PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) — When she heard that her 10-year-old daughter had been sexually abused, there were no words.
“I said, ‘this can’t be happening,'” the mother of the victim said. “I was angry, frustrated. Shocked.”
That was only the beginning, as her “little girl” was asked to detail what happened “more than 10 times.”
“She had to keep telling it over and over again,” the mother recalled. “All night long, until 4 in the morning [sometimes] to different people.”
Since 2014, “confirmed claims” of child sexual abuse have shocked nearly 200 Rhode Island families a year, according to statistics compiled by Rhode Island Kids Count.
The other types of child abuse, including “neglect resulting in physical injuries,” add to that already heavy caseload. Last year, there were 450 cases of “physical abuse,” which did not include sexual assaults.
From accusation to prosecution, alleged victims are often interviewed more than a dozen times and if they are brave enough to face the accuser in court, another layer is added to the ordeal.
“She handled it really well,” this particular mother said, looking back on the testimony and cross-examination that resulted in a conviction and prison time for the defendant.
She gives a lot of the credit to her daughter’s strength, but the girl had some help.
Bikers Against Child Abuse roared into Rhode Island late last year, offering at least perceived toughness to traumatized children who were willing to be the key witness in their respective cases.
The local chapter has 30 members and is currently working with 17 alleged victims, who are welcomed into the bikers’ family with a leather vest of their own, and unwavering support.
Joining BACA involves a federal background check and a year of training. The final hurdle is a unanimous vote by the active members.
“We try to empower that child to not be afraid of the world in which they live in.”
Members do not release their real names to avoid potential issues with defendants who might try to find them. Instead, they use kid-friendly nicknames such as Sandman, who’s the president of the Rhode Island chapter.
“We have some marshmallows, and the real deal tough guys,” Sandman said.
Either way, he acknowledges they don’t shy away from the stigma attached to groups of bikers.
“You see 30 members in leather vests on motorcycles and you’re going to be very reluctant to go near whatever they’re near,” Sandman said. “And that happens to be an abused child.”
One local case involved a defendant who threatened the alleged victim’s family.
“The mother was called and was told he was going to come by and shoot [them] all and lay in the grass and wait for the police to come.” Sandman recalled. “All of us took three-hour shifts right through the night until the following morning.”
The defendant never showed, and the bikers were told by the family it was the first night of sleep they’d had since the alleged crime surfaced.
Other times, BACA bikers are no more than tattooed, leather-clad teddy bears.
In the case we profiled, the mother remembers them dancing with her daughter and showing up randomly at their home to drain her kid’s lemonade stand.
“They would dance. They made her feel comfortable,” she said. “They didn’t leave her side. I think they made her feel not afraid. More people there for her. People [had] her back.”
When the cases make it to court, BACA members follow the alleged victims everywhere, sometimes forming a human shield around them as they walk into the courthouse.
They are there as the case proceeds, every so often getting “stared down” by a defendant.
“We don’t go into court to try to intimidate the [defendant.]” Sandman said. “We’re there for one reason, one reason only. And that is to support that child.”
Darla is one of the local chapter’s “child liaisons,” who upon a parent’s request meets the alleged victim and determines if the case is under investigation and headed to court.
Darla and Sandman admit hearing the child’s testimony is heartbreaking.
“I couldn’t do what they do,” Darla said. “I couldn’t. In their little years and what they have to sit up there and say in front of a whole courtroom full of people. It’s difficult to hear.”
Sandman emphasizes BACA is not filled with vigilantes, but their mission statement includes this line: “We do not condone the use of violence or physical force in any manner, however, if circumstances arise such that we are the only obstacle preventing a child from further abuse, we stand ready to be that obstacle.”
Sandman said that is a commitment, not a threat.
“If somebody came after that child while we were there, well, then all bets are going to be off,” Sandman said. “Because we’re going to protect that child.”