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Jim Kenyon: N.H. Policy Gap Makes It Hard for Mom to Defend Daughter

  • Alonda Peterson, of Canaan, N.H., speaking about the need for the proposed legislation at a women's conference in Hanover, N.H., this fall. (Courtesy photograph)

  • State Rep. Tim Josephson, a Canaan Democrat, is sponsoring a bill that would allow a parent or guardian to file a petition for a protective order on behalf of a minor. (Courtesy photograph)



Sunday, December 17, 2017

With only an hour or so warning, Alonda Peterson learned on a Friday in August that her father was being released from a northern New Hampshire jail.

Impossible, she thought.

Her father, John Knott Jr., of Canaan, had been behind bars in Ossipee since his arrest three months earlier on charges of sexually assaulting Peterson’s 9-year-old daughter — his granddaughter.

With her father locked up 70 miles away, Peterson, who also lives in Canaan, had every reason to believe her daughter was out of harm’s way. A grand jury just needed to hand up a felony indictment against her father, which would allow the case to begin winding through the court system.

But apparently due to a court snafu, Knott’s case hadn’t been presented to a grand jury in time. Without an indictment, the state, by law, couldn’t hold him for more than 90 days.

Knott, 61, didn’t have to post bail or agree to any conditions to secure his release. He was free to go.

“I was in shock,” Peterson told me.

More worrisome, her father lived next door to her family in Canaan. Their houses were only a few hundred feet apart.

“He had no friends, no family he could turn to. He had no money,” Peterson said. “Obviously, he was going to come home.”

There was no telling what he might do, Peterson thought. He was a gun owner, and known to have a temper. When she was a teenager 20 years ago, Peterson and her younger brother were roughhousing in her bedroom. When they didn’t quiet down to his liking, he ripped her bedroom door off its hinges.

“I didn’t have a door on my bedroom for three years after that,” Peterson said.

After getting news of her father’s imminent release on that Friday, Peterson drove to the Canaan police station. An officer walked her through the process of obtaining a temporary restraining order.

“It was a very bad situation,” Canaan Police Chief Sam Frank told me. “So thank God we were able to get something done to get her through the weekend.”

If Knott violated the judge’s order by coming to Peterson’s house or calling her family, he risked being sent back to jail.

Canaan police stressed, however, that the order was only temporary. On Monday, Peterson needed to get to the courthouse in Lebanon to initiate proceedings for a permanent restraining order.

Whatever it takes, Peterson told police. “I want to protect my daughter from everything,” she said. “That’s what mothers are supposed to do.”

But through no fault of her own or the District Court staff, Peterson left the courthouse empty-handed that Monday. She called WISE, the Lebanon-based social service organization that assists victims of gender-based violence, hoping it could intervene on her behalf. A WISE employee met Peterson at the courthouse, but got nowhere as well.

As strange as this may sound, New Hampshire’s laws pertaining to restraining orders really don’t take juveniles into account. They’re mostly for adults who are dealing with threats of domestic violence or stalking by a former or current intimate partner.

The Lebanon District Court clerk and her staff were powerless to help Peterson. They referred her to Grafton County Superior Court in North Haverhill. Maybe someone there could help.

Peterson headed 45 miles north to the county courthouse. The answer was the same: The laws pertaining to restraining orders didn’t seem to apply to her situation.

With the courthouse about to close for the day, a clerk offered a suggestion: Peterson could seek what’s known as a civil restraining order.

She’d have to give the court evidence about her father to show her family’s safety was in jeopardy. She mentioned him ripping off the door to her bedroom when she was a teenager.

Good enough. A judge granted the order: Knott couldn’t contact Peterson’s children or attempt to enter their house.

But there’s a major drawback to a civil restraining order, WISE Executive Director Peggy O’Neil told me. “It doesn’t have any teeth in it,” she said. At best, a person who violates the order is looking at a misdemeanor charge.

Hardly much of a deterrent.

But before I go any further with Peterson’s story, I need to back up. Here’s some background:

Peterson’s daughter is named Jade. The Valley News generally doesn’t name victims in sexual assault cases, but for reasons I’ll get into later, we’ve decided to in this case.

In many respects, Jade is a typical fifth-grader. She likes to bake, play with the family dog and pretend she’s an animated movie star while watching YouTube videos. She also loves to sing. Her rendition of Somewhere Over the Rainbow won her first place in a karaoke contest for children.

Except Jade is different from most kids in one distinct way. At an early age, she was diagnosed with autism. The developmental disability can affect a person’s ability to communicate, and to interact with others. Like many people with autism, Jade sometimes has difficulty processing information and comprehending it.

“When I explained that her grampa was in jail and why, she wanted to go rescue him,” Peterson said.

Peterson, 36, was a single mother until she remarried a couple of years ago. Peterson, a massage therapist, and her husband, Scott, a restaurant chef, found living next door to her parents had its advantages — particularly help watching Jade and her brother, who is also autistic, while they were at work.

Peterson’s mother is an occupational therapist who works a lot, but her father, a building contractor, stayed mostly at home. A lung infection a few years ago took a toll on his health. “He can’t walk long distances,” Peterson said.

Her children enjoyed spending time with their grandfather, Peterson said. Last April, with a weeklong school vacation approaching, he offered to take them to the White Mountains, where the family had a time-share condo at a North Conway resort.

Peterson and her husband would join them for parts of the week when they weren’t working. Peterson’s father made plans to take his grandchildren to a model railroad museum in North Conway. They could also play in the resort’s indoor swimming pool.

At first, Peterson didn’t think much about it when her father mentioned that after the kids had finished swimming for the day that he had helped Jade wash her hair to remove the chlorine. Peterson knew from experience that her daughter wasn’t the best when it came to rinsing out shampoo.

Her father had also made a point of mentioning that Jade was wearing a bathing suit while he helped her in the shower.

It wasn’t until a couple of weeks later when she was watching a movie with a girlfriend that Peterson gave the conversation much thought. Split is a 2016 psychological thriller featuring an emotionally disturbed girl who was molested as a young child by an uncle.

The movie triggered something in Peterson. Later that evening, Peterson casually asked Jade for details.

“How did you feel about Grampa helping you in the shower?”

Her daughter responded calmly and matter-of-factly. “She told me what Grampa had done,” Peterson said.

Peterson also talked with her son. His grandfather hadn’t done anything inappropriate with him and was unaware of anything that had happened with his sister.

Peterson called her mother. Needless to say it was a difficult conversation, but the next day Peterson reported her father to Canaan police. (Since her father’s arrest, her mother has filed for divorce, Peterson said. She continues to live next door.)

The state’s Division for Children, Youth and Families, better known as DCYF, was called in to videotape an interview with Jade at a child advocacy center in Lebanon.

Shortly thereafter, Canaan police arrested Knott, who was transported to the Carroll County jail since the alleged incident occurred in North Conway.

After Knott’s sudden release in August, the temporary restraining order prevented him from returning home. A social service agency arranged for him to stay at a Hartford motel.

On Aug. 18, a Carroll County grand jury handed up Knott’s indictment — belated as it was. He was charged with aggravated felonious sexual assault, which carries a prison sentence of 10 to 30 years.

Knott pleaded not guilty and was released on $10,000 personal recognizance. His conditions of release included no contact with Jade, who turned 10 in July. He also agreed to live in Alexandria, N.H., near where he grew up. Peterson told me that it’s her understanding that he’s living in a camper.

I tried calling Knott at the phone number he gave to Carroll Superior Court. Last week, it was a nonworking number. His public defender, Allison Schwartz, didn’t respond to my email.

It would seem that Peterson had done everything she could to protect her daughter after Knott was released on bail.

But Peterson figured there was more at stake. If she’d had so much trouble getting a restraining order on her daughter’s behalf, she assumed other parents might encounter the same challenge.

She reached out on Facebook to state Rep. Tim Josephson, a Canaan Democrat. She hadn’t met him, but knew he had children at Indian River Middle School, where her kids go.

Peterson explained her predicament.

“Really?” he said. “How could this be?”

Josephson did some research. It turned out what Peterson had told him was accurate: In New Hampshire, parents can’t file a restraining order on behalf of their minor child.

He learned that DCYF often lends parents a hand in the these situations, but the department is “so overloaded, some things fall through the cracks.”

Spurred by his conversations with Peterson, he submitted a legislative proposal that “permits a parent or guardian to file a petition for a protective order on behalf of a minor.”

The House Children and Family Law Committee is expected to take up the bill (HB 1475) during the session that starts next month.

The bill is intended to “enable parents and guardians to better protect their children,” Josephson said. “DCYF can only do so much.”

The Vermont Legislature passed a similar bill a few years ago, Windsor County State’s Attorney David Cahill told me.

From what WISE’s O’Neil has seen in New Hampshire, “It doesn’t come up all that often, but it does need to be addressed. There’s a gap in the public policy.

“For any parent who has a concern about their child’s safety, it’s important to have access to a legal remedy.”

I called Charlie Buttrey, a Lebanon criminal defense attorney, to get his take. From what I described, it seems to be a sensible expansion of New Hampshire law pertaining to restraining orders, he said. “It should streamline the process and eliminate any ambiguity with respect to the court’s authority to grant relief.”

Peterson has let Josephson know that she’s willing to go to Concord to talk with lawmakers. At Peterson’s suggestion, the proposed legislation is being called “Jade’s law.”

“She deserves credit for being brave enough to say what had happened to her,” Peterson said. “Having a name (attached to the proposed law) is also a reminder that there’s a real person out there who this happened to.”

Peterson has no qualms about having her daughter’s first name in the public sphere. “She’s not on social media, and has a different last name than I do,” Peterson said. “She could be any Jade in the Upper Valley.”

It’s also important to acknowledge how much Peterson has done already, O’Neil said.

“This mom is doing what she needs to do, and we salute her for that.

“All she wants is for her daughter to be safe.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.