By Rosemarie D’Alessandro
Forty-one years ago, I survived one of the most horrific experiences anyone could ever have to go through: the rape and murder of my seven-year-old daughter, Joan, at the hands of a neighbor to whom she was delivering Girl Scout cookies. He lived just three houses away and claimed that he knew how to lure children because he was a teacher. Her case became an historic one, causing changes in Girl Scout rules and making parents more vigilant in how they monitored their children. In a way, society would never be quite so innocent again.
Since then, I have worked to find ways to help protect other families from a similar experience, while commemorating my daughter and all she gave to the world during her brief time here. Through social action, setting up a new foundation, and creating a memorial, I have found new meaning and the strength to go on.
Joan was a happy, contented child with a twinkle in her eyes and a smile that warmed your heart. She stood up for herself, even at three years old, without reservation. She had a gentleness about her that went along with her spunkiness and social nature. Her outgoing character was balanced with enjoying peaceful times alone. She wasn’t afraid to try out a new experience such as ice skating or diving from the high board, putting herself into it wholeheartedly. A classmate told me how Joan brought her into the group and made her feel accepted.
I will always remember her last words she spoke to me as she ran out the door: “I will be right back.”
The loss was so great. I went through three months of complete shock; the smallest things could cause me enormous pain. But I knew I had to make a decision about whether to move forward, and I chose to live my life. To me, her death on Holy Thursday and being found on Easter Sunday was in its own way a message of hope.
The meaning of this message became all the more clear in 1993 when I found out that her killer was eligible for parole, 20 years after my child’s murder. I knew that I had to fight this. I began a grassroots movement by speaking to the media and starting a petition and ribbon campaign, in her favorite color green, to advocate for the denial of parole for the killer. Eighty thousand signatures helped to keep him in prison.
I would have to fight again each time the killer became eligible for parole, raising awareness of the safety of all children and families. During this process I saw a bigger picture, and that something had to be done to change this process. I therefore fought for the adoption of laws guaranteeing that such criminals would remain behind bars for life without the possibility of parole. We found success with Joan’s Law, which mandates that anyone who murders a child during the commission of a sex crime will never get out of prison. However, it is not retroactive and cannot apply to us.
But, at least three Joan’s Laws were signed and went into effect in New York, New Jersey, and finally on the federal level. I remember standing in front of the Capitol steps with Marc Klaas and Congressman Bob Frank as we pushed for Joan’s Law and other, stronger child safety regulations. At present, I am working on a new law in New Jersey to expand Joan’s Law to protect children under 18. Hopefully, Joan’s Law can be the goal for other states as well.
I continue to commemorate Joan in other ways as well. In 1998, Joan’s special inspiration guided me to form the Joan Angela D’Alessandro Memorial Foundation. The Foundation helped bring attention to child protection safety, enrich the lives of at-risk and underprivileged children, and promote victims’ rights.
Since its formation, more than 19 fundraisers have been held and the Foundation has donated funds through its Fun, Education, and Safety Program. At-risk children and youth from Paterson and Passaic, NJ, have been able to go to the Washington, DC, Radio City Music Hall in New York, the Amish Country, and the New Jersey shore. The YCS Holly Center in Hackensack, NJ, has been able to take 65 children to Great Adventure for a dream day and children from the Jumoke School in Connecticut have been able to learn about careers with working dogs.
Then, in 2013, the 40th anniversary of Joan’s passing, I began to work on a project that would ensure that Joan and the safety of all children would never be forgotten. This past June my vision became reality with the creation of the Joan Angela D’Alessandro White Butterfly Sculpture and Garden in the center of the town of Hillsdale, NJ, by the train station. This permanent granite sculpture tells Joan’s story and stands with pride in the midst of a colorful, lush garden with a custom-made bench that has Joan’s signature on it. The White Butterfly that is carved on the front of the sculpture is a symbol of Joan’s spirit bringing hope and joy. It became a sign after I saw a white butterfly at the site where Joan’s body was found in 2006.
The sculpture and the surrounding garden will leave a lasting impression on all who view it for many years to come, and help to spread Joan’s story and promote social justice and child protection awareness. Joan’s legacy goes on with all the children she has saved and continues to save. Wouldn’t it be impactful if there were child safety sculptures and gardens in other states too?