It was a litle less than a year ago that the O’Donnell-Collar family first entered a courtroom to resist the racist, transphobic harassment by their next door neighbor. After repeated police calls and detailing many, many interactions, they had finally convinced the District Attorney’s office to issue a summary citation of one count of harassment.
They knew it would be a journey. They anticipated she would resist. But the realities of their past year in the court system has been both affirming and exhausting.
The family went to the magistrate for three different hearings before a guilty verdict was rendered at the end of July. Within 30 days, the neighbor filedn appeal and they knew they’d be going to the Court of Common Pleas summary appeal court for more hearings.
In the meantime, the family sought a Protection from Intimidation order for their minor children. They received a temporary order while the formal hearing process unfolded. The neighbor was representing herself so the process took much longer than usual as the judge needed to make sure all the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed.
It also meant the neighbor would have an opportunity to question the children she had targeted.
All of the four children and both parents went to the PFI hearings that lasted hours. They knew they had the temporary protection order in place, but this was arduous. They had two such lengthy hearings and received the final notice by mail.
Meanwhile, the appeal of the magistrate’s ruling was postponed twice. One postponement was announced ahead of time, the second time the family went downtown only to be told about another postponement. At the third attempt, the hearing proceeded and Judge Wrenna Watson upheld the guilty verdict.
A few days later, the neighbor filed an appeal in Superior Court. A hearing date has not yet been set.
That’s seven scheduled hearings in under a year. Times when the Dads had to take off work and the kids missed school. Parking costs. The emotional costs of spending so many hours with a person who had actively targeted their family. Consultations with lawyers and meetings with the Assistant District Attorney in between hearings.
In the meantime, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission had opened a civil investigation but it was on hold while these proceedings played out. Any private civil action would also have to be suspended.
So here we are one year down the road. Three court rulings supporting the family and finding that this neighbor had harassed them.
And facing an unknown number of further hearings and appeals. She has the right to appeal to Superior Court and then the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The Allegheny County District Attorney’s office provide the legal counsel, but the family still has to show up. And participate in the other proceedings.
None of this is unusual. Court proceedings take a long time. Postponements are inevitable. It is a frustrating process.
But it is working. Three legal decisions that her behavior was harassment. No reason to expect it will be overturned. It is a precedent, however modest. That’s a big victory in this current political and legal climate.
She could have paid the $200 fine. It wasn’t a misdemeanor much less a felony. That’s how desperate she is to defend her actions.
We owe a lot to the O’Donnell-Collar family. They’ve fought for their family and for all of us. They are proceeding with these cases while proceeding with their lives. The kids are growing up, getting drivers licenses, going to prom, applying to college, playing video games, and all the other milestones of any teenager. All while living next door to someone so viciously committed to harassing them.
Their entire teen lives will be intertwined with these cases.
When I interviewed Sean O’Donnell in 2022 about this situation, he shared:
That sign is part of a two-year campaign of terror against my family. The language on the sign is very specific. The positioning of the sign is very specific. The intent of the sign is an escalation. The bottom line is freedom of speech is not freedom from accountability.
So while the court process has been grueling, it is important to remember that they had endured years of escalating behavior before any of us stepped in to help them. They can’t get that time back.
But we have tried to show up. We’ve produced 1800 yard signs, 5000 stickers, and 2500 pens. We just printed 100 tote bags. We’ve raised nearly $30,000 in donations to pay for all of this. You can request a sign if you are interested at bit.ly/ProtectTransKidsSigns
More recently, Sean shared with me where they are right now:
When our family was targeted by a transphobic neighbor, it was terrifying. Repeated acts of hate over the course of a three-year period left us feeling isolated, afraid, and exhausted. As a family, we fought back against this bigotry with every resource available to us. And while we were making strides, it was not until we coordinated with Pittsburgh LGBTQIA Charities that our story made its way in to the community.
The Protect Trans Kids sign campaign not only brought attention to our situation, but it also gave our family something we had been missing for three years: security. As signs began to pop up — first in our neighborhood, and then in the neighborhoods where our kids go to school, and then the suburbs — it was clear that the entire city was holding us in their hands, and that, despite the transphobia and the homophobia and the racism that we had experienced at the hands of our neighbor, we were safe because everywhere we looked, we saw a Protect Trans Kids yard signs.
This campaign gave my family hope and it showed our trans daughter that she was protected. I believe it is imperative that we keep this campaign going and that we continue to spread that simple message: “Protect Trans Kids”.
There are so many trans kids out there who do not have the support system that my daughter had available to her. Every sign we plant is a symbol to a vulnerable trans kid that they are protected. They are safe. They are loved.
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