Mark Hayward's City Matters: Innocence lost, justice delayed
IF CATHY SMITH (not her real name) wants to see justice done, she is just going to have to wait.
For her, justice means prison for the man who forged a bond with her and her family, cultivated an uncle-like relationship with her daughter, and then started molesting the girl at the age of 9, maybe even earlier, her mother alleges.
Such is the pattern when children are molested — a family friend turns out to be a pervert, leaving a jumble of confusion and anguish as he walks away. In this case, the confused girl missed the man — at least initially — and doesn't want to see him get into trouble, her mother said. And she is embittered and angry over what she's hearing from county prosecutors.
As would most who read further. This is the outcome of terms such as "innocent until proven guilty" and "reasonable doubt."
Smith said she found out about the molestation when contacted by state social workers last year. Manchester police confirm they investigated the case and turned it over to the Hillsborough County Attorney's Office, but will say nothing else about it.
The man, let's call him Stanley, continues to live in a Lake Avenue apartment, where he is free to strike up a relationship with another vulnerable family, Smith said.
"I was under the impression that if somebody touched any child like that she would at least get her day in court," Smith said. She approached this newspaper two months ago, heartbroken and not knowing where to turn.
Only Smith will give a complete explanation of what's happened. Hillsborough County Attorney Patricia LaFrance, a veteran prosecutor in her first term as county attorney, said she can't speak about the details of the case. But she said prosecutor Michael Valentine reviewed the case, and experienced prosecutors unanimously agreed to not go forward at this time."Sometimes, we can tell by talking to a child they are not ready, they cannot last, and the parents are gung-ho to go forward," LaFrance said. "I won't go forward at the risk of damaging a child."
LaFrance said it can take years for a victim to be ready to testify, meaning the perp remains loose. "I can tell you, it's kept me awake at nights," LaFrance said.
LaFrance said she waited six years for a 6-year-old victim to be ready to testify, and the abuser now sits in prison for a minimum of 15 years.
Prosecutors can bring charges until the victim is 40, but if they get an innocent verdict, the case ends there, LaFrance said. (For more information on child sex abuse, go to cac-nh.org.)
Smith disputes the explanations she's been given.
• Her daughter is too emotional and might lie in court. Smith agrees that her daughter does not want Stanley, who is in his late 30s, to get in trouble. But she insists her daughter knows that it's wrong to lie and would not do so.
• Her daughter would be too traumatized. Smith said she agrees with her daughter's therapist — if the trauma is going to happen, she might as well take her lumps now and get it over with. Why go through three years of counseling, start to heal, and then have the matter resurface? Smith asks.
• Her daughter just doesn't want to. That decision, Smith said, should be left up to an adult who understands the seriousness of the matter.
"I understand it's a judgment call," Smith said. "What I don't understand is the reasons they gave me. They don't make any sense."
LaFrance said she understands Smith's desire for justice.
Life is hard for Smith. She is 54, a divorced mom on disability with two children at home. She lives in a small family home that she grew up in in south Manchester. She's on food stamps.
She said Stanley had gained her confidence so much that she disputed suggestions from friends that he could be a child molester. He acted like a teenager and made her daughter happy. He ranted and railed when a registered sex offender moved into the neighborhood.
Now, she worries what will happen to her daughter, who was initially despondent when told she could no longer see Stanley. She seems to be getting over him, but there are mood swings, and her grades have suffered, Smith said.
Even worse, prosecutors told Smith not to speak to her daughter in depth about what happened. LaFrance confirmed that prosecutors give that advice — defense attorneys accuse parents of coaching their child, which hurts the child's credibility at trial.
If the girl wants to talk, she can see a counselor. So basically, Smith can only listen. Recently, she heard her daughter tell her sister she's already been in one "relationship."
"It's not so much the touching part, it's the emotions he put her through," Smith said. "Her emotions are all screwed up. She doesn't know what's right, what's wrong."