Heroes Among Us

Once a Victim of Abuse, She Now Fights for Others

UPDATED 09/08/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/08/2008 at 01:00 AM EDT

Cathy Harper Lee, 43
Powell, Ohio

For most of her childhood, Cathy Harper Lee suffered in silence. From the age of 5, her adoptive father sexually abused her, she says, threatening to hurt her if she told anyone. Whenever her mother left their Lancaster, Ohio, home "he'd call for me to come inside," recalls Harper Lee. "I'd count the blades of grass as I walked back to the house." She mustered the courage to tell police when she was 23, but by the time they investigated it was too late; the statute of limitations had expired. "I didn't know what to do," she says. "The system failed me."

To make sure others don't endure the same fate, Harper Lee, now 43, launched the nonprofit Justice League of Ohio. Since 2003 the former restaurant owner and her staff of three attorneys have helped nearly 800 victims of violence and abuse, primarily juveniles, by protecting their legal rights, filing motions against offenders or fighting for stiffer sentences. "She's made the system listen to a victim who wouldn't have a voice," says Evelyn Lundberg Stratton, an Ohio Supreme Court justice.

One of those victims is 14-year-old Shawna Stuller. A family friend who sexually abused Stuller was set for an early prison release until Harper Lee contacted the prosecutor in October '06 and successfully argued for the full 12-year sentence. "Cathy was there for me," says Stuller. Says Harper Lee: "Nobody should have to experience what I went through."

Know a hero? Send suggestions to heroesamongus@peoplemag.com

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