An allegation by Jerry Sandusky’s former daughter-in-law that he sexually molested one of her three children adds fresh complications to Mr. Sandusky’s attempts to win visitation rights with all his grandchildren.
Jill Thomas, who is in a custody battle with one of Sandusky’s sons, said in a statement Monday that her father-in-law “inappropriately touched” her son. Authorities have investigated the claim and decided there is not enough evidence to press charges.
Ms. Thomas, however, has vowed to fight any attempt to allow the former Penn State University football coach to see her children. On Monday, a judge granted Sandusky the right to be visited by his other eight grandchildren, all minors, but left the decision regarding Thomas’s children to the judge presiding over the custody case.
Sandusky’s attorney suggested to the Philadelphia Inquirer that his client is being used as a chip in the custody battle. But legal experts say that judges’ rulings typically err on the side of caution.
Thomas’s statement “should play heavily in the discretion that the judge exercises in what kind of access [Sandusky] has to her kids,” says Andrew Pollis, a professor at Case Western Reserve University School of Law in Cleveland.
In most cases, he adds, “judges are always going to … rule in favor of the children when there has been evidence of misconduct.”
Thomas said in her statement that her son informed her of the abuse following Sandusky’s arrest in November. Judge John Cleland, who handed down Monday’s ruling, wrote that Thomas “strongly objects to any contact between her children” and Sandusky.
Thomas criticized Judge Cleland’s ruling in her statement, saying she “cannot understand how a court could place the desires of someone who is criminally charged with sexually abusing children above the safety of children.”
“I do not believe it is safe for my children, or any children, to be around Jerry Sandusky,” she said.
Sandusky pleaded not guilty to charges that he sexually abused 10 boys during a 15-year period. His defense team provided letters and drawings from Sandusky’s grandchildren to Sandusky, arguing that the bond restrictions placed on Sandusky were disrupting his family.
Monday’s ruling allows Sandusky visits from his grandchildren at his house as well as talk with them on the phone and via e-mail, text, and Skype. The visits must involve one of the child’s parents.
It is not unusual that courts sometimes rule in favor of reacquainting a person charged with child abuse with minors in their family, says Jim Hmurovich, president of Prevent Child Abuse America, an advocacy organization in Chicago.
But Mr. Hmurovich says judges who are adequately trained on child-protection issues are made aware of data that show how child abuse overwhelmingly involves an abuser who is close to the child, not necessarily a stranger.
“What happens if that child was molested or hurt by Mr. Sandusky? What does that do to that child – seeing the person they thought they were safe from being back in their lives,” he says. “Those situations are very traumatic for children.”
It is unclear whether the public allegation will have an impact on Cleland’s ruling. Cleland can do nothing, or he can invite Thomas to testify under oath why she believes Sandusky is a threat, not just to her children, but also to the other children in the family.
Sandusky’s attorneys say that Thomas’s children provided letters that reflected their desire to see their grandfather, suggesting that Thomas’s claims of abuse are not credible.
However Mr. Hmurovich says letters from children are “absolutely not” evidence that abuse did not necessarily take place, since young victims are often not aware of what constitutes abuse or may be fearful of their abuser.
“Under no condition should children be put in a position to defend themselves,” Hmurovich says. “It is an adult’s responsibility to keep the child safe, not the child’s.”