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.