ORANGE CITY — Many nights, a mother told the judge, she holds her son, helping him get his breathing under control when he has a panic attack caused by the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of his former elementary teacher.
“I tell him it’s going to be OK,” she said.
Her son will live with the memories of the abuse committed by Curtis Van Dam, the mother said, and she, too, will suffer from feelings that she couldn’t protect her son.
“How does a mom reconcile the guilt of knowing that day after day she handed her son over to the hands of a monster?” the woman said before asking District Judge Steven Andreasen Friday to sentence Van Dam, a former fifth-grade teacher at Sioux Center Christian School, to the maximum sentence allowable.
Andreasen did nearly that, sentencing Van Dam, 37, to 60 years in prison for sexually abusing 15 male students during a four-year period.
Andreasen then added the sentence to a 15-year federal prison sentence Van Dam received in September for another sex crime, for a total of 75 years.
Van Dam must serve at least 32.5 years before he’ll be eligible for parole. He had faced up to 80 years in prison alone on the state charges.
“There is no sentence that this court can impose that will undo what has been done,” Andreasen said.
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“The court believes Mr. Van Dam has expressed little or no remorse for his actions. It is my hope this sentence will bring some closure, at least on the legal side, to what you have been dealing with,” Andreasen said to the more than 100 people who filled the courtroom.
Van Dam pleaded guilty in November in Sioux County District Court to one count of second-degree sexual abuse, five counts of third-degree sexual abuse and one count of sexual exploitation by a school employee.
Sioux County Attorney Thomas Kunstle said Van Dam’s behavior dated back to August 2013 and ended on Oct. 23, 2017, when he was arrested after the parents of an 11-year-old boy reported that Van Dam had had sexual contact with their son.
After the first victim came forward, at least 14 more boys — some or all of them under age 12 or 13 — reported incidents involving Van Dam. Van Dam, who also was a coach and a youth leader at the church that many of the victims attended, was fired from his teaching post after charges mounted against him.
For more than two hours Friday, Van Dam was forced to listen to the victim impact statements of 19 parents and boys, none of whom were identified by name in court. All told him of the damage his actions had done to them and their families.
“How could you look at their precious faces and rob them of their innocence?” one mother asked.
One father said Van Dam coerced his students to “fulfill his own sick pleasures daily.”
“You even threatened his grades,” another mother said to Van Dam. “You said his grades would go down if he didn’t continue to see you.”
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Parents said they worry their sons may someday contemplate committing suicide because of the guilt and shame they feel. One mother said she and her husband were preparing to board an airplane when they received a phone call from their son’s school telling them he had drawn a picture of himself holding a gun to his head.
“This is what you made him draw,” the mother said to Van Dam, holding up the picture in the courtroom.
One of the victims said in a statement, read in court by a guardian ad litem, that he can’t leave behind the pain of what happened to him.
“It will forever hurt me to say I was a part of this,” the boy said in his statement.
The fallout from the case has affected Sioux Center, the Christian school and the church, parents said.
“We trusted you to teach our kids about God and this world and you took advantage of them,” one mother said to Van Dam.
Many parents said their sons will continue to undergo therapy to cope with anxiety, and they worry how the abuse will affect their sons’ ability to have future relationships with women and their own children.
One mother, however, defiantly told Van Dam that the evil he brought upon her son will not win.
“The story doesn’t end here,” she said. “My son will be forever impacted by this, but he will not let it define him.”