This past weekend news outlets nationwide and as far away as Britain reported that a wealthy Dallas socialite was recently charged with possession and distribution of child pornography by federal authorities.
While child pornography isn't new and an individual case is rarely headline news, the socio-economic status and gender of the accused housewife in this case brought attention to a defendant and her family that otherwise might been ignored by all but the local nightly news and the back page of the Dallas Morning News.
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the seriousness of an allegation of a child pornography or sex crime. Besides the frightening prospects of conviction and incarceration, the consequences of these allegations affect many more than the accused. The stigma of a mere allegation can stain every family member, friend, and associate of the accused, straining or ending personal and professional relationships that may have existed for a lifetime, even a marriage.
Imagine, for starters, the husband of this woman, an attorney. He's at work and he receives a call, perhaps from his wife, perhaps from a federal agent. He is surprised. It cannot seem real as he is told that his own home is being raided, searched for contraband, child pornography to be exact, that he had no idea and never dreamed ever existed within its walls. And then, as he begins to protest, declare his intent to return home immediately – he is told it is true; she confessed. The woman he loves, that he probably knew for years before marriage and every year since, that he has shared every part of his life, bared body and soul to, is someone he never knew existed, or has a problem – a desire, obsession, or sickness – perhaps resulting from some early adolescent trauma he did know about – he had no inkling and never could have dreamt of.
What does he say to his colleagues as he leaves the office? What will he say when he returns? What will he say when he gets home? To the agents? To his wife? To his neighbors and family? The anger, the hurt, the shame is only beginning. How will he face anyone? How can he?
Some neighbors and acquaintances will probably never look at her the same again. Even worse, some may have their own suspicions about his level of knowledge about what allegedly transpired in his own home, reportedly over a decade or more, despite the wife's statements of his innocence. The stares, the whispers, the coldness that may result from the news reports of crimes, that even if true, he had no role in and knew nothing about are something he may not escape any more easily than the turmoil he may feel within himself for not knowing. Everyone close to her may find themselves in the position of Peter on that Friday morning so many centuries ago.
And yet he is not alone. The families and friends of people accused of heinous and minor crimes everywhere face a similar ordeal. The financial cost of defending a loved one is often less burdensome than the emotional impact and stigma of their alleged crimes. Families are collateral damage. The emotional trauma and scars they suffer may be equal or second only to those borne by the actual crime victim, if there is one, even if their loved one is ultimately acquitted.
Too rarely, in my experience, do the families of my clients seek appropriate professional or spiritual guidance for their own experience with the criminal justice system. It's something that those of us within the system see on a daily basis. It is not at all rare for defense attorneys, judges, jurors, and even prosecutors, to comment on the torment that a defendant's family must be experiencing or that is apparent from their demeanor. But I've yet to attend a Continuing Legal Education course, or seen one advertised, that meaningfully addressed the subject. But there is help out there.
If you have a loved one accused of a crime, don't try to bear the strain alone. Seek appropriate counseling. If that's from a priest, a therapist, an M.D. or a PhD, or just a really good friend, get the help you need.