Jim Kenyon: Mother Fights Restraining Order Loophole

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. Geoff Hansen

Published: 2/14/2018 12:24:10 AM
Modified: 2/14/2018 10:26:10 AM

During her emotional testimony before a New Hampshire legislative committee on Tuesday in Concord, Alonda Peterson broke down only once. Considering what Peterson has gone through for the last 10 months to keep her daughter out of harm’s way, I’d say she held up remarkably well.

Last spring, Peterson and her 9-year-old daughter had a heart-to-heart conversation that would break any mother’s heart. After their talk, Peterson felt she had no other choice than to report her father — her daughter’s grandfather — to police.

In May, John Knott Jr., of Canaan, was arrested on charges of sexually assaulting his granddaughter. According to court documents, the alleged incident occurred at the family’s timeshare condo at a North Conway, N.H., resort while Knott was caring for Peterson’s daughter and 11-year-old son during last April’s 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, 61, has pleaded not guilty to aggravated felonious sexual assault, which carries a prison sentence of 10 to 30 years. He currently is out on bail awaiting trial in Carroll County Superior Court.

Actually, it was the fact that Knott had been released from jail that explains why Peterson ended up sitting down with the House Children and Family Law Committee.

In December, I wrote about Peterson’s trials and tribulations of trying to obtain a court order that would prevent Knott from contacting her family, or risk being sent back to jail.

Considering the seriousness of the case, it seemed a reasonable request. Compounding the situation: Knott’s house was only 200 yards away from Peterson’s home in Canaan.

“I didn’t want my daughter to have to see him every single day until he went to trial,” Peterson told the House panel.

On one day in August, Peterson traveled to two Grafton County courthouses to see about getting a permanent restraining order against her father on her daughter’s behalf.

Not possible, she learned.

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.

Hard to believe, but true.

WISE, the Lebanon-based social service organization that assists victims of gender-based violence, tried to help Peterson maneuver through the court system, but made little headway.

Peterson, 36, then reached out to state Rep. Tim Josephson, a Canaan Democrat. After researching the matter, Josephson proposed a bill (HB 1475) to close the “glaring” loophole in state law pertaining to restraining orders.

On Tuesday, the House Children and Family Law Committee held a public hearing.

“This is obviously a problem,” Josephson told the committee. “Something needs to be done about this.”

Peterson’s turn came later. She told the 10 members of the committee how she had gone to police, WISE, the courts and, finally, Josephson for help. “I couldn’t just stand by and not do anything for my daughter,” she said. “It’s just crazy to me that I wouldn’t be able to protect her.”

With Peterson’s eyes welling up, two legislators brought her tissues.

“Thank you for your courage and tenacity,” said state Rep. Kimberly Rice, the Hudson Republican who is chairwoman of the committee, before Peterson returned to her seat.

When I was writing about the case in December, I reached out to Allison Schwartz, Knott’s public defender. She reminded me that, “While it is easy to have an emotional reaction to alleged crimes involving children, Mr. Knott, just like anybody else accused of a crime, is entitled to the presumption of innocence and deserves all protections under the law, just the same as the alleged victim.”

Under the conditions of his release, Knott agreed to have no contact with his granddaughter. He also agreed to move out of Canaan and now lives in Alexandria, N.H., near where he grew up.

Poppi Ritacco, of New Hampshire Legal Assistance, was the only one to testify against the bill, which allows a parent or guardian to file a petition for a protective order on behalf of a minor, alleging abuse by a member of the minor’s family or household.

“While the bill is well intended, it has potential to create negative and devastating consequences for victims,” said Ritacco, an attorney with the nonprofit law firm that represents low-income and elderly clients in civil matters.

“One of the greatest threats an abuser can make toward a victim is that they will lose custody of their children,” Ritacco testified. “The bill offers a tailor-made mechanism for making that threat a reality.”

Josephson acknowledged that it could be an “unintended consequence” of the bill. But it was never meant to be a legal tool that “parents could use as a weapon in a custody battle,” he said.

Committee members that I talked with hope the bill can be tweaked to prevent its misuse, or that changes can be made to current laws governing protective orders.

“There is absolutely a hole” in the current law, said state Rep. Lucy Weber, D-Walpole.

The challenge is finding a way to close it before the end of the legislative session, she said. The committee is due to take up the bill again next week.

“We don’t have a lot of time,” Weber said.

Peterson can relate. When it comes to looking out for her daughter’s well-being, she’s been racing against time for months now.

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

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