Grieving parents turn pain of losing child into activism

The Record (Hackensack, N.J.)January 7, 2014 

LIFE SELF-PARENTAL-ACTIVISM 1 HK

CARMINE GALASSO/THE RECORD/MCTRosemarie D’Alessandro, of Hillsdale, N.J., whose daughter Joan was murdered in 1973, has become a victims advocate.

CARMINE GALASSO — MCT

HACKENSACK, N.J. -- Forty years ago, Rosemarie D’Alessandro’s 7-year-old daughter, Joan, was raped and murdered by a neighbor while delivering two boxes of Girl Scout cookies to his home -- three doors down and across the street.

But it was a phone call 20 years later -- when she learned the man responsible for Joan’s death was up for parole -- that thrust the quiet Hillsdale, N.J., homemaker into the role of forceful victims’ advocate and helped her to make some sense of the unfathomable.

Today, D’Alessandro’s story is well-known. She has worked tirelessly for the past 20 years to pass a cadre of state and federal versions of Joan’s Law, which carries a mandatory life sentence for anyone convicted of sexually assaulting and killing a minor younger than 14. But she’s not alone.

Recently, the families of victims in Newtown, Conn., marked the one-year anniversary of the massacre of 20 schoolchildren and six adults with quiet, private memorials. Elsewhere in the nation, there are people who have experienced the unimaginable -- losing a child unexpectedly from violence, suicide or accident. A few of them have come out of it like D’Alessandro with a new purpose in life, hoping to reverse what seems to be a profound injustice.

“It’s really hard because after you lose a child, you feel like your world has crumbled,” said Joyce Davis of Warren Township, N.J., whose 4½-month-old son, Garret, accidentally suffocated between a mattress and the mesh siding of his crib. “You’re not ready to face the world. You’re not ready to fight for anything but your child or your family.”

Davis said she was so “angry” after Garret’s death in 2000 that it was five years before she decided to take action. Her deep depression was taking its toll on her family, so much that one of her daughters didn’t want to go to school one day because she knew Davis would be home crying.

It was then that she pulled herself together to make sure what happened to her baby would not happen again, and to show her three daughters that she could heal, too, even after years of grieving.

Davis’ husband already had been researching crib safety issues relentlessly as the products they purchased had no warning about accidents readily available. The couple then took the reins of Keeping Babies Safe, a foundation established after a similar situation, to make information about consumer products easily available and to donate cribs to families in need. The couple also lobbied to pass a national crib safety law, which was signed by former President George W. Bush in 2008.

Deborah Carr, a sociologist at Rutgers University whose research focuses on bereavement, aging and end-of-life issues, said in all deaths of loved ones, people often go through a period of depression then tend to bounce back. But when the deaths are premature or traumatic, the response can be more extreme -- and some say such experiences can never be overcome completely, she said.

Peggy Frazier O’Connor, a film producer in Texas, is working on a TV series called “In Search of Steel Magnolias,” which tracks the lives of women who overcome tragedy to help society. As Joan’s baby sitter, she also has partnered with D’Alessandro to create a short film to teach lawmakers about Joan’s Law in hopes expanding it across the country.

O’Connor said families or individuals who go through such trauma can crumble. But the women she is featuring -- including D’Alessandro -- have not only recovered but made great accomplishments, often with no experience or funding behind them.

D’Alessandro, trained in special education, said she knew nothing about working to pass laws or keeping criminals in prison. She also did not realize her purpose immediately but was eventually moved to spare another family from the wrenching pain of sitting through a spate of parole hearings -- each time reopening old wounds.

After learning her child’s killer could be set free, D’Alessandro made hundreds of calls to state lawmakers and circulated a petition to keep Joseph McGowan in jail. McGowan’s parole has been denied four times so far. Ironically, McGowan does not fall under Joan’s Law because he was convicted before the bill was signed in 1997.

“I never thought that I would become a child advocate and a victims’ rights advocate. I just did it because it was the right thing to do,” D’Alessandro said.

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