Each year, hundreds of thousands of children in the U.S. are the victims of domestic abuse. Some die at the hands of the people who are supposed to protect them.
That's what happened to Maxwell, he was two when he died after a history of neglect and abuse that was never adequately addressed. He left behind a family who will never forget him, and a sister who has worked to cope with his passing.
Valerie Eyer has thick long brown hair, and big soulful brown eyes. The 11 year old has a polite, soft-spoken yet confident demeanor. Her adoptive mother describes her as an old-soul. Valerie's teary as she reads from the book titled “Why Did We Have To Say Goodbye?” It's the first time she's read it all the way through out loud, something made more difficult by her tendency to stutter. Her adoptive parents, Gwenn and Glen watch on, they're crying too.
This book is about a tragic event. Valerie's brother Maxwell died from an injury he sustained from his biological father. Valerie was only 4 when it happened. Gwenn explains: “There seems to be one injury where one night he was there on a visit and the dad pushed him very hard, never was it very clear … it appears that he pushed him hard enough to cause an injury similar to Shaken Baby Syndrome.” Johnny Garcia is now serving a 44 year prison sentence at Menard Correctional Center for his crime.
Gwenn says it's not known whether Valerie was also physically hurt. “To my knowledge she has never said that she witnessed - that she was there that night. We don't even know if she was there that night, we've never gotten all the information about it. And I don't know that we ever will.”
Gwenn and Glen started adopting children in the mid-80s. They have five in all. “I was a school teacher, my husband was a school teacher, we loved kids. We actually worked together before we were married in a church youth group, and worked with bus ministries where they brought children into services in church, so we've always been really big involved in kids," says Gwenn.
Gwenn's involvement with foster care and adoption ultimately led her to work with the Department of Children and Family Services, where she currently is a Foster Parent Law Compliance Manager. One of Gwenn's adopted children is Valerie's biological mother. She says after Valerie and Maxwell were born, she was worried something like this could happen. It was clear her daughter, their mom, did not have a stable lifestyle - that the violence baby Maxwell was victim to was not a well-kept secret.
Says Gwenn: “There was some risk that had been identified, the dad had been in trouble legally and mom had been hospitalized for injuries. But I think so often when women get involved in domestic violence situations - they can't get out. They don't see a way to leave … She kept going back and even at this point, she was not living with the birth father … There was a repeated history of abuse we think. We often encouraged her to take Max to the doctor. She did, several times. And as a result the doctor did lose her license for not reporting. We hold the mother really accountable, but to me the doctor should be held accountable. She only lost her license for a year, but she did lose her license and in theory, at least, has been trained and better equipped to identify the next time. The department did ask her if the kids were at risk and she said she had not identified any risk as a doctor. So, so many different steps - so many people trying to do the right thing, and yet no body could help him.”
Since the book was published in November, Valerie has been busy signing copies and talking to the media. The project started as a life-book, something used as part of therapy for children, especially those who have been adopted or are in foster care. It is meant to help them retain connections and map out their past in hopes of creating a better, more informed future. Gwenn helped gather pictures for Valerie, including those of her biological father and brother. Gwenn says in order to be therapeutic, the book needed to be realistic - to include the good and the bad.
And while all this has gotten Valerie much attention for a traumatic experience in her past, it's not the only thing that defines the young girl. “I like to play an instrument called the mountain dulcimer, I like to ride horses, and I like to read books,” says Valerie. She takes a moment to play her dulcimer at the Bed and Breakfast she lives at with her parents in Jacksonville. She jokes about it being out of tune, something she can still notice even though she is partially deaf. Her hearing aids are a help.
Valerie has Usher Syndrome - a leading cause of deaf blindness, but this too has yet to keep her down. Her sense of creativity has led to not only the crafting of a book, but she also writes songs for her dulcimer as well. Some have been about her brother. Valerie tells me some day, she'd like to run a bed and breakfast herself: “It's neat meeting all kinds of interesting people, we even had a guest from Germany. She stayed for about a month!”
Valerie, her mom and I head to Jacksonville's downtown where Valerie has regular meetings with a counselor. Meg Lorton comes and greets us in the waiting room of the counseling center. She takes us back to her office, a cozy room meant to be made comfortable with a couch and a homey feel. Lorton says when she first went through the book Valerie and her mom put together, she knew she wanted a copy for other patients. She thinks Valerie's story comes with an important message for those affected by domestic violence: “You are not alone - and others have survived and gone on to be very … happy, satisfied with life again. Those feelings, when you're going through it - you feel like there is a loss of hope.”
Lorton says not just any child in this situation would be so willing to share their story. “Valerie is an exceptional child - academically she's very intelligent - her reading level, she's been reading since she was 3 ... This was not something that happened overnight. This has been a process since the initial experience. To calculate, I've seen her since she was about age four ... So seven years in the process … I think it's so valuable for her to want to share this," she says.
I ask Gwenn who she credits with Valerie's ability to face the challenges that have come her way - things that would leave many depressed and bitter. How can a young child have decided she wants to help others by sharing a story that brings her such pain? Gwenn tells me, “I think that our faith has to be the answer to that question. To me, if we didn't have faith, if I didn't believe in heaven, if I didn't believe that I would see Maxwell again, I would just be in a ditch somewhere … We have that faith I think that protects us, but also supports us and gives us hope for the future. We talk about hope in the book. It's a sad, sad story. It's an awful story. But we do have that hope and I think that people need to understand that the hope is very important to us, that we've accepted the Lord as our savior and that we will be reunited in heaven one day, and we have that hope.”
It's the hope that life can get better, that being a victim of domestic violence does not have to define an individual or a family - but a reminder too, that it's also okay to remember, and to honor the lives of those who have been lost. For Valerie, that includes sharing her story in order to prevent future atrocities. Valerie says she hopes the book will help kids know to go for help when they see someone small being hurt. And for parents, she says: “Think twice before possibly harming your kids … I just hope nobody else will have to go through this again.” For her, it's that simple.