The traumatic event that would forever change Lori Poland’s life unfolded just steps from her home in the town of Sheridan, Colorado.
Then just three years old, the little girl was lured into a stranger’s car with the promise of candies and kidnapped in broad daylight after her father briefly stepped inside to get her and her five-year-old brother a popsicle.
Within minutes of her abduction, shocked neighbours and children who had been playing outside moments earlier rushed to Ms Poland’s home trying to provide her parents with clues — a physical description, a licence plate, anything — about her kidnapper.
Now, on the 40th anniversary of her abduction, Ms Poland tells The Independent that the next few hours on that excruciating day of 22 August 1983 are still something of a haze.
What she does know is that her 37-month-old body was abused in unimaginable ways by then-21-year-old Robert Paul Thiret.
And that, after a disturbing sexual assault, Thiret threw her into a remote 15-foot outhouse toilet, where she was left for almost four days before being saved by a couple of birdwatchers.
“Because I was so young, my capacity to have memory was minimal on a conscious level, but on a subconscious level my memory is fairly strong,” Ms Poland tells The Independent.
“I get very triggered by the smell of faeces and urine, I get triggered being in dark places or when I’m alone or have the sensation I’m not protected or abandoned.”
Ms Poland’s remarkable story of survival grabbed the nation’s attention back in 1983, with TV filming crews present in her hospital room as she reunited with her parents, but her journey was just beginning.
Forty years on from the attack that rocked her and her family’s world, the mother-of-three — now a licensed therapist and the executive director of the National Foundation to End Child Abuse and Neglect (ENDCAN) — continues to heal through her advocacy work.
‘I live here now’
Ms Poland’s abduction was the embodiment of every parent’s worst fear.
Her father had been gone mere minutes before he came back to his front yard to find his daughter gone and her pants lying on the curb, according to local media reports at the time.
Ms Poland, then too young to understand stranger danger, has blocked out much of the memories of the attack but she remembers the ride with her abductor to the toilet pit and the abuse she underwent while on the passenger seat of Thiret’s orange Datsun Sedan.
The car’s model was spotted by a neighbour of the Polands, who gave the first part of the licence plate to police. In the following days, two individuals came forward with accounts of thwarted abductions similar in detail to Ms Poland’s.
The tips ultimately led police to Thiret, whose car and house were searched, but he denied any involvement in Ms Poland’s kidnapping.
Meanwhile, at the bottom of the latrine, Ms Poland developed a serious infection on her legs from injuries she sustained during the fall and then worsened due to the chemicals and substances in the pit.
She spent four days without any water or food, largely unaware that she was running out of time to survive and preoccupied with trivial thoughts.
“I had just gotten potty trained and I remember being upset that I was going to make my mom mad because I wet my pants and I didn’t want to let her down,” Ms Poland recounts.
Then, a couple who were driving through the area stopped at the outhouse toilet and heard Ms Poland’s cries.
When asked what she was doing there, the little girl simply answered: “I live here now.” That response was what inspired the title of Ms Poland’s riveting memoir about her survival story, which was published last year.
“When I was rescued, the man came into the hole on a harness and he said hold on,” Ms Poland tells The Independent.
“I remember holding on and not wanting to let go. That’s [one of the] few things that I do have recollection around. Some of it’s a blessing and a curse because you want to have an understanding of what happened.”
Doctors first thought Ms Poland’s infection was so serious that they would need to amputate her legs in order to save her, but her condition soon improved.
She identified her abductor in interviews with prosecutors and gave testimony used to convict Thiret.
Thiret had initially been charged with attempted murder, sexual assault, and kidnapping. But after his wife provided an alibi for him, prosecutors struck a controversial plea deal to sentence him to 10 years in prison.
He ended up spending only six years behind bars after his sentence was reduced for good behaviour.
Thiret is now living in San Pedro, California, as a registered sex offender.
Augusts are especially difficult for Ms Poland.
On a rational level, she knows that the circumstances that led to her kidnapping were outside of her control.
However, she keeps going back to that “yes” moment after she was offered candy and the lifetime of suffering that this unravelled, she tells The Independent.
“I know I was a baby and I know that it’s not really my fault but I still said yes, I still got in that car and the weight of carrying the consequences of that word has been a heavy burden,” Ms Poland says.
“Every July and August, I struggle emotionally. Last night was my night of struggle. And so I was just sobbing, wondering why? What is my purpose? Why did that happen and why did I say yes?”
The ripple effect that child sexual abuse has on victims and their families does not end with the assault, she says.
In the aftermath of her abduction, she has struggled with her mental health and survivor’s guilt.
“There were a lot of normal experiences. There was a lot of joy and there was a lot of hard in living with [having] a decision that I made impact my family the way that it did, and then how that spread into extended family and friends and community,” Ms Poland says.
“It’s hard to live in a world where I see abuse all of the time and it’s hard being in this field.”
Part of the solution is ending the stigma. Child sexual abuse is a difficult topic to tackle, Ms Poland acknowledges, but a free of judgement space to discuss their feelings often makes a stark difference in a survivor’s journey.
“There’s so much to do and we are in a society and culture where people just don’t want to talk about [child sexual abuse],” Ms Poland tells The Independent. “We don’t engage not because we don’t support [victims], but because we don’t know how to respond and so.”
Ms Poland says she was inspired to help others at a very young age as she understood herself how pivotal support is for victims.
She worked as a therapist for years before joining ENDCAN’s board at the request of former University of Colorado School of Medicine Dean Dr Richard Krugman, who had treated her as a child after her rescue.
Dr Krugman was also a mentor to Ms Lorand when she was in college. During one of their many conversations before ENDCAN was founded, Ms Poland says that Dr Krugman brought up the fact that child abuse survivors are more vulnerable to many health issues.
“Our first priority is to change the conversation about child abuse and neglect from just being seen as a social and a legal issue to also being seen as a health issue and a mental health issue,” Ms Poland tells The Independent.
ENDCAN focuses on prevention, education, advocacy and research about child abuse. The organisation also hosts fundraisers and charity events with child abuse survivors to empower victims at every stage of their healing process.
“Just because you have this story [of abuse] as part of your timeline doesn’t necessarily mean that life is all bad. It just means that it’s part of your story,” says Ms Poland.
Ms Poland still grapples with heartbreak and trauma from her assault — her healing process continues as she readjusts to life’s new chapters and challenges. Through her work with ENDCAN, she has regained the power to share her story on her own terms and encourage survivors to do the same once they’re ready.
“The one thing I would say is, ‘you matter.’ And I think that when we believe that we matter, there’s just a shift ... When we believe we matter, we can do big things.”
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