Courtney Kiehl ’15 didn’t grow up wanting to be a lawyer. She wanted to be a gymnast and spent up to 40 hours per week training with her coach and her team in the North Bay area of California. Ten years ago she disclosed to her mother and then authorities that her gymnastics coach had been sexually abusing her nearly every day for over a year. With her disclosure, seven other girls came forward and her life dramatically changed.
“You move from focusing on yourself and what happened to you to the bigger picture. What can we do to stop this?” Kiehl said. Together with another victim, Kiehl launched the Abused Children Heard Everywhere (ACHE) Foundation whose mission is to provide a forum for victims of abuse to share their stories. “That was something that was missing at the time. Each story is unique and sharing is the path to healing,” she said. After launching the foundation, she appeared on radio and television programs including ESPN’s 360 and ABC’s Good Morning America.
At UCLA Kiehl majored in sociology and became involved in victims rights’ organizations including forming a coalition across all of the University of California campuses that brought together domestic violence and sexual abuse organizations on campus. When considering law schools, she gravitated toward Penn State because she saw an opportunity to continue to advance her work in victims’ rights. “When something big, like the Sandusky scandal happens, it raises awareness and attracts more people and resources to the issue. I looked at Penn State and thought ‘big school, big opportunity,’” she said.
Since becoming a full-time law student Kiehl has not had much time to focus on ACHE but she considers victims’ rights the cause of her life. “A lot of people can’t handle this type of work or don’t want to. Because I can handle it, I feel like I have a duty and obligation to do this type of work,” she said. Since joining Penn State Law she has been active in a national student movement concerning Title IX called Know Your IX which helps students better understand their rights especially in the area of gender-based crimes. As part of April’s Sexual Assault Awareness month on campus, she has helped organize events including “Legal and Ethical Aspects of Sexual Assault Cases” on April 15 at 6 p.m. at the Law School.
This semester she is a member of the Family Law Clinic and in addition to her caseload, she has been involved with policy issues. According to Professor Jill Engle, Director of the Family Law Clinic, "Courtney demonstrates an extraordinary capability to empathize with her clients in the Family Law Clinic, without becoming enmeshed with the emotional struggles that accompany their family legal problems. Her professionalism in this regard is exactly what family law clients need, and her tenacity and dedication to this work after what she experienced is truly remarkable.". Last summer she interned with the Domestic Violence Legal Aid Clinic in California and this summer she will work with the National Crime Victim Law Institute in Oregon.
Kiehl’s perspective continues to expand on the legal and policy issues surrounding child sexual abuse, “I’ve begun to look lately at the perpetrators. It’s clear that what we are doing now isn’t working. This isn’t just one big group of people. Some of these offenders don’t understand the legal issues surrounding consent so there may be a segment of the bigger group that would benefit from education which could lead to prevention of some of these crimes…We’ve made some progress, but we have a long way to go.”