Friday, September 5th, 2014
December 2014 update: This is a lovely video explaining the story of the garden Rosemarie D’Alessandro created in honor of her daughter, Joan.
There’s a mother in New Jersey who has been working faithfully for decades to keep children safe. Her name is Rosemarie D’Alessandro, and her mission was fueled by tragedy: the rape and murder of her 7-year-old daughter, Joan, who was killed by a neighbor–a high school chemistry teacher–when she was delivering Girl Scout Cookies to his home in 1973. That’s Joan in her Brownie uniform at right.
After the killer was eligible for parole in 1993, Rosemarie was told by the prosecutor’s office that if she didn’t fight, he could be freed. “I understood the seriousness of what they were telling me. I had no idea about getting laws through, but that’s what started the process. I knew I had to do something.” Rosemarie used all of her resourcefulness, her creativity, and her patience to push for Joan’s Law, passed first in New Jersey in 1997 and at the federal level in 1998, which was the first to require a mandatory life sentence for anyone who molests and murders a child under the age of 14. Unfortunately, the law named after Joan is not retroactive and therefore does not prevent her killer from being released from prison one day, but Rosemarie feels deep satisfaction from her efforts: “It wasn’t going to help us, but somebody had to change things, and it was going to start with me.” For the past four years, Rosemarie has been advocating for the law to extend to all children under age 18. (Why it doesn’t already has never been made clear to Rosemarie: “There must be something political.”)
In addition to legal advocacy, Rosemarie started The Joan Angela D’Alessandro Memorial Foundation, which raises funds to give disadvantaged children positive experiences, brings attention to child protection and safety issues, and advocates for the rights of victims and provides victims with support. She also created a memorial in the center of her town that includes a garden, a 5,670-lb. stone sculpture inscribed with Joan’s story and information about the laws created in her name, and a bench. If you look closely at the top center of the bench, you’ll see the word “Joan,” which was replicated from Joan’s own handwriting on a school workbook:
“The sculpture and garden is there to bring the subject of violence against children out into the open,” Rosemarie explains. Her hope is that people read about Joan’s story and speak up if they know someone could be at risk of harming a child. “It starts with Joan, but it’s about the children of today and tomorrow.”
Rosemarie has this message for parents: “You have to be vigilant when it comes to protecting your children, but still let them be children. You should not be paranoid–I raised four children after Joan died–but if you get a gut feeling, pay attention to it.”
Joan would have been 49 this Sunday. Later in the month, lights will be installed at the sculpture garden created in her honor. Rosemarie’s goal is for the lights to be turned on on September 15, which will mark the 10th anniversary of the day Joan’s Law was signed in New York State. If you’d like to help this tenacious mother in her quest to broaden Joan’s Law, visit the foundation’s Facebook page.
Photos courtesy of Joansjoy.org.
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Monday, January 13th, 2014
Last month I posted about Jonathan, a high-school friend who is blogging about the aftermath of his then-3-year-old son having been sexually assaulted by a family member. Many of you expressed sympathy–and many expressed empathy, having firsthand experience with sexual abuse.
Some people expressed concern: concern for Jonathan’s son’s privacy, and concern for the offender, who, as several readers pointed out, may have been sexually abused himself. This is what Jonathan said.
“I have been overwhelmed by the support and kind words that my blog posts have received. There have been points raised recently that I thought it appropriate to address.
1. I am often asked if the offender was abused. I don’t know. My personal belief is that child abuse is a cycle where children who are abused become the abusers. I believe early treatment of my child in an open and honest way will break that cycle. I don’t believe child abuse is a natural behavior but rather a learned one. I realized a long time ago that there is no way of really knowing why the offender did what he did to my son. My hope is that the offender gets the help he needs to lead a productive life. My focus is and will continue to be in getting my son and my family the help we need to deal with the pain caused by the offender.
2. I have been asked several times whether I took into account my family’s healing when I decided to share my writing. My son’s healing has been and will remain my primary concern. I made the decision to post online after consulting my wife, my family’s counselors and my children. We all felt that being open about what has happened to us would remove the stigma of child abuse and empower us. Because my wife Michelle and I have always been open about what happened to their brother, what was happening during the court proceedings and to some extent our feelings, our children feel free to ask questions and share their concerns. In fact, two of my older children are reading over my shoulder as I type, pointing out run-on sentences and typos. It is my belief that my writing has not only helped me process my grief but it has also encouraged open discussion that sometimes happens at the dinner table. There are times that I am sad that talking about what happened seems so normal for us but I am proud of how each one of us has stepped up to care for the others.
Shortly after writing my second post, a friend shared with me his personal story of pain and how much he was helped by my writing. Any doubts that I might have had about sharing my pain, or being so open and vulnerable vanished. I have seen posts calling me ‘brave’ or ‘courageous’ for sharing my family’s struggle. Words like ‘brave’ and ‘courageous’ should be used for the survivors of child abuse who refuse to give up and those who stand up to their abusers. I’m just a dad muddling through life trying to do the right thing for my family.”
Image: Red stop sign with the word abuse via Shutterstock.
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Wednesday, December 4th, 2013
In October, I received a random Facebook request from Jonathan, an old high school friend I’d lost touch with. It was an invitation to Like a page for something called The Julie Valentine Center. Googling it, I saw that it’s a sexual assault and child abuse recovery center in South Carolina. My first thought was that Jonathan knew I work at Parents and wanted me to be aware of the center. (Turns out he didn’t know where I work.) When I went on their home page, I saw they were promoting a blog series about life after sexual abuse written by Jonathan. I winced, understanding that he must have been sexually abused as a child. My mind flashed back to Jonathan in school, one of the smartest kids in our class, who went on to Pepperdine. You just never know what people are going through, I thought. Then I looked more closely at the blog post and my stomach dropped. Jonathan hadn’t been sexually abused. His 3-year-old son had.
As Jonathan now very openly explains–in an effort to make some kind of sense out of the horror he, his wife Michelle, and three older sons are still enduring–his youngest son, now 4, was sexually abused more than 20 times by a member of their extended family.
Jonathan has told me that they are all suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and feeling the effects of not only the abuse, but the way it has fractured their extended family. He is determined to speak out, though, if it means it will positively affect anyone else living through the aftermath of abuse.
He’s about halfway through a 12-week blog series and I hope all of you read what he’s written so far. His words are poignant and full of every emotion imaginable, including sadness, rage, empathy, guilt, hope, and most of all love. I showed them to Linda E. Johnson, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Vermont, who was instrumental last year when we ran this story in Parents about protecting your child from a sexual predator. She said of Jonathan’s writing: “I was very, very moved and very impressed… and very saddened by what happened to his little boy. But what was so important to me is that they just did everything right.” She praised their son, too. “Only one or two in every 10 victims tell while they’re children. The fact that he could is a testament to the healthy and loving relationship his parents have built with him. And he was right! He was right to tell, because they immediately believed him and acted upon what they learned.”
I asked Linda whether it’s common for parents to respond as thoroughly and publicly as Jonathan and Michelle have, especially considering they’re still feeling the immediate impact of the abuse. She said, “I want to believe what they’re doing is part of a movement toward the positive. But many parents succumb to the guilt trips put upon by other family members, or fear, or shame,” and don’t speak up.
She had kind words for The Julie Valentine Center as well. “The advocacy center deserves to be in the spotlight, too. They do yeoman’s work in supporting and guiding families and helping them with expectations during the legal process–expectations that may not be met.”
Of all of Jonathan’s posts so far, the one that feels most illuminating follows. Knowing that 1 in 4 girls and 1 in 6 boys will be sexually abused by the time they’re 18, and how likely it is that someone you know–child or parent, friend or family member–has been affected by sexual abuse, I urge you to read the rest.
Putting the Genie Back in the Bottle: Myths and Misconceptions
By Jonathan Mitten
I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support in response to my first post. Many friends have come forward to share their stories of being molested as children and wish their parents had stood up for them. I write in an effort to find some greater meaning in my family’s pain that they and those who have suffered the same, might find some sense of comfort or belonging. In both my and my wife’s eyes there lies sorrow reaching deep into our souls. It is a look I now recognize in the eyes of others who have been through the same. It is not a look of resignation, for underneath burns a fire that ignites whenever we encounter one of these myths, or as I now call them “lies.”
These excuses to which I refer are born of a deep denial, a desire to “put the genie back in the bottle” so that life can return to the way it was without acknowledging the horror of what has been done. It is a desire to minimize the pain inflicted so the charade of a happy family can continue unabated. The following myths and misconceptions were ones that we encountered over the last seven months. —Jonathan Mitten
It’s a family matter that doesn’t need to be reported
Unfortunately most child sex abuse is committed by family members, family friends, or others in a trusted position, not by strangers. When our 3-year-old first spilled the beans to my wife, she immediately confronted the offender who admitted his crime. My wife’s family expected that we would treat this as a family matter and not report the incident to the police. The reality is that all sex abuse must be reported. We cried for a day and I made calls trying to find some other way to minimize the impact to this young man’s life. It took two calls to the police and two visits before we finally filed a report. I had to have an EKG in the middle of this because my doctor feared I was having a heart attack. Ultimately, we immediately sought treatment for my son and were told that we had to file a police report and see a forensic counselor before he could be treated. A parent that fails to notify the police may be classified as a non-protecting parent.
A 3-year-old won’t remember
Unfortunately this is false and I truly wish it was true. We have not brought the topic up with our three year old. He on the other hand, now that the secret is out, has shared with us, with neighborhood children, and random folks at our house. He has shared everything in much greater detail than we necessarily want to know. It is a good sign that he doesn’t feel shame but he breaks our heart each time he brings it up. We have had several adults speak to us privately about their own experiences and unfortunately those who were his age when it happened still remember vividly what was done to them. It was stated at the sentencing hearing that the offender believes that our child wasn’t hurt and that he would “forget about it if people would quit bringing it up.” How I wish that were true….
Myth # 3
It didn’t hurt (he didn’t say no/he enjoyed it)
My stomach turns every time this lie is repeated, and I seethe with a thinly veiled rage. Forced sexual acts are humiliating, hurt physically and leave deep psychological scars. Anyone who says otherwise is in in deep denial eschewing all common sense and reasoning, not to mention volumes of documentation. Both the offender and his family have used this as a way of implying that there was no crime and that what happened is no big deal.
It’s just a teenage boy thing (hormones or just a phase he’s going through)
We all know that teenage boys are full of raging hormones that get the best of them and that they fantasize about a lot. I remember talking to the police officer by his cruiser as he was getting ready to leave and he made this point: It has not and has never been normal to fantasize about prepubescent boys and girls. He is correct. Those who fantasize about little kids are pedophiles and those that act on their fantasies are molesters.
It was suggested that Thanksgiving and Christmas could still be the same, as long as the molester had adult supervision at all times and was not left alone with the other kids. The biggest myth of all? That we can put the genie back in the bottle… really, we can.
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Image: See it stop it written on the child’s hand via Shutterstock.