Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Other Victims of Crime: Family Members of Criminals

In April the Canadian government tabled Bill C-32, the victim’s bill of rights. It is designed to provide victims of crime and their families with "courtesy, compassion and respect."

This is a good thing. But there’s another group of people out there who also need assistance: Family members of criminals.

In 2013 I wrote about my friend Bill, a deacon in a Roman Catholic parish in Quebec, who was charged with manufacturing and distributing child pornography. In February, he plead guilty to the charges. He will be sentenced in May.

I am sorry for Bill, and for his victims. But as I wrote back then, I feel sorry for his family, too. Bill’s life is now in the hands of the justice system. He has people checking on him, evaluating him, maybe even trying to help rehabilitate him. But who will attend to the needs of his wife and children? As it turns out, there’s not much available for the other victims of crime—the criminal’s loved ones and friends.

What do you do when a friend is accused of a crime? And what if that crime is creating and disseminating child pornography?

Before Christmas, I learned that one of my friends was arrested and charged with that crime.

The news came as a shock. Although he lives in another province and we haven’t communicated for a long time, I have always admired his skills and abilities and valued and appreciated our conversations.

But now he faces very serious charges—and I'm conflicted. On the one hand, how can I not be repulsed by what he is accused of doing?

On the other hand, I want to reach out, to be of support in some way, let him know that I still value our friendship.

But if I do that, will people think I don't take the crime of child pornography seriously? Will I be judged for wanting to still be his friend? Worse, would I be considered guilty by association?

And what about my friend's wife and childrenhow do they feel? Are they getting the support they need?

It was while pondering this that I realized that crime involves more than just the offender, the victim and the victim's family and friends. It happens to the offender's family and friends, too.

The difference is that while there are services and supports for victims and their families, there isn't much to help people whose loved one commits a crime.

When it comes to support for families of people accused or convicted of crimes, "there isn't much available," says Joan Carolyn, director of Winnipeg’s Circles of Support and Accountability, a church-supported program that helps sex offenders reintegrate into society.

A few services exist, she says, but they are "usually parts of other programs, a subsection of working with offenders."

The result, she says, is that families of the accused or offenders are on their own, struggling to find ways to support their loved one but still take the crime seriously.

One person who knows only too well what it's like to go through this is Canadian Shannon Moroney.  In 2005 her then-husband, Jason Staples, was arrested and jailed for sexually assaulting two women.

Following her husband's arrest, Moroney found herself on her own, the target of accusations, judgment and blame.

“I even lost my job,” she says. “Police victims' services turned me away. Upon learning that I had visited Jason, some people demanded to know what was wrong with me."

Of her experience, Moroney says that families of offenders face an uphill battle to overcome the stigma of guilt by association, and to regain control of their lives.

“At times I felt so vulnerable and desperate that I wished I could trade places with Jason—that I could have 24 hours a day in solitude, a place to think and three meals a day delivered to me—instead of having to mop up the disaster he had left behind," she says.

All this makes me wonder: Is there a place for faith groups to step up and provide a hand? Or even just a listening ear—some way of helping family members cope with the huge disruption in their lives. 

Meantime, I will pray that my friend’s family will find the support they need during this difficult time. I will also pray for those victimized by child pornography.

And I will pray for my friend, too.

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