It was a child that Marion Elizabeth Witte met while volunteering in an after-school program in Palm Springs, Calif., and read an article on her desk.

The assignment was to write an article describing something they liked about themselves. Yet, when she read this paper it said, "No little girl should have to live my life."

Witte choked back tears and comforted the little girl as best she could. However, it released something inside her. Something that, up to that point, she had not allowed herself to ever think about - her abuse as a child.

She wrote "Little Madhouse on the Prairie: A True-Life Story of Overcoming Abuse and Healing the Spirit," (Angel Heart Publishing).

When we think of Little House on the Prairie, we think of the idyllic life of Laura Ingalls. Not in Witte's "Madhouse." She was subject to her mother's rage and endured punishment that had devastating emotional effects; and it all began at age three.

The shame, guilt, fear and anger caused by the abuse followed her throughout life.

As she wrote her personal story of overcoming abuse, she hoped to open readers' eyes to the serious and long-term damage caused by all forms of childhood mistreatment.

Witte is now the founder and director of the Angel Heart Foundation, a foundation dedicated to the advocacy for children's rights.

Witte certainly opened my eyes. I still find it almost impossible to believe that parents can inflict abuse on their very own children - or any child.

Marion was beaten for the slightest offense and locked in their dark cellar when she was so small she couldn't reach the string that turned on the light. All she could hear were the mice and rats running around. She was also locked out of the house and sometimes, for as long as two weeks, her mother would not speak to her.

It is, indeed, difficult to understand child abuse, and I believe there are many children who were abused who keep it hidden their entire life.

Marion describes her abuse and sometimes it is very hard to read - and it wasn't only her mother - her father and brother were also abusive. But it was her mother who inflicted the actual abuse. She beat her for the slightest offense.

Her father abused her for allowing her mother to treat her that way and not stepping in. Instead, he left their home for a tavern each evening. When Witte told him about the abuse, he left the family for good. Her brother, after being abused, eventually became abusive as well. It left Marion very few places to turn for refuge.

She did have two friends who probably saved her emotionally. One was Beverly, a "townie" student whom she visited even though she had been told never to go into a town kid's home. Her home became a refuge and she spent as much time there as she possibly could.

Her other friend was Juanita - a child of migrant workers from Texas who worked on the farm in the summer. She was adopted and her parents loved her beyond measure. It showed Witte that there was another way for a family unit to interact.

All came to a head when she was 16 and she and her mother had an argument. When her mother went to get a wooden oak rod she used to beat her - she snapped. She broke the rod in half and threw her mother against the washing machine - then told her next time she would "kill her."

However, Witte finally escaped her misery in the "little house on the prairie" by going to college. There she excelled academically and graduated in three years at the top of her class; earning her degree in business administration and accounting.

She passed her CPA exam while still a junior, and became the youngest CPA in the country that year.

Her career soared, but she still suffered the emotional damage. No matter how successful, she couldn't enjoy it. No external achievement could change how she felt inside.

It wasn't until 1991 that she began the long road to emotional recovery. And it was a very long road. A road she still travels today.

She had a marriage that only lasted 10 years, but it produced a daughter, Angela.

It was in 2005 that she established the Angel Heart Foundation. She wanted to help people who were interested in helping children.

"Society had a women's rights movement, a gay rights movement, an equal rights movement. It's way beyond time for a children's rights movement."

That was the thought in her mind when she sold her business and created the Angel Heart Foundation.

"My hope is that we all take a critical look at what's happening to millions of children on this planet. I want to shed a light on our youngest citizens who have no rights and no economic viability.

"I want to turn my pain into passion. This means being actively involved in creating a world where children are held in the highest of regard. A world where they are honored and protected. And most of all loved. Our future will be shaped to a large extent on how we treat our children and how we allow all children to be treated."

Witte lives in Ventura, not far from her daughter, Angela.

The 224-page soft cover book sells for $19.95.

Joyce Laabs may be reached at features@lakelandtimes.com.