‘How Much Is a Little Girl Worth?’


June 27, 2019

By Mary Pilon

Jan. 24, 2018, Rachael Denhollander walked into a Michigan courtroom to speak about the sexual abuse she suffered as a child from Larry Nassar. She was the last in an extraordinary procession of nearly 150 women to offer an impact statement at the sentencing hearing of the longtime USA Gymnastics and Michigan State University doctor.

Standing at a podium facing Nassar as her words were beamed out worldwide, Denhollander, a former gymnast—and now herself an attorney, an advocate for child safety, and a 34-year-old mother of four—concluded her statement with a question:

“How much is a little girl worth?”

For decades, Nassar’s work as a doctor treating athletes at Michigan State University (MSU) and for USA Gymnastics helped give him unfettered access to girls and young women that he serially sexually abused. Since Denhollander became the first survivor to publicly accuse the doctor of abuse, in September 2016, an estimated 500 women have come forward saying that they, too, were abused by Nassar. Some experts on the case think that number could eventually pass 1,000. In July 2017, Nassar pleaded guilty to child pornography charges, and months later, he pleaded guilty to multiple counts of sexual assault of minors. He will likely spend the rest of his life behind bars. In May 2018, MSU agreed to pay a $500 million settlement to victims who had sued the university, among the largest sums ever paid in relation to sex-abuse claims.

As a consequence of that financial victory, Denhollander’s question has taken on a painfully literal meaning.

While the settlement represented the end of one long, difficult story, it signaled the beginning of another. Survivors like Denhollander have been deep in negotiations with lawyers and mediators over the disbursement of the settlement funds. In a process that involves an awkward combination of apologetic recognition, dispassionate mathematics, and, often, a torturous recounting of abuse, hundreds of women are learning what their suffering was “worth” in dollar terms.

Roughly a year into the mediation process, many of the survivors have now received their answers—in decisions about their payouts, known as allocations. For one woman, it was a low five-figure sum that will help her retire credit card debt and relocate; for another, it was an amount in the high six figures, enough to cover bills related to her mental health treatment and to enable her to work with other survivors. For a third, it’s a donation to a nonprofit she cares about. For each, the check will be worth considerably less than its face value, after taxes and attorneys’ fees. And for many, the money itself is a hurtful reminder of the abuse that took place.

The idea of a process that attaches financial value to acts of abuse is appealing to no one, presenting a challenging tangle of money, law, and trauma. Advocates and survivors are the first to say that settlements are more about a sense of justice than about money; no sum could ever compensate for the damage done. At its worst, the process can feel like an invasive haggle that reduces the experience of profound harm to a flat dollar figure. “It’s the trauma you went through, basically, being ranked against [that of] other girls,” says Grace French, a ­Nassar survivor who works in marketing and is a cofounder of the Army of Survivors, a nonprofit that helps those who have experienced abuse. “I do think a lot of girls are still struggling with that after getting that number.”

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