Girl, Interrupted

The Ordeal That Binds the Mother of an Incest Victim and Reverend Al Sharpton

JOYCELYN CHARLES WAS SIX YEARS ahead of the January 10, 2000 deadline set by the state division of parole, which had been expecting her to file a victim-impact statement. Dreading the possible April 2000 release of the man convicted of raping her daughter, Charles —a staunch proponent of the proposal to end parole for all sex offenders— embarked on a crusade to deny William Cosby an early release.

Cosby, Charles's former live-in boyfriend, is serving a six-to-18-year sentence for raping and sodomizing Charles's daughter in 1993. The child was 10 at the time. Cosby, who was convicted in 1994, has served the minimum of six years and is scheduled for an early parole as mandated by law.

Charles, who runs her own cleaning service, claims that Cosby will carry out a threat to stalk and kill her and her family when he gets out of prison. "I want this fear to go away," the mother of three cried last month as she pressed a tattered Polaroid of her then 10-year-old daughter to her breast. "I keep imagining how we would all die if the parole board makes it easy for him to kill."

On April 28, 1995, in one of its intermittent appeals for her continued cooperation in determining whether Cosby should remain behind bars, the parole board invited Charles to make her statement in person. Regardless of what the law requires, she says she told a member of the board, William Cosby must never be set free.

"Mr. Cosby is very dangerous," Charles reiterated in a letter to the Impact Statement Unit of the New York State Division of Parole. "He said when he gets out, he will fuck us all up." Charles reminded the unit that she was still living at the same address, "thus making us a helpless prey for his retaliation." Although her daughter is now almost 18, Charles insists the scars from her ordeal have not healed. "My kid still experience[s] constant nightmares despite continuous counseling," Charles wrote. "A mere sighting at this point of Mr. Cosby would further hurt our efforts to forget and forgive. . . . "

Releasing Cosby, "who committed such a heinous crime against a child, after serving a fraction of his . . . sentence," Charles argued, "would be rewarding him for destroying the lives of other children who might come into contact with him. . . . In my opinion, there is no amount of time Mr. Cosby can serve which will adequately pay for what he did to my child and my family."

As the parole hearing for Cosby draws near, Charles criticizes advocates of parole who claim that the state parole board, under the growing influence of members appointed by Governor George Pataki, has been unfairly denying supervised release to violent felons who apply for it. Charles says she is more concerned about authorities losing track of Cosby if he is released. New York State has a law that requires anyone convicted of serious sex offenses to register with police and provide details regarding their employment and place of residence, as well as driver's license and vehicle registration information. Prosecutors must classify offenders considered dangerous into one of three levels. Neighbors are to be notified of the presence of Level 3 offenders—those deemed most likely to commit new crimes. Certain community organizations are to be notified of Level 2 offenders, but only law enforcement agencies are to be notified for Level 1 offenders.

"The protection they offer people like us is not adequate," Charles maintains. "Convicted felons like William Cosby slip through the cracks every day; they are bent on revenge. Will the police be watching me and my family 24-7? I don't think so." Charles has been surfing the Internet, checking for Web sites that legally post the names, addresses, and photographs of convicted sex offenders.

"I don't care about William Cosby's rights!" Charles exclaims. "He is a danger-ous convicted rapist, who has threatened to kill!" Within days of Cosby's release, Charles intends to contact the National Sex Offender Registry. Created by the FBI last fall, the registry alerts law enforcement in every state to the status of offenders convicted anywhere in the country. Charles says she hopes to obtain a recent picture of Cosby and other biographical information, which she will send to the registry. "I will do everything I can to protect my family from this man who came into my life, betrayed my trust, and raped my daughter," she vows.

 

IN 1991, WILLIAM COSBY ALLEGEDLY gained the trust of Joycelyn Charles's 10-year-old daughter, then started having sex with her and warned her not to tell anyone. But the child, wracked with guilt, eventually told her mother. "My daughter disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted for the past [three years] by my male partner," Charles would later recall in a letter to Frank Puig, then deputy commissioner of the Division of Services in the New York State Department of Social Services.

"Learning about this caused me great pain and I wanted to do whatever I could to help my daughter," she added. "Little did I know what would happen when I took her to the hospital for an exam." Documents obtained by the Voice show that on August 14, 1993, Charles won an order of protection, prohibiting Cosby from coming near her daughter.

After Cosby was arrested, Charles was ill-prepared for the emotional roller coaster young rape victims and their mothers go through. "For the next several days, it was hard to understand what was going on," Charles wrote in her letter to Puig. The distraught mother reached out to the Multidisciplinary Response Project in Brooklyn. "The coordinator provided support to my daughter and me, explained what would happen, and accompanied us to interviews with the district attorney," she noted. "Once those first few weeks were over, we received ongoing support from the Victim Services Family Assistance Project."

By the time the trial got under way in the summer of 1994, Charles's daughter had drummed up the courage to face her attacker once again. "My daughter testified and he was convicted," Charles said in her letter. "In July, I had the opportunity to speak before the judge at the sentencing hearing. I never expected to be able to speak in such a setting but I felt strengthened by the support I have received."

With Cosby sent to prison, Charles immersed herself in working for other child victims of rape and incest. "I know how few other children's or families' cases ever get to court so I wanted to speak for them as well," she told Puig in her query about start-up funds to launch her own center modeled after the Child Advocacy Planning Group. "The support I received was wonderful, but the creation of a Brooklyn Child Advocacy Center would be even better. As I understand it, the center would help eliminate many of the interviews we had to go through in those early days." Charles does not have her Child Advocacy Center, but she has not stopped fighting "for the other families who will have to go through this painful experience."

 

REVEREND AL SHARPTON SAYS IT'S tragic cases like the daughter of Joycelyn Charles that motivated him to reactivate a sex-abuse hotline he installed three years ago at his National Action Network in Harlem. Sharpton had set up the line after meeting with special schools investigator Ed Stancik over complaints from some students that they had been sexually harassed by teachers. "This woman's story hits home to me; I know the terror of living under that situation," says Sharpton, referring to an illicit affair recounted in his autobiography, Go and Tell Pharaoh, that his father, Alfred Sharpton Sr., had with his 18-year-old stepsister, Tina. The two moved out of the family home and later had a child together. (Sharpton's father, who resides in Florida, could not be reached for comment.)

Sharpton was five when his mother, Ada, and his father left Brooklyn and relocated in Hollis, a black, middle-class section of Queens, which was emerging from the dust of white flight. Sharpton lived in a 10-room house with Tina, another sister, Joy, and his brother, Sonny, who were in their late teens. His father was a successful contractor who bought the family a new Cadillac every year.

By the age of nine, Sharpton had learned of rumors about a sexual affair between his father and Tina—rumors that developed into a full-blown family scandal.

"My mother didn't believe it," Sharpton says.

Ada Sharpton confronted her daughter, who moved out of the house and stayed with her stepfather in an apartment in Brooklyn. The elder Sharpton stopped visiting his wife and children. One day young Al and Joy persuaded their mother to allow their father to take them to Tina's apartment.

"That's when we knew it was true," recalls Sharpton, who by then was almost 10, and had been ordained as a minister and dubbed "The Wonder Boy Preacher." He says his mother reluctantly tolerated the affair until Tina was impregnated by his father.

"My mother had to be rushed to the hospital; she almost had a nervous breakdown," Sharpton remembers.

Ada and Alfred Sharpton Sr. were legally separated, plunging the family into a life of poverty and welfare. Fortunately, the fiery sermons of the boy preacher brought in $50 and $75 donations.

After Tina gave birth to a boy named Kenny in 1965, Sharpton and his family moved into the Albany projects in the Brownsville section of Brooklyn. Sharpton saw Kenny for the first time in 1969.

"He looked just like me when I was a kid," the minister says.

Shortly before Kenny's fifth birthday, Tina and and her stepfather broke off their relationship. He "went West, somewhere," as Sharpton put it, and Tina got married.

When Kenny was almost 10, Tina and her mother reconciled.

"I could never understand how," says Sharpton. "How?" the precocious boy asked his mother, "How could you talk to her? She went with your husband and she had this baby."

But Ada Sharpton blamed her husband and showed more sympathy toward Tina, a naive young girl who had been seduced by her stepfather.

"No matter what she did, that's my daughter," she told Sharpton. "I'll never give up on any y'all."

Although Sharpton hoped that his father some day would tell him he did not intend for this dreadful thing to happen, he and Joy became traumatized by the shame of the affair.

"Joy and I just couldn't deal with it," he reflects today. Sharpton and Joy grew up to despise their father: To them, no story he could concoct could explain why he had seduced someone he'd considered his own flesh and blood.

After the reconciliation, Sharpton and Joy began to see more of Tina and her impressionable 10-year-old boy. Sharpton resented Tina, but "loved Kenny" because Kenny, Joy, and he "were victims" in this family nightmare. After Tina's marriage failed, she and Kenny moved to Alabama. But 10 years ago, Kenny discovered the truth about his father and turned to a life of crime, according to Sharpton.

Sharpton pledges to reach out to Joycelyn Charles and work closely with her to help her realize her dream of running a child-advocacy center. The civil rights leader and former mayor Ed Koch have been pushing a second-chance program for nonviolent offenders. Sharpton says, however, that he empathizes with Charles's fear about the possible release of her daughter's rapist and would urge the parole board to keep him locked up if the allegation that he intends to kill the family upon his release is substantiated. "If it's true that he wants this family dead after he is released he's not asking for a second chance," Sharpton argues. "Repentence comes before redemption."

 

Additional reporting: Danielle Douglas

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