Mother of assaulted teen on a mission to educate
The Aspen Times
With the crime a 16-year-old boy committed against her special-needs daughter still weighing on her mind, Elizabeth Sanders is speaking out.
Sanders — the name attributed to her for this story is fictitious in order to protect her daughter’s identity — is the mother of a local high school student with autism. The girl, also 16, was sexually assaulted in June in the dugout of a playing field a short walk away from the Aspen Recreation Center. She and her attacker had met a few days earlier at the Aspen Youth Center, which uses space in the municipal recreation facility off Maroon Creek Road and near the local school district campus.
The boy, who lives in another state and was said to be visiting relatives in Aspen at the time of the incident, pleaded guilty to felony sexual assault in Pitkin County Juvenile Court on Nov. 3. In court, under questioning from District Judge Gail Nichols, he admitted that he had sexual relations with someone who was “incapable of appraising the conduct.”
Sentencing was set for Dec. 15. The boy is expected to receive probation and a deferred judgment in the matter, should Nichols accept terms of the plea agreement. Because he is a juvenile, his case file is not available for public inspection.
“Was she incapable of understanding what the two of you were doing?” Nichols asked the boy.
“Yes,” he said.
Nichols told him that his sentence likely will involve intense counseling.
During an interview with The Aspen Times last week, Sanders said she wanted to talk about the case to explain the inherent difficulties in pursuing justice for her daughter.
Initially, the investigators and the assistant district attorney assigned to the case did not believe they had enough evidence to move forward with the prosecution and obtain a conviction, according to Sanders and others associated with the case.
Sanders, with the help of area victims’ advocates, pressed on, refusing to accept their assessments.
“The whole point is: What do we learn from this as a community?” Sanders said. “The community needs to be aware of these cases. We have people with special needs in this valley. They deserve the respect that everybody has. They have rights.”
Margaret Bender is a community builder for Valley Life for All, a Basalt nonprofit that seeks to build bridges between people with and without disabilities.
She explained that mothers of children with disabilities are used to “fighting systems” of all kinds.
“It’s unfortunate, but that’s the only way our kids will succeed,” said Bender, who assisted Sanders throughout the ordeal. “As parents of children with special needs, we learn when our kids are born that you don’t take ‘No’ for an answer.
“That’s what mothers do — they advocate for their kids.”
The crime was reported by a youth center staffer to Aspen police on the morning of June 13 after Sanders’ confused daughter returned to the building in tears.
The investigation revealed that the teenage girl had sex with the boy. According to Sanders and Bender, she didn’t understand what was happening before, during and after the event.
“She kept telling him to stop,” Sanders said. “He didn’t stop. He told her to relax.”
Because of the girl’s autism, which prevents her from expressing herself clearly — as well as the boy’s contention that the activity was consensual — the case against him was fraught with problems.
Hours after the incident and a hospital examination, an interview between police and the girl was conducted at River Bridge, a children’s advocacy center in Glenwood Springs. The youth responded with basic answers, which did not give much weight to the belief that she was raped, Bender and Sanders said.
“I saw about five minutes of the video,” Sanders said. “I felt sick to my stomach. I said, ‘This is not my daughter.’ She was not herself, not part of the reality.”
That blank response is how an autistic person often processes trauma, Bender said.
They say that the boy had to know that something was different about the girl after spending time with her at the youth center. They believe that he sensed her vulnerability and “groomed” her for a few days before the assault. Initially, he only told authorities that he thought she “talked too loud,” Sanders said.
The girl’s autism is apparent after spending just a few minutes with her, they said. Her physical mannerisms and thought processes are easily recognizable, even for a 16-year-old boy.
To them, the boy showed signs of being a sexual predator. They wanted the case prosecuted — not to put him behind bars for several years but so that he could be given the opportunity of rehabilitation, reducing the likelihood of a repeat offense.
A CERTAIN LENS
Jill Gruenberg is an advocacy and program coordinator for Response, an Aspen nonprofit that helps to empower and educate victims of domestic violence and sexual assault.
Gruenberg also supported Sanders as she navigated through the legal system over the past five months.
“(Sanders) is really the one who has been so strong in advocating for a just outcome in the case,” Gruenberg said.
Bender and Sanders credit Aspen felony prosecutor Andrea Bryan for moving the case forward at a time when it appeared all hope for a prosecution was lost. Gruenburg said it’s not uncommon for prosecutors and police to fail to understand the complexities of crimes against people with disabilities.
“I was with (Sanders) when she was initially told that an arrest would not be happening,” Gruenburg said. “She was frustrated and disappointed. She felt that the agencies involved didn’t really have all the information that they needed and enough of an understanding about (the girl) and her disability.
“They were looking at the crime through a lens that they would look at if it were any victim, without recognizing the unique vulnerability of a victim with special needs. (Sanders) pushed them to explain why they couldn’t prosecute. She was fierce, in a graceful and noncombative way.”
Sexual-assault perpetrators have a pattern of seeking out potential victims who are accepting, vulnerable and lacking in credibility, she said. They try to build trust before committing their crimes.
“That’s their usual M.O.,” Gruenberg said. “A person with a developmental disability can make for a vulnerable target. That was something the perpetrator very consciously identified and preyed on. (The victim) had no ability to give consent.”
Sanders said that with the help of a therapist, her daughter is making some progress following the incident.
But she has little or no trust in people. She struggles with it every day. She tends to keep to herself more than she did before.
Sanders is hopeful, though.
“This will make her stronger,” she said.
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The 10th Circuit Court of Appeals this week affirmed the dismissal of a lawsuit against the city of Aspen that challenged its zoning laws concerning Mill Street Plaza, which is home to locally serving businesses.