Voices from the Field: I Wish You Knew About Jenny

March 20, 2018

Being a direct representation attorney often involves a lot of waiting. Waiting to be called to state court, waiting for the Spanish interpreter, waiting at the asylum office to be called for an interview, waiting to get through security at the Federal Building, to name a few.

One of those times recently, I came across a story about what kids wished their teachers knew about them. In the story, a teacher posed the question and learned that her students wanted her to know what made them who they are: about the challenges they faced, the experiences that impacted them deeply, and the memories that they carried with them. I thought, what if someone asked me what I wished they knew about me? What has affected me that I want people to know? What would my answer be? I immediately thought that I wish you knew about Jenny.

Jenny, not her real name, came to the KIND office in Los Angeles about a year ago. She had just turned 18 and was older than my usual clients. She seemed cold and distant, almost detached from the world around her. She was weary beyond her years and quiet. I thought immediately that maybe she was too scared or timid to talk to me, or that perhaps she would be better off with one of our female attorneys. I learned after speaking with her briefly that this was not the case. Jenny wanted me to help her but she knew how painful it would be to tell me her story.

Jenny had grown up in Guatemala. Her father had moved away when she was 12, and when she was 15 she met an older man named Daniel. Her mother tried to tell her that that he was no good but she was 15, almost 16, and believed that Daniel had her best interests at heart. She ran away with him when he promised to take care of her and marry her someday.  She was happy and hopeful, and eager to start her life with Daniel.

That feeling disappeared soon after as Daniel began spiraling into alcoholism. But not at first. At first, he was kind and caring. Slowly, he began drinking after work and then on the weekends. He would come home drunk four times a week, then five, and then every day. He became physically and mentally abusive.  He started yelling at Jenny for asking about him not being home and not giving her money to eat, and then for anything, for everything. He accused her of sleeping around; she couldn’t even look up when they walked around town together for fear that he would accuse her of flirting. Daniel would say things to her that no 16-year-old should hear. He forced her to do things she didn’t want to do. He told her she couldn’t leave the house without his permission, and couldn’t work or visit her family. He threatened to beat her, to rape her, to throw her out on the street. Jenny did everything she could to be supportive of him to save herself, to keep from being abused, but she couldn’t do much. She tried to get help from neighbors, her family, and the police. But no one would help her. The abuse went on for years.

Jenny hoped that when she got pregnant Daniel would be happy for her, for him, for their family, and would change his ways. Again, he was happy at first and even cut down on his drinking. But then the yelling and the late nights started slowly back up again. The infidelity that had started earlier began to circle back to her. Daniel would not let her go to prenatal pregnancy classes.  The abuse built up through her pregnancy until the birth of their daughter Macy. Jenny felt bittersweet after her daughter’s birth. She was happy to be a mother but sad that she brought another person into her cruel world.

Jenny’s fears about her daughter were soon justified. Daniel showed no interest in being a father. He insisted it wasn’t his baby. He would not buy diapers, baby food, or spend time with their baby. Jenny was not able to take their daughter to the pediatrician. Daniel would ignore the baby, but when drunk, would get angry at and yell at Macy.

Jenny was fearful but not surprised when Macy got sick. It started out as a cold that got progressively worse. Jenny tried to take her to a medical clinic but they wanted payment and she had no money. She begged for money, and asked her family, friends, and neighbors. Finally, her family gave her money to go to the clinic. The doctor saw the baby and immediately told Jenny to go to the next big town and to the hospital immediately. Her uncle took them to the hospital; Macy was admitted with pneumonia. Despite their best efforts, Macy got worse and worse. A few weeks later Macy passed away. She was three months old.

The death of their child was not enough to keep the abuse from subsiding. Daniel would rape and scream at Jenny almost daily. The last straw came on New Year’s Eve when Daniel came home drunk. Jenny had not even begun to process Macy’s death when Daniel pushed her to the ground in another profanity-laced tirade. Daniel kicked Jenny until she was bloody. When Jenny woke up on the floor the next day, she decided to run for her life.

After Jenny told me her story, I was at a loss. I thought, I am only an attorney, what can I do? She needed a million things. I did the only thing I could do at the time—I helped her apply for asylum. I remember when we were called for interview a short time later. I remember being in the interview and thinking, “don’t cry, don’t cry, don’t cry, it’s not professional, get your act together.” Nope, I cried. So did the interpreter, the asylum officer, and the monitor on the phone. Jenny didn’t cry. She had run out of tears a long time ago.

Jenny was approved for asylum. She seemed relieved when I told her. One year later, after time and therapy, she is back in our office and is warmer, less distant, and on the road to recovery.

Now, back to my original question. What do I wish you knew? I wish you knew how hard it was, and still is for Jenny. How she can never be whole but at least now she lives with the knowledge that she never has to go back to Guatemala. I wish you knew how hard it is hear her story and not be affected. I wish you knew how she tried, how she had the choice between death or leaving. I wish you knew how hard it is to be a father, a son, a friend, a lawyer, a human wondering when the next Jenny will come into our office.

Xavier Rosas is a direct representation attorney in KIND’s Los Angeles office.