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Walnut Creek Magazine

Conquering Jane Doe

Apr 24, 2019 04:57PM

By Lou Fancher Photography by Josh Isaacs

For decades, Kristen Lewis Cunnane hid the memories of her teenage years from her parents, her friends, her husband Scott, and most significantly, herself. Now in a newly released memoir, ‘Undoing Jane Doe’ (Sunbury Press), the Walnut Creek resident and former assistant Cal swim team coach tells her shocking story as a sexual assault survivor. 

Although there are few trophies displayed in her home, it is common knowledge in the sport-centric Bay Area that Cunnane, 37, was an award-winning multi-sport athlete. In college, she served as captain of the UCLA swim team, while earning an undergraduate degree in history. Cunnane went on to qualify for the 2004 Olympic Trials and earned a master’s in education from Cal. Hired as an Assistant Swim Coach, she rose in the ranks to become Associate Head Coach at Cal under Teri McKeever. Cunnane held this position between 2009 and 2015, during which time Cal won four NCAA championships. She retired in 2015 from coaching but continues to privately train top tier aquatics athletes for college recruitment. Her husband, Scott Cunnane, is a Contra Costa County Deputy District Attorney. Together the couple have three children.  

                         

At the family’s dining room table, Kristen sat down with Walnut Creek Magazine to tell her story. “I was 12 years old. There was a coach and middle school PE teacher, Julie Correa, who I really liked and she rewarded me with prizes like Slurpee’s, bagels, a baseball hat, and special attention. She told me not to tell anyone because other students might get jealous. By the time she did bad things and touched my private parts, I had already gone along with her prizes and treats.”

Research shows victims of childhood sexual abuse underreport crimes by as much as 73 percent, and many victims never tell anyone. One in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old—and only 12 percent of the abuse will be reported. Survivors are ten to thirteen times more likely to commit suicide.

Shockingly, says Cunanne, another teacher emerged as a sexual predator amid her relationship with Correa. Dan Witters, a popular science teacher at Joaquin Moraga Intermediate School also “did things” to Cunnane and other girls. “I would tell Julie Correa. I knew what he was doing wasn’t ok. I was a teen; I just wanted my life back, to play sports, to get good grades. I didn’t want to be thinking about Mr. Witters abusing girls or Julie abusing me.” Correa told Cunnane she had filed a complaint with the administration about Witters, but in reality, did no such thing. In 1996, when Cunnane and other students filed a complaint with the school district, no obvious action was taken against Witters. His dangerous past was also traced to earlier years. Unknown at the time, former Los Perales Elementary School principal Bill Walters had in 1994 failed to report child molestation allegations against Witters. During a job suspension and investigation related to a lawsuit brought in 1996 by two students, Witters committed suicide. 

But unlike the Witters case, no other students came forward with sexual assault allegations against Correa and the tragic story of her toxic abuse lived deep in Cunnane’s mind. After years of suppressing the memories, the dam finally burst in 2010 when the USA Swimming abuse scandal revealed top officials, coaches, board members, and others in the national organization failed to pursue complaints of sexual abuse involving coaches and hundreds of athletes. Cunnane began to unravel; plunging into depression, unable to sleep, eat, work efficiently, or stop crying, even though she was not a victim in the case. 

The scandal gave Cunnane the courage to come forward and report Correa to the Lafayette police. An investigation began, followed by a trial and a guilty verdict, and in 2011, a judge sentenced Correa to prison for the maximum term of eight years.

In her quest for justice, Cunnane was forced to contact Correa after ten years and get her to incriminate herself on police-recorded telephone calls. The recordings provided critical evidence for the prosecution at trial. “The calls were gut-wrenching. It took hours and weeks of calls for Julie to trust me again.” In December 2011, at the end of a grueling trial, Julie Correa was sentenced in Contra Costa County Superior Court. Released in March 2019, she will forever remain a registered sex offender.

“We were told to think of eight years as a big number and we’d done well to get that. Since the #MeToo Movement, people say Correa should have gotten triple that sentence. Still, it makes me proud because it means our society is changing and beginning to understand sexual abuse.” A subsequent civil lawsuit Cunnane brought against the Moraga School District resulted in a settlement of $2.85 million—$1.78 million of which went to Cunnane.

If a teacher had shot me in the arm, there would have been no secrets. It would have been obviously illegal. That’s what I want sexual abuse to be; not Jane Doe, not shameful.”  

The most frequent question Cunnane is asked—and writes about in her riveting book—is why she didn’t report the abuse to her parents, older brother, close friends, or school officials. “I always say my parents and friends aren’t the reason this happened but they’re the reason I survived. I desperately wanted another victim to come forward. That’s what people don’t realize; when you say something your whole life changes. Your parents are devastated…I was terrified.” Cunnane says she finally decided to tell her story to the police because it was more important to empower other sexual assault victims than to protect herself from critics and disbelievers.

Even so, it’s hard for Cunnane to understand how people can continue to support Correa despite the evidence and conviction. She’s grateful for the “army of people” who stood by her and provided the support to “survive her suicidal thoughts.” By giving up anonymity, Cunnane sends a crucial message to children that there are people who will protect them and speak up for them.

Sadly, Cunnane’s tragic story is founded in stark reality: research shows victims of childhood sexual abuse underreport crimes by as much as 73 percent, and many victims never tell anyone(Broman-Fulks et al, 2007). Statistics from the National Sexual Violence Resource Center show one in four girls and one in six boys will be sexually abused before they turn 18 years old—and only 12 percent of the abuse will be reported. A 2010 report from the Australian Childhood Foundation reveals another fact: one in three adults do not believe a child reporting sexual abuse, even though over 90 percent of children’s reports prove credible. Survivors are ten to thirteen times more likely to commit suicide, according to a 2001 study (Plunkett A, O’Toole B, Swanston H, Oates RK, Shrimpton S, Parkinson P) and facts from Darkness To Light, a national nonprofit devoted to child sexual abuse prevention (https://www.d2l.org).

 

Eventually diagnosed with PTSD, Cunnane says her husband is her rock. “The positives of this awful thing on my marriage outweigh the negatives. I saw people for who they are. I learned Scott is a hero who will show up for me even on my worst days.” Scott shares similar views. “I find it almost strengthening because it puts emphasis on being honest and true,” he says. “Once you go through something hard, you find other things you expect to be hard, are not so hard. It’s obviously challenging and emotional, but we’re going through it, together.”

Asked about criticism of her decision to go public, Cunnane says, “If a teacher had shot me in the arm, there would have been no secrets. It would have been obviously illegal. That’s what I want sexual abuse to be; not Jane Doe, not shameful.” Recently, Cunnane bravely told her young children the story of her dark past so they could hear it from her directly. She knew that one day, her kids might see clips from an upcoming interview on The Dr. Oz Show. “I want them to know who their mother is as they grow up. I think it’s best if they hear it from me, Scott, and my parents.”

Perhaps forgiveness will come someday, but for now, Cunnane says, “What Julie did is something that’s not my call to forgive. That’s what keeps her accountable and it’s what gets me out of bed and able to talk about it. It’s not anger or resentment. It’s the knowledge that this didn’t have to happen to me and people shouldn’t do this to children. It’s not ok. It keeps me going to make a difference for someone else. I’m making sure other people who are sexually assaulted know they’re not alone.”