Humans of Calvert County, Sarah Merranko & Anita Santoyo

“I knew that when I walked in that door, I knew that he was leaving.

Think about losing your partner, losing your spouse. Or having something bad happen to one of your children. Or total financial devastation. And now that they all happen in one instant.

We were married. 
He was my husband for 10 years. 
She was his stepdaughter. 
He raised her since kindergarten. 
He was the only father in the picture. 
He was her dad.

And he abused her.

She was 15 at the time. I left that morning like a totally regular day. She was home. And I was not. I was at a church meeting.

She started texting me that we needed to talk when I got home. I called her and my daughter told me and she had evidence of things that had happened.

Forty-five minutes after I knew I was physically wrestling him out of the house. And that’s only because that’s how long it took me to get to the house.

He was trying to come up with excuses of how this was all a big misunderstanding and I was refusing to listen to it.

We had a physical altercation and then he pulled a gun out. Acting suicidal and that he was going to hurt himself. I told him I was going to call the police if he didn’t leave.

And I think he thought there was still a chance to get out of this. Because before this he talked himself out of everything with me. When you want to believe that the person you love is telling you the truth it’s really easy to believe them.

I didn’t want anybody to know. She didn’t want anybody to know. I just wanted him to go away. That’s it. Just our life together is over. It never dawned on me that he would just keep trying to hurt us.

We didn’t want a trial. And we really didn’t want him to go away to prison. The State’s Attorney followed our lead on what we were comfortable with. Our only goal was to protect the girls. Keep the right boundaries up. Which we thought the registry did mistakenly.

She didn’t want anybody to know. She went to school the next day. I had to pick her up to take her to an interview with Child Protective Services and she told them to hurry up because she was going to miss lacrosse practice.

If I had known what I know now, we probably would have sent him to jail. He would have gone to jail. It’s what I should’ve done in the beginning that I wasn’t prepared to do.

None of the moves I made were vindictive. They were about to let’s diffuse and do what’s absolutely necessary to protect these kids. Anything above that I was not interested in. But again, the goal when all of this started was in my mind, minimize the ripple effect. That’s what I kept telling myself. You’ll go on with your life this way, I’ll go on about my life this way, we’ll keep everything as quiet as possible. I kept thinking we just have to get to the other side and get some sort of sense of normalcy.

But there’s no other side. It’s never-ending.

There are therapists, there’s law enforcement, there are prosecutors, there are social workers. Everybody is watching this man who was grooming and got this far with one kid.

But in his mind, these are his kids and he’s going to do what he wants. No one is going to tell him otherwise. He still just doesn’t get it.

At the beginning, I had this belief that he was more, my husband, than this dark person. And now I see that the husband part isn’t even there. And I don’t know, I don’t know for how long he was there, or what parts were real or when they disappeared. I try not to think about that too much because that doesn’t change anything now.

His behavior, it just kept declining. I just kept thinking that at some point he’s going to be sorry. He’s going to understand. And he’s going to stop making this more awful for us than it has to be. But he never did. He just kept getting worse and worse.

He crashed my minivan into a dumpster. He got caught driving by our house even with a protective order. He changed his Facebook profile picture to a picture of him and my daughter at a father-daughter dance. It just kept getting worse and worse and worse.

I got my other daughter an iPad and he found ways to get to her. I told him to stop and he said no. And again, this isn’t illegal.

I feel like I just got backed into a corner where the entire burden of keeping these children safe is on me. And it shouldn’t be that way after he’s convicted. When I knocked on every door and realized that there was no one that could step in and do something about this, it was purely a civil issue that I had to keep fighting, I said no. No. This is not going to be the rest of our lives. And what happens when he stops targeting my children. He was a soccer coach in St. Mary’s County and he went on the preschool field trips, he went to every school event. We cannot pretend like it couldn’t happen to someone else.

It’s not illegal for him to message your kids through Facebook or Snapchat. The registry is a directory of information. It doesn’t prevent them from doing anything. There are no restrictions. That’s why I started my petition. That’s why I’m testifying in Annapolis. That’s why I’m working on legislation.

The petition is for stronger restrictions on sex offenders in the State of Maryland. Like they should not be allowed to be alone with a minor. Like they should not be allowed to have electronic contact with minors without custodial parental consent.

And I’m trying to get a Bill passed that would extend the probation time for registered sex offenders. The Bill is Probation for Registered Sex Offenders. Right now in the State of Maryland the maximum probation period is five years. And then they’re on a registry. But the registry is really just a directory of information. You can look people upon it, you can see who’s in your area, and they have to report addresses and they can’t go on school property. But that’s it. Any specific restrictions would be tied to the probation but the probation ends in five years.

I know first hand how impossible it can be to see. So once we know, why would we give them another opportunity to do it again? But ultimately the way the system exists right now is no one is going to step in until there is an active allegation of abuse.

You assume there are protections against registered sex offenders. There’s so much stuff that just seems like common sense you assume it’s there. But it’s not. So now we have to do something about it.

And I really do want to eventually see a checklist that’s gone over every time someone is listed on the registry. What restrictions should apply here. People think the registry does it, but it doesn’t. You’re not protected. And it gives you this false sense. I think if you’re going to let someone who already hurt a child and then let them be alone with a child, you’re just setting up an environment for something to happen.

I got 25,000 signatures because I just keep putting it out there like a lunatic. I posted it all over the place. I have a handful of people that are so perfect because anytime I do anything with it, they share it. 25,000 people signed it and 25,000 people think that this is worth fighting for. What if every single one of them shared it and said….. hey support this by signing the petition. By sharing the petition.

I would never have thought that I was capable of taking care of them by myself or just getting through life by myself. I never thought that I could do that. I think I’m walking in the direction that I’m supposed to be walking in. I think there is a bigger plan for all of this. I think there is a bigger reason. I think there is a reason why certain doors closed and the other opened.

It’s easy to get stuck in looking at the things that we lost. And looking at the things that feel hard. But that’s not the whole picture.

It’s all headed somewhere. I just have to keep going.

There’s this song that I learned in Girl Scouts years ago. I don’t remember what it is, but it was something like your going on a bear hunt and there’s like a river and you can’t go over it, you can’t go under it, like all these things…..but you gotta go through it. And I kind of think that’s what these really painful things are is you can’t go around it, you can’t go over it, you can’t just ignore it, you have to go straight through it. And you have to feel it. I don’t think there’s any way to get through this kind of stuff without accepting it and feeling it. I think I spent a lot of time at first moving and not feeling anything and just staying really busy. Kind of like the busier I was, the less I would slow down and feel it. So there was a whole period of time where I didn’t feel much of anything because I had that blessing of shock; it’s a bigger gift than I think we give it credit for. That’s how I got through the beginning part of it, is I just didn’t feel all of it. Or I kept getting busier like I could out run it.

Now I feel a lot. I don’t really like it but I don’t think there’s a quick fix to that. And I think I just have to go straight on through it.

I’m uncomfortable but I’m not afraid. It’s just hard. All the different emotions. Probably the most steady emotion though is Hope. Like everyday I feel hopeful that this isn’t forever, the way it all feels like right now.

We’re still standing. We’re still a family. We’re still making it.

I really don’t know where all of this is going to end up or what’s going to happen.?
Victims should be supported. Children is what the law should protect.

I don’t believe in my ability to change the world But I do believe in my ability to not give up.”

You can sign the petition here: Better Sex Offender Laws to Protect our Children

David M. Higgins II, Publisher/Editor

David M. Higgins was born in Baltimore and grew up in Southern Maryland. He has had a passion for journalism since high school. After spending many years in the Hospitality Industry he began working in...