HARRISBURG - At 28, Jennifer Storm came face to face with her past. She had just become executive director of the Dauphin County Victim/Witness Assistance Program, and her first case involved the rape of a 12-year-old girl.
Storm herself had been raped at 12, by a 28-year-old stranger on the way to a roller rink, and suddenly she saw her ordeal in a new light.
"I can't even begin to explain how much that little girl gave me," Storm, 41, said in an interview Tuesday. "I had never felt more confident in my life's mission. It affirmed for me that I was exactly where I was supposed to be."
Three years ago, Storm was named the state's victim advocate. She has been fiercely aggressive in the role, taking the cause of victims' rights to national TV and to the state legislature.
She partnered with state police to better manage the state's victim-notification system, which informs victims of any changes in the status of their offenders. She expanded the victim registry from about 28,000 victims to more than 40,000.
In Dauphin County, she had established victim-advocacy positions in six police departments. And at the legislative level, she has advocated for changing the statute of limitations in sex-abuse cases and for reforming victim-restitution laws.
When NBC aired an interview with the wife of Jerry Sandusky, the former Pennsylvania State University assistant football coach convicted of sexually abusing boys, Storm publicly denounced the network's decision. In March, she spoke on behalf of the relatives of the victim of Earl Rice Jr., convicted of a West Chester murder as a juvenile and released in July, saying that life without parole was "absolutely" the right sentence.
Clearly, she has found her voice. But the road to this point was difficult. Addicted to drugs and alcohol by age 13, Storm spent a decade trying to cope with the trauma - and she self-destructed in the process. Her unlikely journey culminated in college graduation at 27 and a quick rise to her current job.
"I love the life I have today," she said. "There are certainly gifts that come out of trauma, and it's OK to say that. I am this incredibly strong human being today, and it's because of these things."
A spiral into addiction
Storm grew up in Allentown, a straight-A student "completely in love with knowledge and learning." After her rape - for which the rapist served only a couple of years after her parents accepted a negotiated plea - she quickly spiraled into substance abuse. She attempted suicide by mixing peach schnapps, her mother's Valium, and her grandmother's blood-pressure pills. She progressed to cocaine and regularly blacked out from drinking.
"It numbed me, it helped quell the pain," Storm said. "For 10 years, those negative coping mechanisms saved my life."
The trauma continued, with another rape at 17 and her mother's death from breast cancer five years later, not to mention recurring flashbacks to her assault as a preteen. After a second suicide attempt, she made it to rehab in 1997, "the most transformative 28 days I've ever experienced."
Rehab "really shattered the concept for me that I was alone," Storm said. "I really dove into recovery and really started diving into my past."
She moved to State College, and told her story outside the rehab walls for the first time in her application to Penn State. Although she was 23 when she started college, it was a time of transformation. After years in the closet, she came out as gay and got into campus activism.
After shaving her head one day, Storm said, she "looked into the mirror at who I am, and I started to fall in love with myself."
"It helped me really establish my sense of self and the way I feel about myself," she said.
Not 'just a job'
Storm was introduced to victim advocacy after receiving a death threat for her activism. After a short stint at an LGBT rights organization, she got her big break in 2003, when she was hired to run the Dauphin County agency. She interviewed with Dauphin County District Attorney Ed Marsico, whom she credits with her career.
"Jennifer's background was certainly unique," Marsico said, "but her passion for victims as a victim and as someone that overcame addiction really carried the day in that interview."
She was in the job for a decade. Among the hundreds of victims and victims' families she worked with was the family of Christopher Thompson, a 23-year-old shot and killed in 2004. Thompson's mother, Cheryl Groome, said Storm has been there for her since that July night when she was awakened by a phone call with the devastating news, not only as an advocate but also as a friend.
Storm was appointed the state's victim advocate by Gov. Tom Corbett and has thrown herself into her work, even "handling phone calls or emails until late at night, just to make sure victims got any news" about perpetrators, said her wife, Fianne van Schaaik.
Over the years, there have been television appearances and speeches, and four books since 2008, but through it all, Storm said, she has never forgotten that 12-year-old girl, in whom she saw herself.
"I think my survival and the fact I've been able to do what I have with my career, those are moments I feel this isn't just a job for me," she said. "It's never more present to me than in those moments."