midwest with her children, ages 2 to 17, says they’re being treated for post-traumatic stress disorder after suffering for years from abuse. (Her eldest child, a son, had run away before her escape last year; they have since been reunited.)
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McGinnis has only recently told her kids that their father was her rapist and abductor, and it’s a horrific truth they are trying to find a way to deal with.
“It’s hard to describe when you’ve been through so much trauma in your life, especially when the man who did this to you is not caught,” she says. “You’re always looking over your shoulder thinking that he’s going to show up and take you again.”
But every day, McGinnis is getting a little bit stronger, especially with help from her cousin Dana Archuleta, whom she describes as a stabilizing force in her life.
“When I don’t sleep at night, I can call her,” McGinnis says. “She means the world to me.”
Whenever the pair get together, they can be seen laughing and sharing private jokes. Archuleta, who has created a GoFundMe page to help financially support McGinnis and her children, says she is amazed by her cousin’s resilience.
“Rosalynn is the strongest person I know,” she says. “Not because of the horrific circumstances of which she overcame, but she’s so full of light and compassion.”
McGinnis says she dreams about her future, which includes returning to school and studying criminal law. One day, she plans to help solve missing-persons cases like her own.
“Many of these cases are of children who became adults and lost hope, feel forgotten and are still suffering,” she says. “I know their need to be saved because I dreamed of someone finding me.”