What Would You Do? Parents' Worst Nightmare

It's one of the most unbearably thorny questions a parent ever faces -- what would you do if it happened to your child?

On Wednesday, Connecticut attorney Jonathon Edington, 29, was charged with first degree murder for allegedly stabbing his neighbor to death after his wife told him that the man had molested their 2-year-old daughter, according to Edington's bond attorney, Mickey Sherman.

Edington was released on a $1 million bond -- a rare move in a capital murder case, experts said.

The family of the victim, Barry James, 58, released a statement Thursday vigorously denying the abuse charges.

Still, the arrest made headlines across the country and reawakened the national debate on child sexual abuse and vigilante justice.

Nearly 85,000 children were sexually abused in the United States in 2004, the most recent statistics available, according to the National Child Abuse and Neglect Data System.

To gain a better understanding of what parents go through when this happens to their child, ABC News' Law & Justice Unit spoke with seven families about the horror of learning their child had been sexually molested, and the subsequent struggle with sometimes burning desires for immediate relief.

'Worse Than Murder'

"Did he kill the guy?" said Bill Wruck of Brooksville, Fla., whose 11-year-old daughter, Tonya, was molested over a period of months while baby-sitting for a family friend in the early 1990s.

"Good," he said. "That's how I feel about it."

Wruck's wife, Cathy, described in vivid detail the day that she said forever changed their lives, when they learned of their daughter's abuse and her husband nearly ended up in a situation like that of Edington's alleged crime.

"After dealing with it for a couple days, my husband snapped," she said to ABC News.

"There's so many things I can't remember about that time, but I remember that moment. I could see it in his eyes," she said.

"He snapped and grabbed one of his hunting rifles and got into his truck and he left skid marks down the driveway and down the road. And he is a responsible man. He doesn't drive like that."

"He said he was going to kill him. I stood there and thought 'He's going to kill him and go to jail and my daughter's just been molested and I'm going to lose everything,'" she said. "And I just stood there in the driveway, thinking, 'Oh, my God.'"

"I went into the garage -- and we don't drink -- and I took a bottle of whiskey we keep there and sat in there and just drank myself to oblivion."

Cathy's husband went to the man's house, but he wasn't home.

"I just drove around and around, and eventually came to my senses," Bill Wruck said. "If he had been home, my life -- our life -- would have been changed forever."

Molesting a child is "worse than murder," said Sherri Courtney of Bryan, Ohio. "It's a violation of an innocence."

Courtney's 15 year-old daughter was raped by her ex-husband, who is now serving a nine-year prison sentence for the crime.

"My biggest problem was guilt," said another parent, Dawn Toro. "Because I'm the mom! These kids resided in my womb for nine months! How did I not know?"

Visceral Rage

"I can't think of a crime that evokes a more visceral rage," said Manhattan lawyer Michael Dowd, widely credited with pioneering the "battered wife syndrome" criminal defense in the early 1980s.

"You want to scare me?" Dowd said, referring to Edington. "Ask me to live in his shoes for a couple minutes."

"I guess it's the worst news you can get as a parent, other than that your child has been killed," Dowd said.

"And in some cases maybe it's worse. … Because that destroys the notion of my child ever being whole or ever being happy."

Dowd cautioned that there were still a lot of unanswered questions surrounding Monday's alleged murder, but pointed out that prosecution of sexual offenders could be a painful and often losing battle.

"If he's intelligent enough to know that a 2-year-old can't testify, chances are he knew" that a prosecution would be difficult, Dowd said.

"We don't know what, if anything, happened in that house," Dowd said. "We don't know if [Barry] made this guy absolutely off-the-wall crazy when he got there. I've dealt with a lot of parents who have had their children abused, and it makes you absolutely crazy. It makes anybody crazy."


Guilt is another potent consequence of a parent's journey through the emotional minefield of child sexual abuse.

"I felt like I had been violated, and I felt like I had violated her," said one mother who insisted on complete anonymity in return for sharing her experience with ABC News.

Her child had been molested by a service employee that had visited the family home.

"I felt like I was the one who hurt her, because I wasn't there to do my job. I struggled a long time through counseling with that," she said. "I should have figured out a way not to be so stupid as to leave her there with him."

"You have this terrible feeling of 'I didn't do my job,'" said Judy Cornett, who runs Safety Zone Advocacy Inc., a nonprofit group, and the parent of a sexually abused child.

She said a parent's pain upon learning his or her child had been molested was sometimes too much for one person to bear.

"Not only does the parent have their pain, but they have to take on the pain of the child. They have to," Cornett said.

She has been assisting police in tracking sexual predators in the Tampa, Fla., area for more than a decade.

For the Wrucks, the fact that they had missed the signals their daughter was sending still haunts them.

Cathy Wruck recalls her daughter's reluctance to return to her baby-sitting job where they later learned she was being molested.

"She would say, 'I don't want to go. I don't feel like it,' [and] we'd say, 'C'mon, you love kids. What is your problem?'" Cathy Wruck said.

Wruck said she had worried her daughter would become a "couch potato" if they didn't instill in her a strong work ethic.

"I almost fell apart when I finally found out why," she said.

"The guilt doesn't go away," Wruck said, her voice cracking. "I still think, 'What could I have done differently?'"

Expecting Justice

News of the Connecticut slaying immediately struck an emotional chord with the families that ABC News spoke with Thursday.

With this week's alleged crime, Edington apparently did what, "every American man brags they would do, but they almost never do," said Grier Weeks, executive director of the National Association to Protect Children.

The association is a nonprofit political lobby group that urges state legislatures to toughen laws protecting children.

"In the vast majority of cases [of child sexual abuse], parents are expecting the law to give them justice, and the overwhelming response we hear is incredible frustration, because it's so hard to get justice," Weeks said.

He said parents were often pressured by law enforcement to go along with a plea bargain, usually in the interest of sparing the child the trauma of a trial.

"Good child abuse prosecutors know that if you make an effort to support the child and work with the family, that sometimes it can even be therapeutic," Weeks said. "But the name of the game is often. 'Let's make a deal.' And we often hear from parents, 'What can we do to get a prosecution?'"

It's especially challenging when the charges of abuse involve very young children.

"If there's no physical evidence and no eyewitness, the chances that a [defendant] is going to see the inside of a prison cell is extremely rare," Weeks said.


Anne Lee is deeply frustrated.

As the president of the nonprofit child abuse prevention program From Darkness Into Light, she said she's tired of reading news stories about the lurid details of sex crimes against children, without any accompanying information about how to stop it.

She said that while information was widely available about preventing colon and breast cancer, and teen drug abuse or suicide, that there was less attention paid to child abuse.

"Prevention of child abuse is not rocket science," Lee said.

She is an adult survivor of child sexual abuse and said, "We don't have to raise hundreds of millions of dollars to go into a lab to find a cure. We have to talk about prevention."

She outlines the basic tenets of abuse prevention, which include minimizing one-on-one adult/child interactions, even among trusted family friends, acting on suspicions, learning how to talk to children about abuse, and learning how to spot the often hard-to-read signs of potential abuse.

Lee said that physical signs of sexual abuse were not common, although redness, rashes in the genital area, urinary tract infections, and similar symptoms should be thoroughly investigated.

She urged parents to watch for emotional and behavioral signs as well, including sexual behavior and language that is not age-appropriate and extreme behavior meaning whether the child is "too perfect" or is withdrawn and depressed.

Healing and Scars

The Wruck family now can relatively freely discuss the abuse without reliving that traumatic period in their lives.

That's only after a long process that included years of interfamily discussions, the experience of navigating the legal system, and seeing their daughter's attacker convicted, and also getting counseling for Tonya.

They said they would never forget the rage, guilt and horror of those first few days.

"The bottom line is that you have to get through it, and you can't get through it if you think about [the abuse] because it nauseates you so badly,'' Cathy Wruck said. "You can't control the anger.''

Tonya, now a married mother of two young children, has moved on but hasn't forgotten.

She thinks that if Edington's child was in fact abused by James, that "people should stand up and applaud him."

"Absolutely," she said. "No questions about it."

For More Information on Child Abuse Contact, the Following Organizations:

National Children's Alliance


National Center for Victims of Crimes


National Child Abuse Hotline

http://www.childhelpusa.org or 1-800-4-A-CHILD
National Association to Protect Children


From Darkness To Light


Safety Zone Advocacy Inc.


The Safe Side: http://thesafeside.com/

Reading lists for parents and children on child sex abuse: