Part Three in a Four-Part Series

Grier Weeks

The AP headline running statewide defied belief: “Dispute over Alicia’s Law, other safety issues snags budget talks.”

At the Virginia state capitol, Democrats and Republicans were deadlocked over a $77 billion budget. And the snag holding it up was $1.25 million for rescuing children from sexual predators?! 

It was a rounding error. A fraction of a fraction of a penny on the dollar. And an utterly safe and popular idea with voters. How could Alicia’s Law be keeping lawmakers bogged down in Richmond? Here’s the story never told.

For months, PROTECT had been fighting for the legislation, which would create a new state funding stream for Virginia’s two task forces that fight child sexual exploitation. The bill added a $10 fine on all felonies and misdemeanors and directed the revenue to the ICACs. About 5% was set aside for the state to create a sunlight website, giving citizens new data on how social welfare agencies, police and the courts were doing protecting children. (The fine was not passed that first year, so an appropriation had to be made.)

Most people would think passing a law making convicted criminal offenders pay to rescue children from sexual predators would be the easiest thing in the world. Bipartisan even. But if that was the case, there’d be no need for PROTECT.

One day early on in our campaign, I had that driven home poignantly. 

Sitting in a Senate hearing room, I watched as 19-year old Alicia Kozakiewicz stood at a podium before the Courts Committee. The large room was packed, and so was the media section. As lawmakers waited, Alicia slowly unfolded a piece of paper and began telling her terrible story of being held by, the rescued from, a sadistic child pornographer in Virginia at the age of 13. 

The politicians got choked up. One or two wiped away tears. The room was stricken silent.

As Alicia refolded her paper, the chairman thanked for her incredible bravery. Others chimed in warmly. I could tell she was proud. She’d touched hearts, and maybe ensured that some Virginia children (these more likely than not held hostage in their own homes) would be rescued as a result.

Several hours later, we entered another hearing room, this time on the House of Delegates side. It was the Appropriations Committee, where decisions about spending were made. I stood beside Alicia as she unfolded that same piece of paper and began to read her story again, word for exact word.

As she spoke, the faces on the dais were grim. The mood was so cold I knew Alicia felt it. My heart went out to her.

The chairwoman looked resentful. The guy to her right looked bored. One old boy looked like he’d start picking his teeth any second.

Alicia finished and was thanked brusquely. She swiveled my way with a look of confusion. 

“What happened?” she asked.

“I’m sorry, it’s okay.” I said. “You were asking them for money.” (I didn’t have to heart to point out there were no cameras in the room either.)

It might sound cynical to the average voter, but the truth is politicians almost never (if ever) spend money on children because they love kids and it’s the right thing to do. They might pass laws that don’t cost anything, but make an appropriation? That takes serious work.

In Virginia, as in many states to follow, Alicia Kozakiewicz put a face to a crisis that no one wanted to even talk about. She got politicians’ full attention and made them think the one thing you want them thinking: do I really want to be on the wrong side of this?

But that is never enough. Legislators have their pet priorities. Appropriators have their elaborate house of cards already worked out. Individual lawmakers have their axes to grind with bill sponsors or anyone who dares suggest a new approach. You can almost always appear to be for children, and even buy off advocates with cheap gimmicks, without doing something you don’t want to do.

In the end, winning takes political sophistication and sometimes brute force.

What very few people in Virginia ever knew about those stalled budget talks was this. In the weeks leading up to the negotiations, PROTECT’s Camille Cooper had pitted Democrats and Republicans against one another. Out of time and out of patience, we had no choice but to use their own weight against them. As hoped, it took on a life of its own.

The fight going on behind closed doors wasn’t about whether to fund Alicia’s Law. The two parties had one another at gunpoint about how to come to an agreement that would not make one side look like a winner and the other like a loser. Once that was finally negotiated, they all joined hands to celebrate a great bipartisan victory for children.

Two years later, we were back at the capitol with a press conference, fighting to make the child rescue funding permanent. On easels all across the front of the room were the mugshots of sexual predators arrested using the new Alicia’s Law resources. 

The father of a toddler. An elementary school teacher. A school bus driver. In prison, every one.

Part One: Hiding in Plain Sight
Part Two: A Better Way