Necessary Family Education

by Toni Selman

Don’t cry in front of the kids.
Smile as the kids say goodbye.
Keep it together, keep moving, one foot after the other.
Keep it together, you’re almost there.
Get the keys out, unlock the car, let Edgar get in.
Get in the car, close and lock the door.
Now you can cry….

     In some ways it was a good thing I parked in the back lot; it was a longer walk, but it was private. No one heard me crying, the loud sobbing staring the moment I gave myself permission to cry. No one heard me start to scream and beat on the dashboard at the injustice of this situation. Edgar only understood something was wrong, and started moving his head under my hands as if to protect me from hurting myself. Only then did I realize what I was doing, only then did I start to compose myself to drive home.

     The life of a therapy dog volunteer is usually filled with joy. Several times a month I share Edgar with others, giving them fifteen minutes to forget about their worries and just enjoying the pure pleasure of petting a dog. Our purpose was no different than other days; these kids needed Edgar for a bit of happiness. Their smiles once the children saw Edgar waiting for them in the conference room made everything worthwhile. But everything about this situation was different; we were in a lawyer’s office who prosecuted sexual assaults against children. We were there to help the family meet the team prosecuting the perpetrator for kidnapping and numerous counts of sexual assault against their daughters.

     Each person in the room was extremely tense and worried as we waited for the family to arrived. We’d all been in this room before, different cases with different families. We were all trying to maintain self-control, trying to think of what things were needed to make this meeting easier for the family. A big box of tissues were placed in the center of the table for those who would cry; several bottles of water were put next to the tissues, usually used for the family to compose themselves after hearing something unpleasant. After telling their son to wait on the chairs outside, the “Garcia” family was ushered into the conference room…Father, Mother, and the two young daughters. Through an interpreter Mr. Garcia requested the door to be closed as he hadn’t told their son what had happened to their sisters.

     Shaking hands, introductions were made. Edgar and I were also introduced to make sure the girls understood Edgar was there for them; they could pet him and hug him whenever they wanted and/or needed, which they quickly did. Everyone then sat down at the table, the girls sitting quietly next to each with a fixed smile on their face; Edgar sat in between with little hands quietly reaching out for his reassurance things were going to be okay. They were made to feel at ease by asking them questions about what schools they attend, what grades they were in, and what class was their favorite. Then it was time to get down to the business at hand, and the lawyer started to explain why we were there. He made sure the family understood the perpetrator was still in jail, but two important hearings were on the calendar during the next month. He asked the family how they wanted to proceed, making sure to look at the girls to make them feel included in the process. They had two options: proceed with the prosecution or opt for a plea, which would save the girls the trauma of testifying. After hearing the interpreter relay this information Mr. and Mrs. Garcia looked at each other for a few moments; Mr. Garcia then asked if the girls could join their brother outside as he didn’t want to have this conversation in front of them. We led the children to the playroom; the older brother and sister played a loud game of cards. The younger sister chose to hug and pet Edgar while watching her siblings play; she broke out in peels of laughter after Edgar gave her several kisses. Throughout their card games the older children glanced over several times to make sure their sister was still there and safe.

    After a bit we were asked to rejoin the team back in the conference room. Once again, the girls sat down next to each other with their fake smiles painted once again on their faces; Edgar quickly returned to sit between them as if he knew they needed his presence. The door closed once again with the brother sitting on the chair outside. Glancing quickly around the room, I saw Mr. Garcia had obviously been crying; he was wiping his red eyes with tissues. The interpreter started to relay the final instructions I had heard several times before: there was a restraining order granted against the perpetrator contacting the family, be careful of the perpetrator’s legal team attempting to contact them, and to assure the family they would be contacted after the next court date scheduled a few weeks away. Thank yous were said, hands were shaken, and we were all ushered out of the conference room to return to our regular lives.

     Losing it in the car after a visit was a new experience for me; although I had been in the same room with the same team many times before, I was always able to walk out with my head held up proudly recognizing Edgar and I had helped the children. Once I regained my composure, I drove through McDonalds to get a soda while Edgar got a well-deserved cup of ice water, one of his favorite treats. Pulling into one of the parking spaces to park while Edgar drank his water, I carefully went over the meeting attempting to understand what about this situation made me so upset. Later that evening I finally understood; I was mad at Mr. Garcia.

     Mr. Garcia is the traditional Hispanic patriarch of his family, handling all matters concerning the family. He shows love to his daughters, but his son is the light of his life. His family will always look perfect, his daughters with their fake smiles always plastered on their faces. No one will ever be told of the abuse, not even his son, as it would bring shame to the family. There will be no counseling involved to teach the girls they weren’t responsible for the assault, even though it is a free service. Mr. Garcia will decide whether his daughters will testify or to offer a plea to the defendant, never thinking to ask his daughters what they want to happen.

     Edgar and I had been asked to help the month prior with the “Hernandez” family, a very similar appointment as their daughter was sexually abused. However, this family handled their situation quite differently; her parents took time away from their jobs to ensure their daughter received the counseling necessary to overcome her perpetrator’s actions and thrive as she grows into adulthood. But it is what Mr. Hernandez had said that remains in my memory: “Not only did I need to teach my daughter how to protect herself, but I also had to talk with my sons. I had to explain what had happened to my daughter so they could help protect her. I also had to teach them the realities of life at a young age and how to be street smart so this would not happen to them.”

     Thanks to the actions of her parents, the Hernandez daughter is a “survivor” of sexual assault. Her parents have empowered her with the education and counseling necessary to fight her way through the court system and bring justice to her perpetrator; she talks of studying communication in college and advocating for awareness for childhood sexual assault victims after getting her degree. The Garcia daughters, however, will always be “victims”, trapped in the silence of their home as their abuse will never be discussed. They will never move past their abuse, never learning it wasn’t their fault. The children, including the son, will never be educated of the dangers outside their home or learn how to protect themselves. Mr Garcia’s silence and lack of education given to his family makes his daughters vulnerable to be assaulted again. His daughters will always be victims, and I place the blame solely with Mr. Garcia.