A question and answer perspective of a family member whose loved one is facing a sex crime and jail

I would like to share my story not because it is so unique, but because, I believe, it is all too common.  To set the stage, I am the next of kin for my nephew who is now serving time for a Level 4 felony of child molestation.  I will reference the 5 stages of grieving developed by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance.

Q: As a loved one of someone charged with a serious felony, what was your immediate reaction of the arrest of your loved one (the defendant)? 

When I first received the call that my nephew had been arrested, I was stunned and literally had a physical reaction of nausea and weakness.  It was genuinely like a traumatic death. All I could think was, how can I go back to the minute just before that call when my life was perfect?

Although I had no information regarding the details of the arrest, I began internalizing the stigma of an arrest for a child molest charge immediately.  My first call to my sister was difficult because I knew she would feel the same pain, but I needed the support. My second call was to my cousin, who is a lawyer.  I was desperately seeking help but felt embarrassed and ashamed when trying to explain the charge.  I began to feel a sense of segregation as I imagined that my cousin would tell the rest of the extended family and we would be judged and rejected for helping, “the child molester”.  Please keep in mind that this was within the first hour of being notified of the arrest.

The next 48 hours were a flurry of emotions.  A small group of family met to determine next steps. We still didn’t know any details of what actually happened but as we talked, I really hit the denial and anger stages hard.  I would vacillate between, “I’m sure this isn’t true, he was trapped into saying something that didn’t happen” to “he can just stay locked up, he gets what he deserves.”  My moral and ethical upbringing collided with my new reality.  On the one hand I believed that anyone that would violate a child should be punished to the full extent of the law no questions asked.  On the other hand, this was my nephew who I’ve known from birth and was compelled to do whatever I could to help him.

In addition to my raw emotional state I had to try to determine how to navigate the legal system of which I had no experience.  Because of the nature of his crime, my nephew was moved to another town an hour away and we could have no contact with him.  We couldn’t tell him that we were trying to help. We had no idea if he was safe or what his state of mind was. My cousin, the lawyer, was basically of no help and I wasn’t sure where to turn.  I hit the internet searching for “lawyers for sex offenders” and “how to find a lawyer”. I read what I could, and everyone’s descriptions sounded like they were the best lawyer you could get, but how did I know?  I was fortunate that my sister had a friend of the family whose son was charged with a similar crime just one year prior.  We contacted her for guidance.

It’s funny how things change.  Just one year earlier I was standing in judgement of our friend’s son, scouring the internet for any tidbit of information to condemn him, saying things like, “he knew better”, “how could he do this to his family”, “what a disgrace”.  Now we were humbly calling on this family for understanding and guidance.  They were wonderfully supportive through our entire experience.

I write this today because, the reality is, most families are not this fortunate and must traverse this process in isolation; ashamed and afraid to talk with anyone, fearing that they won’t understand how you can love and support someone that has committed the most heinous crime against humanity.  My personal feeling was that if I love and support my nephew society will condemn me of the same crime.  While better, this continues to be a challenge at times.

 Q: What type of emotional toll did it take on you? (then and now)

How did you manage through the pain and anger at the beginning and manage your way to acceptance and support?

My first experience of talking about my nephew and his charges outside of the family was at work.  I had no choice but to explain to my boss why I would suddenly need time off in the coming weeks.  While I could tell that she was trying to be empathetic, it was obvious that she was conflicted.  The message that I received was, why would you be getting involved?

Still unable to talk with my nephew for six days, the first time that I saw him was at the initial hearing.  Watching him walk in shackled and dejected was heartbreaking.  He looked gaunt and scared.  I could see the shame in his face when he saw that there were 12-15 people there to support him.  Our family friend had advised us that if we were going to make bail for him, we should be prepared to provide 24/hr. supervision in case he was suicidal.  Because we did not have time to make these arrangements, we did not post bail at his initial hearing.

The next two days were challenging because I had to make a decision whether or not to allow my nephew to live with me.  While he had an apartment in his home town, he was not able to stay there.  We had just moved to a new neighborhood with several children living near.  Would I be putting these children at risk? How would I be treated as a new neighbor if anyone found out? He’ll no longer have a job, can I support him and for how long? There was a lot of uncertainty and anxiety.  When I finally talked with him I asked him directly if he felt that he was suicidal and if he had a plan.  I also made sure that he clearly understood my expectations before he moved in.

Upon his release I began the bargaining stage.  Maybe his lawyer would be able to get the charges dropped.  (We had some extenuating circumstances)  “Now that he’s in a new city, I know that if we could just get the charges dropped he would be able to start over and would never find himself in this situation again.”  “I think that he was just really depressed and now that he knows he has family he’ll be ok if we can just get the charges dropped.”

For the first several weeks communication was strained.  He was reserved, spent a lot of time alone and conversation was superficial.  Both of his parents were deceased, I was not his mother and I had to try to find ways to get him to open up without pushing or being too direct.  The relationship we had in his youth was shattered and we had to start new and learn to trust each other.  This was a continuous balancing act, push and pull back.  Be direct/honest, be gentle and understanding.

Once it was clear that signing a plea bargain was going to be the best option. I had no choice but to move toward the incarceration.

Q: How did you manage the feelings you had dealing with the fact this was a sex offense?

As noted, before, the fact that this was a sexual offense against a child was devastating!  You can’t help but ask yourself, “what went wrong, how could this possibly be happening to our family”?  Since I was so blindsided with the charge, I just couldn’t let myself trust him again.  I wanted to believe that this would never happen again, but I couldn’t help but fear that if I defended him, I would look foolish if he reoffended.  I had to reconcile this thought and take a leap of faith.  I had to believe that I was doing the right thing by giving him every opportunity to seek help and then it was up to him.  To be honest this thought still crosses my mind.

Q: Do you think counseling is helpful for both you and your loved one (the defendant)?

I encouraged my nephew to seek counseling immediately.  He had one counselor decline to see him.  The second counselor was a referral from a church member.  Initially I felt that he may just be going to try to help reduce his sentence.  He was faithful in attending even though it was quite expensive and gradually I felt that he was becoming more open and able to talk about his feelings.  I never pushed him to talk about the details of the charges against him.  Because I really don’t understand the underlying psychology of sex offenders, I felt that this was better suited for a mental health professional and my role was to offer a safe and supportive environment.

My experience was a little different.  Because of the stress and anxiety, I was having difficulty sleeping.  I went to my primary care physician to request something to help me sleep and get a referral to see a counselor.  Immediately after I explained my circumstances the physician basically told me that my nephew was an adult and made his own choices and I shouldn’t be wasting my time trying to help him.

The initial response from my counselor was similar but we quickly developed a good working relationship.  I found the counseling helpful.  It was good to have an unbiased person listen as I worked through my conflicting emotions.  She also had experience treating sex offenders, so I was able to ask a lot of questions about this behavior as a mental illness.  One of the most challenging questions that I had was, will he always be at a high risk to reoffend and if so, what would my response and involvement be the “next time”?

I was probably most surprised that health care professionals were so quick to write my nephew off as hopeless.  I expected this response from the rest of society, but I expected more from mental health professionals.  I just kept thinking there must be others going through the same thing.

I searched the internet for any support groups or blogs for people with a loved one that was charged or convicted of a sex crime.  Not surprisingly, I found nothing.  Understandably, there were several options for victims and their families.  This made me sad because I know that there are many mothers and fathers out there struggling and left to navigate their feelings and “the system” in isolation.

Q: Knowing that your loved one (the defendant) was going to be doing significant in jail/DOC, what did you do to prepare?

Describe any conversations you may have had with anyone you were aware of that had gone through this situation (omitting names)

Again, I was fortunate that we had a family friend that I could talk with about her experience.  We talked about the day of sentencing and the weeks to follow while waiting to learn the final location in which the sentence would be fulfilled.  Other things that we talked about:

  • Visitation policies.
  • Communication via phone and letters.
  • How to add money to a commissary account for essentials like toothpaste, soap, shampoo, clothes etc.
  • How a parent or friend can purchase these items once a quarter for the inmate.
  • How to purchase “real food” that can be sent in and how often.
  • Making sure that your loved one has a complete list of family and friends that they would like on their call or visitation list. Often, they can take the list with them as one of their legal documents but if not you should try to mail it to them while at the Reception Diagnostic Center.
  • Precautions that your loved one should take while at the Reception Diagnostic Center. These should also be covered by your lawyer.
  • All of the logistics of visitation, phone calls, mail, commissary accounts etc. can be found by a google search of gov/idoc/.  There is a lot of information and it takes a while to sort through everything.

Q: Describe what legal documents your procured (POA etc.)

There were a few things that we made sure were set in place immediately:

  • Establish Power of Attorney so that one or more people can take care of all legal and financial affairs. If there is more than representative, you will need to decide if you want each party to be able to act independently or are all decisions/actions to be done jointly.
  • Ensure that all Life insurance policies are up to date and have clearly designated beneficiaries.
  • Ensure that any financial investments have clearly designated beneficiaries.
  • Consider putting a will in place if needed.
  • If no will is established, make sure that all parties on the POA are clear what your loved one would like done with any cash in bank accounts etc.
  • You may want to talk with your attorney to determine if there is anything else that needs to be addressed.

Describe what was done with personal property or residential properties.

Of course, everyone’s circumstances are different, but this is a list of things to consider depending on the anticipated length of the sentence:

  • Prepare to end a lease and determine where personal property will be stored. Personal possessions that can’t feasibly be stored should probably be sold.
  • If the defendant owns his/her own home, how will that be managed in their absence? Sell the property, rent the property, are their finances available to continue making mortgage payments without renting?
  • If possible, the defendant should continue working as long as possible before sentencing.
  • Pay down or off all credit cards and outstanding debt.
  • Determine the feasibility of keeping a vehicle vs. selling all vehicles.
  • Make sure that auto or life insurance or policies that can’t be maintained are cancelled before incarceration.
  • Make sure that the POA has a list of all accounts including a complete list of passwords.
  • Consider a joint bank account making it easier for POA to add money to commissary account etc.

I’m sure this is not a comprehensive list but it should be a good start.

Q: What did you do to prepare for sentencing?

What witnesses did you and your lawyer think were best to present at the hearing? Why?

  • We looked for witnesses that had known the defendant for a considerable length of time.
  • The witness should be able to speak to the defendant’s character beyond of the charge and the positive attributes.
  • Someone that can describe the defendant’s qualities that would lead them to believe that the defendant will be successful reintegrating in society following their incarceration.
  • You should be confident that the witness will be able to keep their emotions in check during their testimony.

Q: How did you prepare for sentencing? What type of statement did you provide?

I did a lot of soul searching when writing my statement.  It was important to me that I fully believed everything that I was going to say.

  • As advised, I made sure that I did not paint a picture of my nephew as a saint that got wrongly accused.
  • I wrote my statement with a sense of humility and respect for the victim and the family.
  • I described the person that I knew before the arrest. I briefly described my reaction to the charges and then the behaviors that I observed following the arrest that helped me form a new characterization of my nephew moving forward.
  • I acknowledged that my nephew was prepared to serve the sentence given and pay his debt to society and the victim and the family.
  • I acknowledged that my nephew would need to continue to focus on his mental health while incarcerated.
  • I respectfully thanked the judge and asked that he give my nephew a chance to demonstrate that he will be a productive citizen following his incarceration.

Q: What did you do with your loved one (the defendant) in the days/weeks leading up to the hearing?

Of course, our lives don’t stop while waiting for the sentencing hearing so much of our time was spent in normal daily activities. The last two weeks were difficult. I encouraged my nephew to spend additional time with his brother doing something fun.  We spent a lot of time at one of the state parks enjoying nature and the water.  We also had a gathering of all the family and friends that had been supportive during the previous 9 months.  Basically, I tied to leave him with several positive memories that would get him through the first month or two of incarceration.

I reassured him that I would be there to support him while he served his sentence and afterward.  We talked about establishing a routine and getting involved in any programming offered.  We determined that it’s very important to use his time constructively and keep his mind engaged.  We set short term goals and talked about how we would communicate.  It’s one of those things of how do you stay positive when the next several months don’t look so bright?

Describe what it was like to be at the sentencing?

The sentencing hearing was surreal.  I felt completely helpless, there was nothing I could do to comfort or help my nephew as he faced his victim’s family.  While I love and support my nephew, the anger and hatred from the victim’s family was palpable as I testified.  At the same time, I empathized with the pain and anguish displayed by the family as they read their statements to my nephew.  I just couldn’t disagree with them and he needed to hear their perspective and get a sense of the pain that he caused.

Q: What did it feel like after the hearing and with time to reflect?

Following the sentencing we were able to say a few quick words to each other but that was it.  And just like that, he was walked out in handcuffs.  I know this may sound extreme, but it reminded me of a grave side service.  When you turn and walk away everything feels so final.  Even though logically I knew I would see him again, this feeling persisted for the next few days until I received that first letter.  A weight was lifted, and I regained a sense of hope as I read that first letter and knew he was ok.  I’m confident that as time goes on, we will all settle into new routines and time will go by quickly.  While I’m certain that I will continue to go through times of depression, this was truly the final stage of acceptance.

Q: How did you deal with and continue to deal with the social stigma and/or negative community recognition of your loved one? Did the news impact your response?

My nephew was from a small town and following his arrest and bail we basically extracted him and moved him to a much larger city where no one knew him.  Being from a small town there was one article in the local paper and no media coverage. Both my sister and brother-in-law are deceased but had an outstanding reputation in the community. It made me sad that their name would now have and asterisk, “you know their son is a child molester”.

For me, the hardest thing was telling my friends outside of the family.  Initially, I explained that my adult nephew would be staying with us for a while because he was, “going through a rough time.”  As time went on and everyone got to know him, it became harder and I felt that I was being deceitful.  On one particularly emotionally trying day I had to drop something off at my friend’s house and just broke down.  She was very understanding and continues to be supportive of both me and my nephew.  Each friend that I confide in relieves just a little more pressure. I have been slow and deliberate each time preparing myself that they may need to walk away.

The hardest thing for me to watch was the rejection and exclusion from family members and “close friends” of the family.  I was fascinated that my friends that did not know my nephew were much more accepting than some that have known him his whole life.  I continue to remind myself that each person must work through their feelings at their own pace.  Some people will never be able to understand why I would offer support or how I might think there is a good chance that my nephew can live a productive life without re-offending.  On a positive note, I was amazed at the people that stepped up and offered support to my nephew and myself.  The human spirit is alive and well.  Obviously, no one condoned the behavior but there are people that believe with the appropriate mental health services and support my nephew has a chance to take his life in a different direction.                 

I don’t want to make this sound too simplistic or easy.  I continue to struggle daily, fearing the reaction of others when they find out that my nephew is a convicted felon.  I worry that he may be hurt physically, won’t find a job, won’t find housing, will become depressed and suicidal.  I do my best to re-center myself and stay in the present moment.  I try not to allow the fear of what “might” happen overwhelm me.

Q: What’s one thing that was harder than you expected going through this event?

One of my favorite authors right now is Brené Brown.  She has a quote, “When we have the courage to walk into our story and own it, we get to write the ending.” It has been hard to embrace my new story and own it.  It’s such a sensitive charge and so extremely unacceptable by society.  While I’ve started to tell others that are close to me, I still want to pretend this isn’t happening.  I must believe that many people in my situation feel the same and that’s why there aren’t any support groups available.  I have felt extremely isolated throughout this whole experience.

Q: What’s one thing that was easier than you expected going through this event?

I would say living a “normal” life between court proceedings.  Once my nephew was out on bail, he had very few restrictions. We were able to go about our lives working and doing our best to create positive memories.  It was easier than anticipated to see my nephew as a human that needs help rather than a monster that should be locked away forever without question.

Q: What other general advice do you have for someone looking for advice for a loved one facing time in a prison or jail.

I would recommend finding a counselor that your loved one can trust and connect with.  I think that, no matter what the charge is, facing a prison sentence is daunting.  If there is time to address his/her mental health prior to being incarcerated they may have an opportunity to develop coping strategies and work on self-esteem issues that could help prevent re-offending.  I do recognize that this is an oversimplified suggestion.

My other piece of advice would be to protect your own mental health.  Finding a confidant, whether a counselor or trusted friend is imperative.  You need someone that will be 100% honest with you and tell you if you are overextending yourself.  It is crucial that you don’t take on more responsibility for the well-being of your loved one than they do for themselves.  Walking through this process and preparing for an extended incarceration must be a team effort!

Q: What did you look for in a lawyer for your loved one?

Obviously, everyone’s situation is unique but for me there would be some things that are non-negotiable when seeking representation:

  • The lawyer should have experience with this type of litigation.
  • Your loved one should have an immediate connection with the lawyer so that they can build a trusting relationship.
  • Your lawyer should make themselves readily available to answer questions, no matter how big or small. You should never feel like you are an inconvenience.
  • You should be able to develop a relationship with his/her paralegal as well. You will communicate a lot with the paralegal.
  • On the first meeting the lawyer should outline how the legal process will work and what you can expect as far as a timeline for court appearances etc.
  • You should always feel that your lawyer is providing you with realistic expectations of the outcome.

Thank you for providing me the opportunity to share my thoughts.  I know that my journey has just begun and there will be many challenging and positive situations along the way.  I have learned to just, literally, take one day a time and do not allow yourself to think of all the, “what ifs”.  We are all stronger than we think, and we can write a positive ending to our stories.