Jenna Quinn has devoted her entire professional life to strengthening child sexual assault laws to empower its victims to come forward and seek justice, and this tenacious activism has taken many forms. She played an integral administrative role in the Children’s Advocacy Centers of Texas. She has spoken at schools, churches, and conference centers across the country. On multiple and recurring occasions, she has met with law enforcement officers and elected officials, which led to the 2009 passage of a Texas House bill dubbed “Jenna’s Law,” and a similarly named and themed U.S. law sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn and Maggie Hassan in late 2020.
She documented the victory that led to Jenna’s Law and the road leading up to it in her 2017 memoir Pure in Heart. In this tireless fight against abuse, she is reminded every day of the horrifying, traumatic events of her adolescent years.
But the only story she wants to tell is how she escaped her terrestrial Hell, and in restoring her once-sullied faith in God, found hope.
“This is not a field I planned on going into full-time ever,” she explains. “It was never really something I wanted to be known for. But I saw, and I still see an incredible progress that it has made in people’s lives. I see healing… When you see that you are making a large impact, it’s difficult to stop.”
Loss of Innocence
A second-grade Jenna thrived in the familial environment that her new school, the now-defunct Carrollton Christian Academy, provided. Classmates and teachers recognized her as a bouncy extravert, which earned her the nickname “Tigger,” after the jovial sidekick to Winnie-the-Pooh.
At home, Jenna was known by her sisters, Stephanie and Lauren, as a peacemaker. This is, of course, a common attribute made for middle children such as herself, but it rang just as true at school, where she broke bread with the popular kids and social pariahs alike.
The closest of these friendships was with a classmate who was given the pseudonym “Jake” in Pure in Heart. This alliance was so tight that it made Jenna’s family look at Jake’s family, the Funks, as their own.
Jenna’s mom, Kellie, enrolled her three daughters at Carrollton Christian when she accepted a teaching position there. Jake’s mom, who was given the pseudonym “Grace,” worked as the school’s secretary. Kellie and Grace would frequently work after school hours, leaving Jenna and Jake to wait in the same room together. Sometimes they would go to volleyball games together, where they would sit on the bleachers and either watch the competition or use its ambiance to help each other with homework.
The Quinns and the Funks went to church together every week and went on joint family vacations at least once a year. Family functions such as birthday celebrations, holiday gatherings and cookouts were almost as frequent. Jenna’s father, Greg, and Jake’s father, Lynn, bonded as businessmen and former college athletes. As coworkers, Kellie and Grace bonded over workplace politics, and their vocation brought both families together at various school events.
Jenna saw Lynn as a second father, and just like her first father, as a trusted role model and a man of God.
But he didn’t approach her as any of these, as he took a suspicious interest in her.
“You’re such a pretty girl,” she recalled him saying on numerous occasions. In one especially disturbing episode, he took multiple pictures of Jenna in a bikini while the two families went to Disney World on vacation. Jenna, who had just finished the fifth grade, was the only person to notice, as the rest of her family was out of view.
These advances became more blatant over time. Jenna encountered a growth spurt in seventh grade, at which point Lynn found more opportunities to be alone with her. He continued to compliment her appearance and athleticism, and these verbal affirmations were later paired with seemingly innocuous touches and increasingly familiar body language. Jenna’s parents, none the wiser, thought this was his way of treating her like a second daughter.
“His physical gravitation grew in frequency, and it seemed he always found a warm way to greet me with a touch,” Jenna wrote in Pure in Heart. “We all overlooked the way he found opportunities to be near me.”
When Jenna was in eighth grade, Lynn used one of Jenna and Jake’s movie nights to engage in even more predatory behavior than before. They watched an action thriller while eating Chinese takeout, but because these activities were preceded with an afternoon of swimming, Jake fell fast asleep from exhaustion before the credits rolled. As Lynn looked at her from across the dimly lit room, Jenna picked up his landline phone and called her father, asking him to pick her up.
“I don’t mind taking you home,” he said. “Tell your dad that I’m awake and he’s probably half asleep already.”
As the phone rang, Lynn approached Jenna and stood close enough to her to be within earshot of the conversation. As predicted, Greg was almost entirely asleep and saw no reason why he should make the trek to the Funk house when Lynn was more than happy to save him the trouble. Feeling defeated, Jenna acquiesced.
As Lynn parked in front of Jenna’s house, he cornered her as she tried to escape the passenger’s seat and groped her, then blackmailed her into silence as she finally left. Jenna convinced herself that this episode was an anomaly and that Lynn would never violate her like that again. But his sexual crimes got more frequent and vile as he continued to further augment her family’s trust.
Jenna lost every semblance of comfort and refuge in life. Lynn deliberately made himself more essential to Jenna’s daily routine as a means of getting closer to her, which made her feel powerless and too dispirited to seek help. When her family went on a highly anticipated spring break vacation to her favorite city, Breckenridge, Colorado, Lynn convinced Greg and Kellie to let his family tag along. While in Breckenridge, Jenna confronted Lynn, who responded with more blackmail.
As Jenna spent most of her sophomore year looking forward to playing her favorite sport, basketball, Lynn volunteered to be the school’s basketball coach. His presence actually made her look forward to the end of basketball season rather than its beginning, but she nonetheless stuck with it. Her love for the sport was one of her most known traits, and if she quit, it would have aroused suspicion.
Even her favorite holiday, Christmas, was ruined during her junior year as Lynn brought the two families together to celebrate. During a brief moment of privacy, Lynn asked Jenna why she kept dodging his calls and then said, “When we meet, I can bring some drinks if you want.”
Nothing in Jenna’s life was spared. Lynn knowingly shoehorned himself into every silver lining she had left, and in doing so, destroyed her spirit and her faith in God.
God had completely abandoned her, she thought. She sequestered herself from her friends and tried to make herself as unattractive as possible in hopes that Lynn would quit abusing her. Her grades started to slip, and as the trauma got worse, she experienced physical symptoms such as hives.
This was her new normal, and each increment of change only made his abuse worse.
At Jenna’s 16th birthday party, Lynn hugged her tight and whispered in her ear, “Happy birthday, baby.” Furthermore, he wrote an unknown message she describes as “repulsive” on her T-shirt, as every other partygoer wrote messages of support and warm wishes as part of the custom.
After the party ended, Jenna went to her bedroom and began cutting her legs with a safety pin. Crying no longer provided catharsis. As she explained in Pure in Heart, “Finally, I had control over my pain.”
Stephanie stared at Jenna from across the table at Neiman Marcus Cafe in Plano, one of her little sister’s favorite places to meet. But unlike other times they’d enjoyed coffee together, Jenna’s trademark buoyant and cheerfulness was gone. “Jenna, I’m going to ask you an important question that’s been on my mind for a while,” Stephanie said.
Jenna wasn’t able to look her older sister in the eyes.
“But before I say anything, I want you to promise to tell me the truth.”
Stephanie had recently returned to Carrollton from her college town to celebrate Thanksgiving with the family, and after saying, “I’m gonna get you” to Jenna during seemingly unobjectionable horseplay, she angrily stormed to her room and slammed the door. This was the first time Stephanie ever heard pain and bitter resentment in her sister’s voice.
She leaned her elbows on the table and inched closer with a concerned look. “Jenna, has anyone ever hurt you?”
Tears rolled down Jenna’s face as if each drop contained secretions of her intense trauma. She didn’t even take a moment to hesitate at the face of this inquiry.
Stephanie listened as Jenna told her what Lynn has been doing. The mask of the idealized suburban family breadwinner was pulled off, and the hideous character that dwelled beneath it was revealed. Stephanie told her parents immediately.
“There [are] no words for how my family felt,” Quinn said in a 2017 TED Talk. “They had gone out of their way to make sure these exact things didn’t happen in our life.”
The man that sexually assaulted her was a man Greg trusted like a brother. He spent the past decade bonding with him over college sports. He went to church with him and his family. Their kids went to school together. They planned family vacations together.
According to the 2017 National Crime Victimization Survey, three out of four sexual assaults never get reported to law enforcement, while data from the National Survey of Adolescents found that minors get abused by someone they know well at a similar proportion. Moreover, a study from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network found that 57 out of 1,000 rapes result to an arrest, of which only seven result in a felony conviction.
That means 99.993% of rapists don’t face a felony conviction, and that 99.94% of them don’t even get arrested. Lynn is one of the .007% of rapists and abusers that actually get a conviction, which makes Jenna one of the few victims to ever get closure from the verdict of a judge and jury.
“This crime, unfortunately, is one of the most difficult crimes to prosecute,” Jenna says. “The majority of survivors unfortunately don’t necessarily get closure through our justice system.”
Lynn’s arrest came exactly two weeks after Jenna came forward. On Jan. 9, 2004, Lynn was charged with five counts of indecency with a child and two counts of sexual assault. On Nov. 10 of that year, he was sentenced to 20 years in a state penitentiary by a Denton County judge. His projected release date is in 2024.
Jenna sought treatment at the Children’s Advocacy Center of Denton County, where she would later work as the nonprofit’s first undergraduate intern ever. “Jenna’s story reminds people of the fact that … child abuse can happen in any kind of family,” says Kristen Howell, the Chief Executive Officer of CACDC. “Her story is a reminder that strangers don’t [always] perpetrate abuse—that loved, trusted people perpetrate abuse, and they betray both the family and the child when they do.”
But Jenna wanted her story to do more than serve as a sobering reminder. She wanted to protect other innocent children from experiencing the horror that she lived for three years of her adolescent life.
Texas State Representative Tan Parker first met Jenna at CACDC, where she interned while studying psychology at the University of Texas in Dallas in 2008. He was a newly elected representative and was given an opportunity to meet with Jenna at the request of her supervisor, CACDC director Dan Leal. After being the subject of a profile from the Dallas Morning News, Jenna felt called by God to commit her life to sexual assault prevention advocacy, and the first destination in this ongoing journey was the State Capitol in Austin.
Jenna realized that parents and teachers are seldom privy to signs and symptoms of child sexual abuse, and she had an insatiable urge to push for legislation that would combat this problem. Leal coordinated meetings with state officials to discuss these endeavors. When Parker showed up, he and Jenna struck a tight knit alliance.
“She is one of my great heroes in life,” he lauds.
Weeks after this introductory meeting, Jenna and Parker met in the CACDC conference room to discuss the specifics of the legislation. “Jenna, this is going to be your bill, so what are some of the things that you want to see?” she recalled him asking in Pure in Heart.
She immediately replied that students and teachers alike should be trained on sexual abuse prevention and treatment, and that schools should offer information covered therein to parents. They discussed making teachers and students understand signs of behaviors leading up to sexual abuse like grooming and putting age- and gender-appropriate training in the language of the bill.
Parker got the bill written within a month after this meeting and warned Jenna that she would have to give a personal testimony before the Texas House Committee on Public Education. As she prepared her testimony, Parker came to the next meeting with news that due to the timing of the bill, it would have to be presented to the next legislative session, which meant they would have to wait a full year. During this waiting period, Parker kept in touch with Jenna while she continued to pursue her education.
At the start of the 2009 Legislative session, Parker introduced H.B. 1041, otherwise known as “Jenna’s Law.” Parker asked Jenna to make a last-minute trip to Austin to testify before the Texas House of Representatives. It was late April, and Jenna had recently acquired her BA in psychology and landed a job as a teaching assistant.
Jenna and Kellie were escorted to Parker’s office by a Capitol security guard and were promptly greeted by him and his staff. “It may be a long day,” Parker told Jenna. “But that’s how things work around here.”
Everyone on Parker and Jenna’s team set foot in the hearing room later that afternoon, only to be informed that there may not be time for her testimony due to the Committee falling behind schedule. Jenna’s stomach dropped in response to this news. As she left the room and tried to keep it together, Parker walked over to a group of his colleagues, had a brief exchange and walked back over to Jenna and Kellie.
“You will get your chance,” he said with a smile.
As Jenna was called to testify, she nervously walked up to the podium with notes in hand. She anxiously grasped both sides of the podium and leaned into the microphone to say she was there on behalf of millions of voiceless children who are silent victims of sexual assault. She spoke of the abuse she suffered at Lynn’s hands and said that she never received any help at school since there were no laws in place to help teachers and students identify signs of rape and abuse.
“It was a very powerful and moving testimony that I will never forget,” Parker says. “No one wanted to talk about childhood sexual abuse.”
The bill passed unanimously on May 7 and was signed by then-Gov. Rick Perry on June 19, 2009. It has since been amended to mandate this same training to other institutions such as universities and foster care centers, and a 2017 addendum included training for sex trafficking prevention.
“It was truly a celebratory moment for us,” wrote Jenna in Pure in Heart. “Fighting back tears of love and appreciation, I hugged and thanked my family and others involved for their perseverance and support.”
Taking Jenna’s Law Nationwide
“You’re just a kid and no one believes you,” Jenna said while facing a camera for a 30-second campaign spot. “But years later, John Cornyn did.”
The 2020 United States presidential election was less than four weeks away as I conducted a series of interviews with Jenna, and Cornyn was making her story pivotal to his re-election campaign against Democratic nominee MJ Hegar. He even made time to talk to me about his work with Jenna just hours before a live television debate against his political opponent.
“What I’ve tried to do is take successful Texas legislation and scale [it] up to the national level,” he says. “That’s what we’ve done with the [law] Senator Hassan and I have now passed through the Senate.”
The law he is referring to is the Jenna Quinn Law, a federal version of Jenna’s Law that seeks to provide funds to schools and states via Department of Justice grant programs and other mediums of funding. While Cornyn and Hassan’s bill has far different mechanisms, it is inspired by the bill Parker passed in 2009 and has similar objectives.
“In addition to basically picking the best practices from the laboratories of democracy known as the states up to the national level, we can then make sure that there [is] money for the actual training,” Cornyn says.
Cornyn explains that Parker was the one who put this legislation on his radar, and while Parker found a great ally in the incumbent U.S. Senator, he contends that the process from bringing the bill to a national pulpit was gradual at best.
“Once we passed the bill in 2009, I worked with Jenna to get the bill to other states,” Parker says. Before Jenna’s Law found its national counterpart, Jenna and Parker attended a series of policy conferences and met with legislators across the country, a collective effort which resulted in similar bills being passed in over 26 states.
But even with such a formidable lobbying track record, the Jenna Quinn Law is still Jenna’s largest endeavor, and its hurdles are ongoing.
The Jenna Quinn Law was unanimously approved by the U.S. Senate in September, but Rep. Bobby Scott (the Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee) neglected to give the House a chance to vote on it before it went into recess for December.
“He is specifically and singlehandedly holding up this bill,” Jenna says begrudgingly. “He’s holding it ransom so that the Senate will pass one of his bills [The Child Abuse Prevention and Treatment Act],” which she alleges “does not even mention sexual abuse prevention.”
Scott defended his blockage of the Jenna Quinn Law in an op-ed for Newsweek, saying, “Senate Republicans decided to play politics with child abuse” in blocking his bill.
He continued, “In an effort to salvage a compromise, I offered to insert his language into the House’s comprehensive bipartisan bill and pass them together. Mr. Cornyn and his Republican colleagues rejected that offer—and then publicly accused me of blocking legislation to prevent child sexual abuse.”
As frustrating as this development was for Jenna, this was not her first brush with legislative purgatory. It happened in 2009 just as is happening now, but her persistence amid such headaches continue to pay dividends in the thankless fight against child sexual abuse. Citing Jenna’s Law as a catalyst, a 2016 study from child sexual abuse prevention nonprofit Darkness To Light found that educators were almost four times more likely to report abuse following the law’s mandated prevention training.
“Now we’re no longer waiting on adults to catch this for kids, but we’re rather giving direct information to children themselves about what should not be done to their bodies,” Howell says. “[Jenna has] been a huge influence in the field of child safety and protection … Her influence is bigger than just [the Children’s Advocacy Center], but we [are] certainly very, very proud of her and claim her as our own.”
Four days into January 2021, Jenna looks back at the tumult of 2020 and does it with a sense of inner peace that even the most vivacious people would envy. Jenna’s high spirits and sense of contentment radiate out of her as she reflects on a year that most people would consider agonizing for the way COVID-19 has affected public life.
“COVID has made prevention training very challenging,” she sighs. Before the pandemic, Jenna had a series of speeches, conferences and training workshops scheduled around the country. Now they are either cancelled, postponed or hosted virtually. Predictably, these changes have joined the ranks of ongoing congressional gridlock in impeding her work, and the hiccups have persisted through her two busiest quarters.
The first of these is Q1, which sees an increased demand for child sexual abuse prevention for the simple reason that a certain contingent of victimized children spend their holiday break at an abusive household. Since April is Child Abuse Prevention Month, Jenna spends the start of Q2 participating in more conferences and workshops than usual and prepares to help kids who go back to abusive households for the summer break.
“I certainly have my days where this is very difficult, but then I always remind myself that in sharing my story and educating others, I don’t ever make it about me,” she says.
Eight months ago, Jenna gave birth to a baby girl. It was a harrowing experience; during her Caesarean section, surgeons discovered her child was at risk of dying due to a fluid deficiency. Now, Jenna goes out for a run every morning like it never happened. Upon return, she greets her infant daughter, who goes about each day in full health and blissful ignorance of what intense trauma she and her mother suffered under the same roof.
“I look at how precious she is, and how innocent she is, and I feel like looking at her, I can—in such a minuscule way—feel a love that God has for us because we’ll have nights where she doesn’t sleep, and I’m tired. It’s a lot of work having a baby, but there’s still nothing she can do that can make me not love her,” Jenna says. “It helps me understand unconditional love.”
Over the years, Jenna has also had a better understanding of forgiveness in that she has grappled with the unfathomably difficult act of forgiving Lynn for the hell he put her through.
“I didn’t wish death upon my perpetrator, but I have talked to other survivors that say, ‘The best day of my life was when my stepdad died,’” she explains. “I never received an apology. Not even to this day.”
Still, she remains adamant on the importance of forgiveness, knowing well that such a message may not be as warmly embraced by secular audiences. “Forgiveness is about myself and my own peace of mind more than it is about the other person,” she adds.
As Jenna looks back on a life of arduous struggle and astonishing achievement, the act of healing remains a constant thread, and one she endeavors to bring to other survivors.
“[I want] a legacy of bringing this darkness to light, and a legacy of helping people heal,” she says.
To learn more about Jenna’s Law, and the national fight against childhood sexual assault, visit Jenna’s Law website.
Originally published in Local Profile’s March/April 2021 issue.