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Jim Kenyon: Mother pushes lawmakers to help protect child sexual abuse victims

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on Jan. 28, 2019. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.



Valley News Columnist
Saturday, March 09, 2019

On Wednesday morning, Alonda Peterson walked into a New Hampshire legislative committee room in Concord to testify at a public hearing with the words from a favorite song emblazoned across her black T-shirt:

I Will Make A Change.

For going on two years now, Peterson has lived by those words — determined to persuade New Hampshire legislators that a new state law is needed to better protect children who could be victims of abuse. Vermont already has a law similar to what’s proposed in House Bill 427, Peterson told the House Children and Family Law Committee.

The bill, sponsored by Rep. Tim Josephson, a Canaan Democrat, stalled in committee last year. But Josephson and Peterson, who also lives in Canaan, didn’t give up.

At Wednesday’s hearing, for the second time in 13 months, Peterson told lawmakers the story of her 11-year-old daughter, who is autistic.

Sitting before a dozen legislators, the 38-year-old Peterson spoke slowly and from the heart. “People with disabilities are more likely to be abused,” she said, “because they’re easy targets.”

I’ve written a couple of times about Peterson and her family. In May 2017, Peterson reported her father, John Knott Jr., to Canaan police. Knott was then arrested on charges that he sexually assaulted Peterson’s daughter — his granddaughter — a month earlier.

According to court documents, the alleged incident occurred at the family’s timeshare condo in North Conway, N.H., while Knott was caring for Peterson’s daughter and older son during a school vacation week. Both children were diagnosed at an early age with autism, a developmental disability that can affect a person’s ability to communicate and to interact with others.

Knott, 62, is currently out on bail, after pleading not guilty to aggravated felonious sexual assault, which carries a prison sentence of 10 to 30 years. A pre-trial hearing is scheduled for next month in Carroll County Superior Court in Ossipee.

Knott’s release from jail in August 2017 is what brought Peterson, who works as a home caregiver, to the Statehouse in the first place.

Knott’s house in Canaan was only 200 yards away from the home Peterson shares with her husband and two children. Worried that her father would move back next door after his release, Peterson set about getting a permanent restraining order against him on her daughter’s behalf. “I didn’t want my daughter to have to see him every single day until he went to trial,” Peterson told me in an earlier interview.

But on visits to courthouses in Lebanon and North Haverhill, Peterson learned that under New Hampshire law, restraining orders are mostly for adults who are dealing with threats of domestic violence or stalking by a current or former partner.

Unless Peterson was the one who needed protecting, a restraining order was out of the question.

Peterson then turned to Josephson, her state representative. After talking with Peterson, he saw the loophole in state law pertaining to restraining orders. “She had no way of keeping (Knott) away from her daughter,” Josephson told the committee on Wednesday.

Under the conditions of his release that were eventually ironed out, Knott agreed to have no contact with his granddaughter and move out of Canaan. (I’ve heard that he’s living in northern Grafton County. I called his attorney on Friday, but didn’t hear back.)

Josephson’s bill was shelved last year over concerns raised by New Hampshire Legal Assistance, which provides legal services to the poor, that the measure could potentially be used by one parent against another in child custody battles.

The bill’s amendment makes it clear that restraining orders can’t be obtained to “weaponize a parent against another parent,” Josephson testified. It only allows a parent or a guardian to file a petition for a protective order on behalf of a juvenile, alleging abuse by someone other than a child’s parent.

Erin Jasina, of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, attended Wednesday’s hearing but didn’t testify. She told me that with the revisions, the organization has “no objections.”

If the bill makes it through the House, it advances to the Senate for an April hearing in which Peterson will likely testify again.

She won’t have to go it alone. On Wednesday, a dozen members of a group called Bikers Against Child Abuse lined the walls of the House committee room. The nonprofit, which started in 1995, offers support to young abuse victims and their families.

When asked, the bikers accompany children to court hearings and get to know them through social activities. “We support kids so they don’t have to be afraid,” Derreck Wells, of Pelham, N.H., said in testimony Wednesday.

Wells and the other bikers wore leather vests and jackets with their biker nicknames to the hearing. “We use that biker image to our advantage,” Wells told lawmakers. “But we’re not vigilantes. We don’t chase these (alleged) abusers down.”

The proposed law will help hundreds of children in New Hampshire, Wells said. “This is not something that just one mom needs,” he said.

Some of the bikers have visited Peterson and her family at their home in Canaan. Her daughter attended a spaghetti dinner organized by bikers and joined other kids they work with at a trampoline park.

“They’ve become my daughter’s friends,” Peterson said. “They make her feel strong and not afraid.”

After the hearing, I asked Peterson about her T-shirt. The band that plays the song is Nahko and Medicine For The People, which I had to Google. When Peterson heard the band’s 2016 album that included the “I will make a change” lyric, she adopted it as her mantra.

“I’ve learned you shouldn’t be intimidated,” she said. “I’m taking what happened to our family as an opportunity to make change. I need to keep pushing to help other moms and dads protect their kids.”

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