Perspiration-inducing heat permeated the minivan’s air-conditioned interior as Ethan Harper opened the sliding door. Twelve-year-old Kevin climbed out of the van, creeping out like a sloth and stepping down onto the hot asphalt of the parking lot.
“Are you ready for this, buddy?” Ethan mustered a confident smile with the hope of putting the young boy at ease, but the bullets of sweat he felt running down his face weren’t convincing. He could blame it on the heat, but they both knew it was from the anticipation of Kevin’s testimony.
Kevin looked ahead at the entrance to the Onett Community Courthouse and nodded his head hesitantly. “Yes, sir. I’m ready.”
After shutting the van door, he lightly patted Kevin’s back as they walked toward the courthouse, simultaneously nudging him along. “You’ll do fine, Kevin. After today, everything is going to change for the better. I’m sure of it.”
Ethan kept pace with Kevin, who deliberately walked as slowly as he could toward the front door of the courthouse. He knew Kevin was just prolonging the inevitable—having to testify against his own father.
Craig Shillman, Kevin’s attorney and a Citrus County Deputy District Attorney, stepped through the two mahogany and glass front doors of the courthouse to greet them. The shiny, smooth surface on the top of his head reflected the sunlight, causing a glare that was too bright to look at directly. Ethan shook Craig’s outreached hand, noticing that it was dry compared to his own clammy palms.
“How are you two doing this morning?” Craig said, though Ethan knew it was rhetorical.
“As good as we can be.”
Craig struggled as he kneeled in front of Kevin due to his pudgy body, giving Ethan a great view of the horseshoe-shaped hairline around the sides of his head. He ruffled Kevin’s hair and forced a smile. “The trial is about to begin, Kevin. Just tell everyone the same thing you told me, and everything will be all right.” Craig grunted when standing back up.
The aroma of various aftershaves and perfumes lingered in the air throughout the halls of the courthouse. Kevin inhaled breath after breath of the saturated air as he sat nervously next to Ethan just outside the courtroom. Sitting on the bench with his leg shaking furiously, the boy could not hide the terror that he was feeling behind his sad, brown eyes.
As they waited for fifteen minutes, both of their stress levels rose with each second that passed. Ethan knew he couldn’t remove the fear that Kevin was experiencing, but he felt a responsibility to try. As the social worker assigned to the boy’s case, it would break his heart if Kevin didn’t testify. After working for child services for the last two years, he knew what would happen without Kevin’s testimony.
While looking into the boy’s terrified eyes, he told him the best advice he could think of to help alleviate any uncertainty he had. “While you’re in the courtroom, focus your attention on either Craig or I. Whatever you do, don`t look your father in the eye. Don’t give Frank control over you with his intimidating look. He can’t hurt you anymore if you do this, Kevin.”
Kevin nodded his head obediently and Ethan assured him with a proud smile. A moment later, the bailiff opened the courtroom door and asked for Kevin.
Ethan entered the courtroom and sat down on the bench behind the prosecutor’s seat on the left side of the room. As Kevin was escorted to the witness stand, Ethan looked up toward the ceiling, silently praying to God that Kevin would follow through with his promise; to confess the truth to a judge and courtroom full of strangers.
Having been in the courthouse many times and knowing how much pressure juveniles experienced when sitting on the witness stand, Ethan could not shake a sense of unease that lingered in his subconscious. The average witness doesn’t look forward to testifying. Most people are terrified of public speaking, and that uneasiness is amplified when a lawyer attempts to twist one’s words or delegitimize one’s statements. It can be a very intense and intimidating experience, especially for minors.
Despite being prepared by both Ethan and Craig, including his own valiant attempt to rally every ounce of courage hiding deep within, Kevin could crumble under the pressure. Watching him approach the witness stand gave Ethan hope. Most juvenile witnesses usually backed out before entering the courtroom in the event that they became too nervous to follow through.
All that Kevin had to do was tell the court what had happened to him and his younger sister, Bailey. A case can easily be thrown out if the child’s responses sounded rehearsed or inconsistent, so they had made sure not to coach him on what to say other than the truth. Craig had advised him to focus on explaining all the terrible things that his father did, while the only thing Ethan could do to help was to show his support by being with Kevin in the courtroom.
As Craig began setting up the context for his questions, Ethan looked across the room at Kevin’s mom, Nancy, sitting behind her husband on the right side of the room. He stared at her, glaring with his brow lowered until she noticed his gaze. He made sure she could sense how much he despised her. She didn’t appear frightened or upset. Her expression was blank and cold. If Frank was convicted of physical abuse, Nancy could also be charged for the same offenses for not attempting to protect her children. There was no way she could possibly plead ignorance in this case.
Ethan felt no sympathy for a spouse that refused to acknowledge domestic abuse by their significant other, especially in the event of their own child’s suffering. She was equally responsible for the atrocities her husband had committed by not defending her children. There was no excuse more important than her children’s well-being. Here, her twelve-year-old son was about to do what she either couldn’t or wouldn’t do, yet she sat obediently behind her husband in court. Her allegiance most likely that of a battered dog, yet such reasoning does not excuse her inaction at the expense of her children’s lives.
While Kevin looked frazzled—his hair unkempt and conspicuous dark bags under his eyes—Nancy appeared well groomed. Her brunette hair must have been recently highlighted with blonde streaks since Ethan had seen her a week ago, make-up had been heavily applied, and her blouse looked like it had just been purchased en route to the courthouse. She didn’t act like a concerned, loving mother, nor did she ever deserve to be one in the first place.
Nancy was a deplorable human being, but not more so than the monster she supported. He could not fathom what would cause a man to beat his family mercilessly, or how he could sexually abuse his five-year-old daughter. In his eyes, Ethan would not object to both parents receiving death sentences.
Ethan anxiously watched as Kevin heeded his word by avoiding any eye contact with his father as Craig proceeded by asking the big question. “Kevin East, can you please explain to the court what happened to you, as well as what you witnessed happening to your sister?”
Kevin hesitated, causing everyone in the courtroom to hold their breath during the several seconds of nerve-wracking silence that followed. He first looked at Ethan with a worried expression on his face that said he couldn’t avoid making eye contact any longer, and then looked over at his father. Frank gave him a disapproving and intimidating look, which unfortunately was enough to silence Kevin.
A nauseous feeling began to develop in Ethan’s gut as he anticipated what was about to happen.
“My dad didn’t do anything to us, sir,” Kevin whispered into the microphone.
“Could you please repeat that louder, Kevin?” Craig said while cupping his hand around his ear.
Kevin looked down at the podium, refusing to look anyone in the eye. “My dad didn’t do anything to us,” he said into the microphone, clearly enough for everyone to hear.
Ethan bowed his head in disappointment, not just in Kevin, but in himself as well. Maybe he hadn’t done enough for the boy? But what else could he have done?
Craig tried again to get an honest response from Kevin. “Your father is accused of beating and molesting you and Bailey. You are the only witness to give testimony in this case, Kevin. Are you saying he didn’t abuse either of you . . . in any way?”
Kevin looked up and locked eyes with his father again, cowering from his glare alone. “No, he wouldn’t do anything like that.”
In a fit of anger and frustration, Ethan stood up and exited the courtroom. As he walked away, he could hear the judge declare the case dismissed due to key eyewitness testimony. All that Ethan could do for Kevin now was pray because the case had been closed on the child’s terms.
Stepping back out into the radiant sunlight, Ethan hoped the sun’s rays would wash him clean of all stress and disappointment. Being so dedicated to social work, his altruistic mentality made it difficult to shrug off such a failure. While the outcome of the trial was not primarily his fault, he bore that weight on his shoulders anyway.
Ethan started walking toward the company minivan in the parking lot—easily identifiable with Child and Family Services painted on the side of it in bold, black print. Having walked a hundred yards from the door to the courthouse, he turned around as he heard it open. Craig walked out first, followed by Frank, Nancy, and Kevin.
Frank locked eyes with Ethan who stared back at him with disgust, smiling while rubbing the top of Kevin’s head proudly—probably congratulating his son for lying in a court of law to save his ass from going to prison. Nancy smiled arrogantly as well, as if they had been rightfully vindicated.
Craig approached Ethan, noticing the stare down that he was giving Frank. “We did our best, Ethan. There was nothing more you could do.”
Ethan continued to follow Frank with his disgusted eyes. “Wasn’t there?”
“No. I don’t think there was. I’ve seen this happen before and so have you.”
Ethan looked away from Frank to turn toward Craig with a look of disenchantment. “The system is broken, Craig. I know I’m not the only one that witnessed how Frank intimidated Kevin. I know we did everything in our power, but it feels like I could have done more, somehow.”
“Don’t beat yourself up. It’s sad to say, but we’ll get that bastard next time he abuses those children. I’m sure the evidence will be there next time.”
“That’s what pisses me off. Kevin and Bailey might be left alone for a day, maybe two, all because of how proud Frank is at the moment. But then he’ll be right back to his old ways after that. I wonder if I’m even cut out for this kind of work?”
“Don’t say that. Your heart is in it more than most I’ve worked with. Just remember why you got into social work in the first place.”
“I always wanted to help children, Craig. I enjoyed my childhood and was blessed to have a loving family. I believe every child deserves that experience and those memories. I just never considered that sick bastards like Frank would get away with their crimes. It honestly kills me. And just because Kevin sealed his own fate, doesn’t mean that his sister should have to suffer.”
Pointing at Frank’s Cadillac leaving the parking lot, Ethan shook his head. “There he goes now, on his way to Family Services to pick up his daughter. It’s my fault, Craig. Anything that happens to those children, it’s because I didn’t do more.”