*All names have been changed to protect the minors involved in this case, both the victims as well as the children of the perpetrator.
“Mom, Hazel* has something she is afraid to talk to you about.”
The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end and my mom-radar went into high alert as my oldest walked into my bedroom as I was getting out of the shower. Still wrapped in my towel, I took a breath and turned to face my oldest daughter who had just spoken those words, and her younger sister who are peering around the door frame. “Okay”, I said.
“Frank has been showing Hazel his penis.”
I saw spots and my mind was swirling in a panic. I knew that how I responded at that moment mattered. I knew that statistically, disclosures of sexual abuse/misconduct tend to be factual. I knew my children and my gut was telling me this was serious. Because I also knew that where we went from here had the potential to significantly impact not only our lives but the lives of Frank and his family, my response was measured.
“Okay”, I said again as I sat down on my bed, motioning both girls towards me. “I am going to ask this once and after that, I am going to believe you, which means I will need to take steps to make sure you are safe. Is what you are telling me true?”
Both girls replied that it was true and proceeded to tell me details of events that had been occurring over the course of several months. Frank was our neighbor. He was also the father of two young boys, the same age as my daughters. These boys were in and out of my house all the time and my girls were in and out of theirs. We had a friendly relationship with Frank and his wife. I still feel an incredible amount of guilt when I say that we trusted them.
The girls told me that for quite some time, Frank had been exposing both of them to pornography. They didn’t know what it was called, but they described it in detail to me that morning. They reported instances in which he would watch pornography in the room with them while they were playing Minecraft with his children. They said he would be touching his penis.
We had just gotten a new puppy and during a walk that morning with the dog Hazel had confided in her older sister that Frank had advanced the behavior to more purposefully showing her his penis. Once he moved to sit next to her and said some lewd things to her that I will not repeat here. The following day when she went over to their house, he was standing naked at the top of the stairs, again verbally engaging her inappropriately about his penis. There were other phrases said to her at other times while showing her pornography on his phone. She was obviously confused as she did not understand what many of these things meant. She just knew they felt wrong.
At this point, I was numb, but the detail in which both of my children provided had solidified my commitment to moving forward in keeping them safe.
I never looked back, but I did take some steps to ensure I was covering my bases. I did a quick history search on the girl’s chrome books to make sure this wasn’t coming from something they had inadvertently found on YouTube or Google. Instead, what I found made my blood run cold.
My sweet 8-year-old had been Googling the lewd phrases that Frank had said to her. These phrases were not things that she would have known to input into that search bar independently. It broke my heart to see proof of her attempts to understand what was happening as well as feeling incredible guilt that I failed her as a mother.
I am incredibly grateful that my children have the kind of relationship where they will support one another. I am so proud of my oldest, not much older than her sister, for taking the lead that day to bring her sister to me so I could finally intervene. I am grateful I have the kind of relationship with my kids that is open and honest so that they did feel they could come to me and receive support and safety. I will also forever beat myself up for not seeing it and stopping it before it happened. I know better. I work in a field that exposes me to these kinds of situations. I know it happens. Yet, I still didn’t think it would happen to me… to my children.
At this point, I called the girl’s Dad home from work and together we called our local sheriff’s office to report the crime and we called our local child abuse center. We completed the forensic interview and the details reported by my children remained consistent with what I had been told that morning.
However, I was crushed even further when the social worker told me she felt that the pornography exposure had likely been going on for close to a year, not just the months my kid’s estimated. When I asked the girls why they didn’t tell me earlier, they told me they knew I would make them stop playing with their friends and they didn’t want to lose that friendship. This loss was a big part of our subsequent therapy over the next several months.
Our neighbor was arrested on several felony accounts of Disseminating Matter Harmful to Juveniles and several misdemeanors for public indecency. We quickly realized, however, that our justice system is very much set up to protect those who are accused of crimes rather than the victims, no matter how young.
The detectives were amazing. They acted quickly, they called and offered support, and they expressed disgust for the actions of our neighbor, expressing their own opinion that Frank was grooming my youngest daughter. After the court system took over, however, I was forced to step up as an advocate for my children in ways I didn’t anticipate. This is why I am sharing our story with you today. I have a solid professional knowledge base backing me up as a mother, but not everyone has that knowledge and skillset at their disposal. Since I can’t change our legal system, I can share what I learned in the hopes of empowering other parents who find themselves faced with the devil down the street.
On a number of occasions throughout this legal process, it has been said to me “at least your children are safe”. While I will forever be grateful that my children felt comfortable enough to come to me with their experiences at the hands of Mr. Frank, and that I held enough knowledge and power to know what to do with that information to protect them from further harm, I respectfully disagree with the proclamation that my children are “safe”.
As a trauma professional, I know that emotional and perceived safety are every bit as important as physical safety. While I say prayers daily, thanking God that I was able to intervene prior to further advancement of Mr. Frank’s actions, my children have still experienced significant harm. As a mother, I have lived the past 6 months hand in hand with my daughters who have experienced nightmares, anxiety, fear, and many tears.
(Excerpt from our victim impact statement.)
There is a definitive hierarchy of importance in our legal system. I wholeheartedly agree with this as I recognize that my children’s story is sadly nothing compared to the experiences of some. However, it was all but dismissed in the legal system, and that is not okay. Because the legal system is overwhelmed, most cases like ours go to a plea deal. This means minimal punishment. We knew this going in and never expected Frank to receive jail time. We were surprised to learn that he likely would just walk away with only a few years of probation as punishment. We assumed he would at least have to register as a sex offender, but more on that in a minute. When a case goes to a plea deal, the judge does not know any of the details of the case outside of what the official charges were. The onus, therefore, is on the victim to provide a “victim impact statement” to assist with sentencing. I am so grateful I could carry that burden for my children, but what about those who don’t have someone who can do that for them?
Sentencing carries a significant amount of judicial discretion as well as favor given to those who do not have previous records. In this case, our perpetrator was also a war veteran and that was very much used as a rationale by the defense as to why there should be limited punishment in favor of his personal trauma. Additionally, we learned that the requirement for Frank to register as a sex offender was up to the judge and in actuality, not likely to be included in his sentence.
Becoming an Advocate
Throughout this ordeal, we were acutely aware of Frank’s secondary victims, his children. As part of our police report, we knew the family would have a case opened with the county to investigate the safety of his children. As to how that played out, we were not privy, outside of hearing how quickly Frank’s wife threw our girls under the bus as “manipulative liars” at the time of his arrest. My husband and I were never on a witch hunt about Frank, but we did want the outcome of our case to result in psychiatric help as well as safety for both our children as well as the other children with whom he may come into contact. For this reason, the sex offender registry was important to us, but also it was a way to outwardly communicate to our children that the “system” cared about what happened to them. If he wasn’t going to jail, there needed to be more punishment than just probation.
In criminal cases, the prosecution represents the state. This means that what happens with the plea deal does not require the victim’s approval. However, without the victim’s approval, the prosecution will be wary about proceeding. The only chance we had for registration as part of the punishment was to ensure the inclusion of at least one of the misdemeanor charges, as it was not an option with the felony charges. Therefore, we stood our ground that we would not support a plea deal that did not include both a misdemeanor and a felony charge. Additionally, we were realistic about our expectations. We did not push for jail time, as that wasn’t going to happen regardless. Instead, we focused on asking for extended probation, required psychiatric help, and the inclusion of mandatory registration.
My husband and I are not looking to punish Mr. Frank’s family. However, we do feel strongly about putting things in place as part of his personal punishment that not only directly impacts the mental health of our young children but additionally, adds a layer of protection in the prevention of this harm being endured by other young children. It is for this reason that we support an extended period of probation as well as a requirement to register with the National Sex Offender Registry. We feel both of these are imperative for our children to be able to see that Mr. Frank is being held accountable for his actions, the actions of a grown man, towards children. Our children are not “safe”. They know sad and disturbing things about this world substantially earlier than we would have preferred and that is a parental right and a right of childhood that was stolen from us by Mr. Frank.
(Excerpt from our victim impact statement)
Victim Impact Statement
I hope none of you ever have to write a victim impact statement, but if you do, know this: The more detail you include, the better. I told the whole disclosure story, including the details of the lewd comments spoken to my children so the judge would know our story. Be respectful, but don’t be afraid to speak your truth. As a society, we are learning so much more about the impact of trauma on our children. Sadly, the legal system has not yet caught up. The judge in our case addressed my letter directly in court saying it did sway his decision to include registry in Frank’s punishment. Not only did this help heal my soul a little bit, knowing I was able to impact the outcome for my children, it gives me hope that my words will continue to stick with him in future cases. If that is a legacy my children and I can take from this experience, I will be grateful for that little piece of hope. I won’t ever know for sure though.
Frank pled guilty to 4 of the felony charges and 1 misdemeanor. He was sentenced to 3 years of probation and 15 years as a Tier III sex offender. The latter prevents him from appearing at my children’s school, where his children are also students. At the sentencing, he apologized to us for what he referred to as “negligence” and asked for forgiveness. I have all the eye-rolls for that. I do hope his actions don’t negatively impact his children as they grow into adults in our society, but I can’t invest too much energy in that either. My focus is on my own girls and strengthening their resilience. I would give anything to change their past, but all I can really do is champion their future. The closure brought by the conclusion of the court case did provide some healing, but I would be lying if I said we weren’t still dealing with repercussions from Frank’s actions. That, I suppose, is the definition of trauma.