A secret and a plea: Rhode Island lawmaker shares her 40-year search for justice

WEST GREENWICH – Rep. Sherry Roberts finds it hard to talk about the abuse she endured as a child.

But she's now beginning to speak publicly about a secret she held for decades, in hopes that it will encourage other victims to come forward.

"I just came to the conclusion that I have an obligation to protect other children," the 54-year-old lawmaker told The Providence Journal in a recent interview.

Roberts says her former stepfather, Harry N. Edwards, was physically, emotionally and sexually abusive throughout her childhood. She went to the police at 14, but he was able to evade justice.

From a victim-impact statement read in court during the sentencing of Rep. Sherry Roberts' former stepfather: "Due to his unpredictable, wild mood swings, every day of my childhood life was spent living in fear that would be the day that I die."
From a victim-impact statement read in court during the sentencing of Rep. Sherry Roberts' former stepfather: "Due to his unpredictable, wild mood swings, every day of my childhood life was spent living in fear that would be the day that I die."

Then, in 2019, she got the case reopened.

Last week, Edwards pleaded guilty to second-degree sexual assault. Roberts said that she feels that she's finally received "some justice" after 40 years. But she still wants to see him locked up and believes he may have had other victims.

"If more victims come forward and he gets put behind bars as a result, to me, that will be full justice," she said.

'No escape' from childhood abuse

Roberts, a Republican who represents parts of Coventry and West Greenwich, describes life with Edwards as a "nightmare."

"Due to his unpredictable, wild mood swings, every day of my childhood life was spent living in fear that would be the day that I die," she said in a victim-impact statement read in the courtroom during the sentencing hearing and later shared with The Journal. "Or that that would be the day he would kill a family member because of my lack of cooperation to his deranged demands. This was a heavy weight."

"As a child, I felt there was no escape," she continued. "Being raped into submission through threats, he paralyzed me with fear. I felt emotionally alienated with nowhere to turn and no one to confide in."

Sherry Robert's notes to herself from last week's news conference.
Sherry Robert's notes to herself from last week's news conference.

At school, she couldn't concentrate because she was "too busy watching the clock, dreading my return home each and every day," she wrote. "I rarely had time to do homework, either, because Harry just couldn’t keep his hands off of me long enough."

At 14, Roberts reported her stepfather to the police in Richmond, where they lived at the time. Richmond's current police chief, Elwood Johnson, says records show that the case went to a grand jury in 1983, but the jurors never voted on the proposed indictment.

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Decades later, Johnson, who was not a part of the Richmond Police Department when the report was made, helped Roberts find records of her statement to police. In an email, he said that Roberts explained to him that her mother "got some very bad legal advice from a trusted personal attorney who apparently recommended that she not pursue it at that time."

In an interview, Roberts declined to go into detail about why the case hadn't moved forward, calling it "a long story."

"I can tell you, in 1982, when I filed a complaint, my mother divorced him when she found out," she said. "My mother was actually victimized as well, as was the rest of my family. I don't want to get into it ... he escaped justice is the bottom line."

40-year-old police report led to charges

Roberts went on to spend 16 years working for the Rhode Island Department of Children, Youth and Families. Throughout her life, she wondered if she could still pursue charges against her ex-stepfather. But she got "a lot of misinformation," she said, and was told that the statute of limitations had probably expired.

Then, in 2014, she was elected to the General Assembly and found herself surrounded by lawyers. She began asking them questions "in roundabout ways," not wanting to divulge her secret. And she learned that she could, in fact, still pursue charges.

"I’ve always wanted to prosecute him for what he did," Roberts said. "It’s such a painful experience to go through, and to go your entire life thinking that there was nothing you could do for something that violent ... it’s just horrible. As soon as I found out I could go forward, I did, because I needed closure on that."

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Crucially, the Richmond Police Department found her original complaint, which she couldn't find in her own files. They provided it to the state police, which worked with the state attorney general's office to revisit the case.

"Those records helped validate and verify that she had made that complaint," said Johnson."It wasn’t like it was a repressed memory."

Edwards was arrested in February 2021 on first-degree sexual assault charges that stemmed from the original statement that Roberts had made to the police. He pleaded guilty last week to the lesser charge of second-degree sexual assault and was given a 10-year suspended sentence with probation.

The 71-year-old, who now lives in South Kingstown, was ordered to register as a sex offender and banned from being within 50 feet of children. As long as he maintains an otherwise clean record, he won't spend time in prison.

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Attorney General Peter Neronha's office called the outcome "a significant moment in the pursuit of justice for the victim of a serious crime that was committed approximately 40 years ago, following years of investigation and several attempts to bring criminal charges."

"We are grateful for the courage and strength displayed by Representative Roberts over the decades since her assault, and throughout the investigation and prosecution of this case," spokesman Brian Hodge wrote.

Johnson, the Richmond police chief, added: "I'm so proud of her. She’s really courageous to do this, and to try to help other people ... It was an honor to work with her. She was fantastic."

Avoiding a trial and choosing to go public

Roberts said that she made a conscious choice not to fight for the case to go to trial, which might have resulted in a harsher penalty but would have been a much longer process.

"Number one, he’s 71 years old," she said. "So if he happens to pass away first, I’ll receive no justice and there will never be any closure."

Additionally, she said, she knew that the process had resurfaced painful memories and "retraumatized" her family.

"I can’t put them through any more," she said. "I can’t even put myself through any more."

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After 40 years of waiting, she said, "I’m tired ... I just want to warn the public, want them to know who he is and what he’s about, and know that I did the best that I could. I don't have to live with myself for not saying anything."

Roberts says that she finds it "humiliating" to talk about her childhood abuse because she's a fairly private person. But she says that she feels a responsibility to talk about her experience in case there are other victims out there who could pursue charges, though she does not have evidence that others were abused.

She encourages survivors of abuse to reach out to Day One, a local organization that provides support services and can help advocate on victims' behalf. "I think a lot of people may not know that’s available to them, but they’re very helpful in navigating the process," she said.

This article originally appeared on The Providence Journal: Rep. Sherry Roberts says she was abused by stepfather as a child