Matt Driscoll

Her son was ‘The Little Tacoma Boy.’ Now, she wants to revisit sex offender laws she helped pass

Helen Harlow, mother of “The Little Tacoma Boy,” discusses Ryan Hade’s legacy

Helen Harlow, the mother of "The Little Tacoma Boy," discusses Ryan Hade's legacy and park.
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Helen Harlow, the mother of "The Little Tacoma Boy," discusses Ryan Hade's legacy and park.

The anniversary is Monday, though calling it an anniversary doesn’t feel right. That sounds celebratory. It’s not.

May 20, 1989. Thirty years, this year. For Helen Harlow, it’s a date she’ll never escape, not that she’s trying to — at least not now. It’s too late for that.

May 20, 1989 was the day her 7-year-old son Ryan, in the public eye, became “The Little Tacoma Boy.”

If you’re of a certain age, you already know the story. If you’re too young to remember, you’ve experienced the ramifications.

Thirty years ago Monday was the day Ryan Hade rode his bike into a wooded lot near his home in the Fern Hill neighborhood of Tacoma — as he had so many times before — and encountered 39-year-old Earl Kenneth Shriner, already a repeat sexual offender.

Thirty years ago Monday was the day Shriner raped, assaulted and violated Ryan so savagely that the whole world was forced to take notice.

Thirty years ago Monday was the day everything changed for Harlow. It was the day everything changed for Tacoma. And it was a day everything started to change for sex offenders in Washington state.

Ryan Hade died in 2005, at the age of 23. It was a tragic motorcycle accident, near his home in Yelm. After Ryan’s death, the world at large finally learned his name.

“I got shortchanged on that,” Harlow says of her son’s death. “He was such a loving son, and I knew he was going to be a loving father. He was going to have a wonderful life. And it didn’t happen.”

Sitting at a lunch table at Freighthouse Square on a recent Tuesday afternoon, Harlow, now 69 and a recently retired tax preparer, recounted all of it. She remembered the crime, the aftermath and the unsought notoriety. She remembered the changes in state law she helped usher in, including the indefinite confinement of sexual predators.

In the aftermath of Hade’s 1989 assault, Harlow was everywhere — on TV or helping to organize the Tennis Shoe Brigade’s advocacy efforts in Olympia. For a time, Harlow’s voice and story were inescapable.

Along with Ida Ballasiotes, a Seattle mother whose daughter Diane was murdered in 1988 by a sex offender on work release, Harlow’s willingness to be a public face for families who had endured unspeakable tragedies helped forever change the way Washington deals with sexual predators.

That willingness began to wane as Hade grew older. The notoriety was too much, Harlow says. Kids at Ryan’s middle school would see her on the nightly news and make the connection.

Recently, Harlow has looked back on the decades since she’s been in the spotlight, Ryan’s death and her recent decision to try to step back into the public arena — in part, to honor the legacy of her son.

Harlow says it’s a legacy she sees all around her, even today, and it makes her proud.

It’s visible in the work being done at places like The Mary Bridge Children’s Advocacy Center, she says. And it’s particularly clear at HopeSparks, which provides mental health services to youth and families, where Ryan’s Wing is named in her son’s honor.

Each year since 2007, dividends from the Ryan Hade Endowment Fund go to HopeSparks for this work. It’s fitting, since the agency — which was formerly called the Child and Family Guidance Center — is where Ryan received counseling after his attack.

A trust fund was established in the aftermath of Hade’s assault after financial donations started pouring in from around the world. The trust required that if Hade died before the age of 35 and had no children, the remaining funds would be turned over to the Greater Tacoma Community Foundation, with the money, per Hade’s wishes, going to “the benefit of other abused or disfigured children, in perpetuity.”

Since 2017, in part because of the money it received from the Ryan Hade Endowment Fund, according to Hope Sparks CEO and President Joe LeRoy, the agency served more than 600 referrals from the Mary Bridge Child Advocacy Center, with no one turned away.

“Being a dad and having put myself in Helen’s shoes, I can’t imagine having my child assaulted in the manner (Hade) was, and then losing him later in life. It’s just tragic to think about that,” LeRoy says. “For (Hade) to have the foresight as a young man to think about, ‘What do I want kids to have in the future?’ Who does that?

“I feel like since I’ve become the CEO of this organization, I’ve been handed the honor to help him continue his service and wishes for what he wanted in the world. It’s been critical for me to get it right.”

For Harlow, getting it right is also a driving force. After playing an instrumental role in toughening Washington’s laws related to sexual predators 30 years ago, she sees successes but also work that remains.

For starters, Harlow wants to take a closer look at sex offender registration laws, and specifically how closely — or how well — the state is monitoring transient offenders.

On the other end of the spectrum, she wants to be part of a conversation about how the state can improve the ways confined sex offenders are dealt with.

In 1990, the Special Commitment Center on McNeil Island was established as a place to indefinitely confine sexual predators, as the laws Harlow helped pass called for.

Today, it’s home to more than 200 such offenders.

To Harlow, that’s a sign of success, but also potentially failure.

“That tells me the concept is working, but it’s only working to get (offenders) in. How is it working to get them out?” Harlow says. “Some of them are going to change.”

“I’m open to going back into every single piece and part that we started with and saying, ‘What is going on now? What needs to go on? Why have some things we’ve tried not worked? What else can we do?” she adds.

When it comes to where things go from here, Harlow admits she’s not sure. She’s taking it day by day.

She is certain about one thing, however.

“What I want to do now is be visible again. It’s partly because of Ryan, but it’s also because that’s’ the kind of person I am,” Harlow says.

“I’ve been an advocate and activist all my life. … I’m doing what I expected he would have done.”

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