A Survivor’s Story: Linda Sorenson of Cedar Rapids, Iowa
Since her daughter’s tragic death, Sorenson has dedicated her career and life’s work to helping victims and supporting crime prevention
By Linda Sorenson
When members of our family get together, it sometimes feels like we have an empty seat at the dinner table for my daughter Leah Wara.
My daughter Leah Wara was raped and brutally murdered over 20 years ago, on May 7, 1989—the night of her senior prom. Her assailant was a 19-year-old acquaintance she met at a bar after prom.
He took her to his apartment in the third floor of an older home. The victim of a violent sexual assault out-weighed by her attacker, Leah fought very hard to defend herself. She was trapped in a place difficult to escape and strangled to death.
The offender came to Iowa from Texas, with an outstanding charge there for burglary. They transferred him to Iowa while on probation to stay with his mother’s family and a brother. The offender had a history of violence with other female acquaintances. As a troubled teen, he had attempted suicide. His family begged the hospital to keep him to get the help he desperately needed, but he was released after 3 days. This man had a lot of problems from an early age, but there was never any intervention.
My daughter cared so much for other people. In her memory, I’ve devoted my life to advocating for victims, and their families, continuing to reach out to those harmed by crime as a victim advocate. I’ve worked with hundreds of medical professionals, journalists, clergy and others to train them in the competent handling of murder cases and the sensitive treatment of surviving families and friends. With over 20 years working in the victim service field, I’ve counseled victims of sexual molestation and child maltreatment, and I’ve spoken to offenders who themselves were abused.
I know now that one of the most significant drivers of violent crime is severe childhood abuse and neglect. I’m worried because the numbers show us that thousands more Iowa children are at risk. In 2010, more than 12,000 children in Iowa were abused or neglected—on average, over 230 children each week.
Child abuse and neglect hurts kids today, and also causes increased crime in the future. Most victims of childhood abuse or neglect never become violent offenders, but research shows that abused and neglected individuals are about 30 percent more likely to become violent criminals than those with no history of maltreatment. Survivors are more likely to abuse their own kids, creating a cycle of violence that can continue for generations.
Research has shown that voluntary home visiting programs can significantly reduce the likelihood that parents will abuse or neglect their kids and also reduce future crime. Voluntary home visiting programs provide trusted advisers and critical resources to expectant mothers during their pregnancy and parents of very young children during the early stages of their child’s development.
A study of the Nurse-Family Partnership program compared at-risk children whose mothers received visits with similar children whose parents did not participate. Children in participating families were half as likely to be abused or neglected. Children in families who did not participate in the program had more than twice as many criminal convictions by age 19 as those in families who did receive the visits…
…That’s why—together with the 150 other crime survivors and law enforcement leaders who are members of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids in Iowa—I’m counting on Governor Terry Branstad and state legislators to continue to strengthen family support resources that include voluntary home visitation to help prevent child abuse, reduce violent crime and save taxpayers money.
An Iowa jury convicted Leah’s assailant of murder, and he’s serving a life sentence without possibility of parole—but so am I. My daughter is never coming back. This is my life. The same is true for thousands of other families affected by abuse and violence.
But I do take hope from the fact that we can prevent tragic cases of violence that hurt victims, families and communities. There’s hope to save other kids from starting down the road to a life of crime and to save other families from becoming crime victims—but only if we act to break this cycle of violence today.
Linda Sorenson is a Victim Services Coordinator, serving with the Sixth Judicial District of Iowa Department of Correctional Services, and a member of Fight Crime: Invest in Kids.