SALT LAKE CITY — Deondra Brown is known for performing with her siblings in the beloved Utah piano group the 5 Browns, but when she's not touring, she works behind the scenes with Utah Children's Justice Centers advocating for abuse survivors throughout the state.
As a child, she didn't know facilities existed where children who have been victims or witnesses of crimes can go to get interviewed and receive help. But after coming forward as adults about the abuse they experienced at the hands of their father, Brown and one of her sisters took a tour of the Provo Children's Justice Center several years ago.
"And it was one of the most moving experiences of my life, because we were walking through those halls together, and you can't help but like imagine yourself as a child, like your child self, and seeing the services that they do there and then meeting the staff members and feeling that this is not just a job for them, that this is a passion.
"They care about kids, and they care about families," Brown said.
"We walked through the hallways, my sister and me, arm-in-arm just sobbing because we felt like a sense of relief, and it's almost like you — that small child that still sort of remains in each of us — it felt like she was being validated, that the experiences that I had lived through now had been flipped, and I was embarking on this whole new part of my life," she recalled.
When Brown first reported her abuse, officers interviewed her at the local police department in the Highland-Alpine area.
"There's still that feeling when you're at a police station of, 'Did I do something wrong?' It feels like you're there because you're in trouble, and so I can only imagine before CJCs were in existence kids having to pull up to a police station, because I know how nervous I felt as a 30-year-old woman," she recalled.
She said the officers were respectful and protective of her and her siblings, but the experience made her realize how important it is that Utah has child-specific centers for them to be interviewed.
Brown and her siblings also realized how many others had faced abuse as children but didn't find justice as people touched by their story emailed them and approached them after concerts. Wanting to make an impact, Brown and her sister Desirae began the Foundation for Survivors of Abuse.
While working through her foundation, Brown met the director of Utah's Children's Justice Centers, who eventually asked her to work with them part-time in the attorney general's office.
For the past several years, Brown has served as a community outreach specialist working on projects, which include weighing in on proposed laws and spending time at the Capitol during each legislative session ensuring Children's Justice Centers receive proper funding. When she speaks for or against bills during public hearings, as she did during the 2021 legislative session, Brown noted that she speaks on behalf of herself and not the Utah Attorney General's Office.
She says those she works with have supported her need for a flexible schedule with her music career, and they've made her feel heard on issues affecting survivors.
"It's been very validating as a victim who all my growing up years always felt pretty minimized and maybe not quite as smart, or my opinions, I just never felt like they mattered. To get Attorney General (Sean) Reyes or somebody from exec and his team reaching out and say, 'Hey, there's this piece of legislation that we're hearing about, and we want to know what you think,'" Brown said.
"There's something so validating as a victim to feel that people really respect your opinion and want to know and make sure that victims are represented in these discussions behind the scenes," she added.
The experience has helped her take "huge leaps and bounds" in healing and growth. And Brown said she's seen conversations shift because a victim is represented.
When advocating for specific changes, "sometimes you have to be the one standing alone for a while, and it's not always a comfortable position. But I feel like sometimes, that's how the change happens, that's how the discussions happen," Brown said.
"I learned quite early on in working on pieces of legislation at the Capitol that sometimes it takes a few years to get to where you ultimately want to be. You have to be willing to put in the time and to sometimes quite literally wait for the tides to shift, or people to better understand — whether it's things that continue to happen in the community or within the media, subjects that arise, that bring more people talking about it. And it sometimes is a very lengthy process," she said.
She noted that she's a success story as her father is in prison, and she has a supportive husband and daughter and siblings.
"When I'm up (at the state Capitol), it's less about creating change for me. I feel the responsibility to other people who don't have those opportunities, for those little kids who are currently in abusive situations right now who may grow up and finally be able to come forward and talk about their experiences," Brown explained.
"Some days, it gets so heavy, but then I remember these are real people, and the support that I've felt, I need to make sure that they feel that, too."
While it may appear from the outside that she has "everything together" and has fully recovered from her abuse, she said she still faces difficult days.
It's important for survivors to realize that many others go through similar, lifelong struggles but realize that "it's OK. There's still light at the end of the tunnel," Brown said.
"There's still beautiful moments with family, there's still wonderful experiences and memories to be had, so there's a lot of beauty in wonderful things that are still left to do in our lives, but we're not immune from any of the consequences of the abuse, that's for sure," she added.
Promoting a trauma-informed culture
When asked what she believes is the biggest change in the state that could help survivors, Brown emphasized the need for trauma-informed efforts — not just in mental health services but in all community members.
A person doesn't need to be a professional or therapist "to understand the basic nature of kindness and taking care of one another," Brown noted.
"And I feel like if we come at it from the lens of being trauma-informed, and realizing that whether it's somebody like me that you know has gone through trauma or your next-door neighbor that you see on walks through the neighborhood, you can assume that everybody in one facet or another at least understands what it means to go through trauma," she said.
It's also important to ensure that the next generation of children knows that trauma isn't a taboo topic and that traumatic experiences happen to many.
"It should be able to make us more empathetic, it should be able to make us more understanding toward each other's experiences. It shouldn't be seen as a negative and as something that should prevent you from going on and doing beautiful and wonderful things in your life," she said.
"Trauma and abuse survivors should feel that they have lots to offer society, they have lots to offer their communities because their perspective is invaluable and they have that understanding and that empathy to be able to pull vast groups of people together and have much more of a unified community."