Change of heart
No one likes child molesters. But what happens when the pedophile is your own son?
Sacramento resident LaVette Columbo had a strict view of the world in 2002, born of 10 years as a volunteer court-appointed special advocate in Oregon, arguing the rights of victims abused by child molesters. The 60-year-old Columbo’s view? “Pedophiles are scum,” she recalls. “Shoot the bastards.”
Then a torturous set of events blew her life apart.
In September 2002, after not being able to reach her 37-year-old son, David, for several weeks—they had always been close—her daughter called from Antioch, Ill. to tell her the horrible news: David’s place was plastered with crime-scene tape. The local paper that morning had splashed the story of David’s arrest and confession to a 10-year-long relationship with an underage boy. The boy, 18, had come forward and supplied the story to which David confessed. “The paper had all the gory details,” Columbo says.
One victim, 146 counts of child molestation. Ten years in the making. A double life. A mother in anguish. How could she reconcile what she was hearing and reading with the gentle, articulate, creative son she knew?
“I felt like my son died, the son I knew,” Columbo explains in her Midtown apartment, which she shares with her two dogs. Recalling the first few months following David’s arrest, she said, “I didn’t know what to do or where to turn. He was an adult, 37, and no one would tell me anything about his whereabouts. I was a novice in the system, even though I had all this experience as a child advocate. But as a parent, I knew nothing.”
She was finally able to set up a 20-minute phone call through David’s public defender, the first time she spoke to him after his arrest. There was crying on both ends throughout most of it. “He said he didn’t deserve to breathe the same air as Joey [his victim] breathed and that he wanted to die,” Columbo remembers. “Mom, I’m so sorry I did this to you. I don’t know how you can love me or even speak to me,” he said.
And it was at that moment, Columbo says, she knew “it didn’t matter … that being a child advocate doesn’t matter when it’s your son. The unconditional love a mother has for her child outweighs anything or any crime. I knew I had to come to terms with separating my son from his despicable behavior. So when we finished the conversation, I told him that I would always love him and that I would always be there for him, even though what he did was one of the most horrific things I can think of.”
She would be the only one to stick by her son’s side. David’s sister, stepfather and other relatives made it known early on that they had disowned him.
This was the start of Columbo’s journey, which would challenge and eventually strengthen her faith, test her ability to be alone with her pain and eventually lead her out of the closet to help other parents of adult children in prison.
During the course of her journey, Columbo took courses toward a criminal-justice degree from the University of Phoenix in Sacramento so she could gain firsthand knowledge about how the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation works and apply that knowledge to other prison systems. She was still being stymied by the roadblocks in the Illinois system.
Columbo started researching pedophilia to gain insight into what the medical and psychiatric establishment had to say about its origins. The more she read, the more it became clear, “No one really knows.”
“One person said it could be genetic,” she continues. “A doctor in Canada said it was sexual preference; other theorists say it can be the result of an overdominant mother. So the things I found out made me know the only thing I could do for my son was to love him, because that’s all I know for sure.”
At David’s request, she did not attend his trial, at which he was convicted and later sentenced to 26 years in prison.
He was sent to Pontiac prison, in Pontiac, Ill., the eighth oldest prison in the country. David was supposed to serve his sentence in a work camp adjacent to the prison, in a segregated unit for sex offenders. Columbo found out that wasn’t the case, because on the first day of his incarceration, her son’s rap sheet was posted for all the prisoners to see. Child molesters aren’t treated kindly in the yard.
“He never told me exactly what happened to him,” Columbo says, “only to say that he could easily die in there.”
In October 2002, Columbo was “desperate.” Desperate to share her secret with another mother, desperate for information about the prison system, desperate to speak with her son more often.
“I’d go on the Internet and type in ‘of adult children’ and other keywords. I was so desperate to reach out and get some kind of support,” she says.
Finally, she found a private Yahoo group of a dozen mothers with adult children in prison, where she could share her pain and her questions, and receive support. It’s where she received her information about the prison system in the beginning, and where she’s been able to talk about her faith as it pertains to her son’s crimes and her distress over them.
“It was eye-opening, and it was a lifeline at the time,” Columbo says.
Staying in touch with David in prison proved to be difficult and expensive.
It cost Columbo $40 for each phone call from her son. Prisoners are not allowed to use phone cards and are relegated to the expensive prison phone system, where charges are $5 for the first three minutes and $1 for every additional minute.
“Eventually my telephone was turned off, and they threatened to turn my electricity off,” she says. “I was so far in debt, I had to stop taking care of him, so I could take care of myself first. When someone you love goes to prison, you do that time right along with them.”
Recently, Columbo received some good news. Her son was transferred from Pontiac to Taylorville Correctional Center in Taylorville, Ill., a minimum-security prison where he may be able to receive treatment in a three-year program.
“For the first time, there’s hope,” Columbo says. “There was no hope of treatment at Pontiac. He’s not in shackles all day. He gets decent meals, with milk and salad. For the first time, in his letters, instead of signing it ‘Love ya,’ he signed it ‘Peace, love, and all that stuff,’—like he did when he was a kid. That was huge for me.”
Coming out with her story has helped free Columbo from the shackles of shame, embarrassment and pain.
“There’s something freeing in speaking about it,” she says in soft tones. “After so much silence and so much shame, it’s cathartic.”
Over the intervening six years David has been in prison, Columbo has had a lot of time to think about the needs of parents with adult children in prison. Breaking her silence dovetails with her decision to start a group for parents locally. She hopes to take her idea into Folsom State Prison, Sacramento County jail and California State Prison, Corcoran, “once we get the bugs out,” Columbo said.
The gist of her idea? “To set up a group—Parents Without Bars—where parents can come, face to face, talk about what they know, what they don’t know, what’s hurting them, and support each other,” Columbo says. “Let’s send cards to each other’s kids. Let’s help each other out, help each other understand how we serve the time and make a difference in how we’re serving.
“For me, the difference in my life has been my faith,” she continues. “It’s been praying day after day, after day, many times a day, to turn my son over to God and ask him to take care of David, because I can’t.”
Although the group won’t be religious in nature, it will be safe for parents to share their feelings about faith, God or a “higher power of their own understanding.”
The group’s first meeting has yet to be scheduled; Columbo has the support of the Rev. Dr. David Thompson at Westminster Presbyterian Church, who has agreed to lend meeting space to the group and take Columbo into Folsom State Prison to spread the word.
“I’m excited by this new venture,” Columbo said. “Helping one parent at a time; getting them on their feet, their minds wrapped around what’s happened … that will be very gratifying.”