Two years ago this Spring, I stood in a courtroom and read to the judge, the Assistant D.A., the lawyers, the offender, his family and the rest of the court room, a statement outlying the immediate impact the offender’s actions had on our family. Standing by my side was the parole officer assigned to our case. That September, she started a Victim’s Impact Panel in the county I live in. Normally, such panels consist of victims of alcohol related crimes. This new panel is comprised of victims of felony crimes. Every six months since then, a small group of speakers is assembled at our Police Station’s Community Center to share our stories; what happened and the impact of what happened on our lives. I’ve been asked to speak three out of the four times the panel’s been assembled.
What do you do there? Is the audience only criminals? Are the police there?
These are some of the questions my soon to be 11-year-old daughter started asking me last Tuesday when I told her I would be speaking on the Panel again and wouldn’t be able to pick her up from school Thursday.
Well, I said, I tell them what happened and how it affected our family and yes, the audience is just criminals. They’re convicted felons and armed officers are scattered throughout the room.
How come you didn’t go last time? She asked.
Because Brian was there. I said.
In our case, Brian, is the offender. He’s the young man who’d been breaking into our house repeatedly for more than four months two winters ago. I wasn’t called last time because protocol says the victim should not speak at the same panel the offender is attending.
Did he have to go last time?
Yes. I said. It’s mandated; part of his sentence.
Can children go? She asked.
Do the criminals get to speak at the panel?
No. They’re not allowed to speak at all. They can write a question for one of us on an index card, pass it over to an officer and we can choose to answer or not answer it. When we’re all done speaking, we leave the room.
The audience members sit three to a table. There’s a questionnaire in front of them that they have to answer before they can leave. The parole officer collects them and brings them back to us.
We go to a different room and talk. There’s a person there that helps us work through any hard parts and then we get to look at the questionnaires.
What kind of questions are on the questionnaire? She wanted to know.
Oh, things like, what crime did you commit? Are you paying restitution? Who was affected by your crime? What do you think the impact of your crime was on your victim? Which of the victim’s stories impacted you the most and why and if you had a chance to say something to your victim now, what would it be?
Many members of the audience are impacted by my story because of the effects this continuous home invasion had on my children. Apparently, most criminals don’t like it when other criminals mess with children.
It’s been exactly a year since I spoke on the second panel. This time, I found myself less emotional overall and more thoughtful in my words. I’m less consumed with what happened and more focused on the impact.
I realize now, I have an opportunity to convey a message:
Your misguided, thoughtless, selfish actions have devastating effects on multiple lives. Grown men are left jobless, on medication and fighting insurance companies on a daily basis to cover medical expenses as a result of what you did. Young girls are constantly looking over their shoulders now and making plans to move out-of-state before your release from prison for fear of your return. Families who lived quietly and privately on your street are left with anger and confusion and are torn apart. You have compromised our ability to TRUST.
You DO NOT have the right to mess with people’s lives, especially children’s lives and most especially, MINE. It-is-not-Okay.
And, if I can’t tell Brian directly – (there’s a five-year Order of Protection against him for each member of my family while he’s on probation) I’ll tell others like him.
And I did.
This time, I also passed around theses pictures of our 21-year-old neighbor while he was dressed up like a burglar invading our home; the same pictures that were sent via email from the camera we had set up to catch him; the pictures my then eight-year-old daughter saw when the police were buzzing through our house the day he was arrested coming out of it, the ones Brian’s dad just couldn’t look at when I told him he should see what his son looked like when he was creeping around our home, uninvited.
So much has changed in our lives since and as a result of, what happened. While I don’t hold Brian completely responsible, there’s no doubt the fracture of our family is in part, collateral damage resulting from his invasion into our home, disrupting the harmony that once resided there and obliterating the sense of safety we enjoyed for so many years.
“You can’t let an event in your life define who you are. It’s not what happens to you but what you do, when something happens, that becomes part of your character.”
These are my words. I keep them on my About page and often revisit them to remind myself of what I believe to be true; to help me to continue to move forward.
To keep moving forward.
Mom? Did Brian have to fill out one of those questionnaires? Hannah asked.
Yes, I said. I’m sure he did. They all have to.
She paused for a minute, slowly looked up at me and said,
Can you see his?
Can I see his?
The possibility hadn’t occurred to me.
I don’t know.
Why don’t you ask the parole officer if you can? she said.
Heart stop –again.
Could I ask? Would I ask? Did I ask?
I did ask her if I could see his questionnaire.
And even though Brian didn’t respect our privacy two years ago while he repeatedly ransacked our home, our bedrooms, our closets and drawers, I am going to respect his today– somewhat.
I’m not going to say what the parole officer’s response was or whether I did or didn’t get to read Brian’s questionnaire and find out who he thought was affected by his crime and how or what he would say to us if he had the chance, now.
Photo Credit #1: Hope
Photo Credit #3: Trust/Google Images
Photo Credit #2, 4 & #5 Karen Szczuka Teich & http://www.takingtheworldonwithasmile. Not to be reproduced or reused without express permission.
Some days, weeks or months hold a certain significance in your life that trigger specific memories.
It was a year ago this month, that I faced my neighbor in court for a second time. I was given the opportunity to tell him about the impact his actions had on our family in a statement that I wrote and read during his sentencing. The first time we met in a courtroom, was five months earlier at the beginning of February, when he was being arraigned on felony charges of burglary and a few other misdemeanor crimes including possession of stolen property. He was wearing an orange jump suit and mouthed the words “I’m sorry” to me when I looked over to where he was seated next to an armed guard. This was a few days after he was caught coming out of our home by a young, smart, quick-thinking State Trooper who is a credit to his profession in every way.
NYS Trooper Timko, heard the “burglary in progress” call come over his radio and knew he had limited time and this was for real. He managed to get to our house in less than three minutes, coming from across town, nearly five miles away. Even though six local squad cars also responded to the call, Timko was the first to arrive on the scene. He’d been checking in with us throughout the winter after responding to our initial complaint in November. As a result, he knew exactly where to go to at our house and indeed, found the perpetrator coming out of our backyard. When Timko apprehended him, this tough (creepy) guy was wearing slippers, a hoodie and his sister’s sweat pants. He also had black gloves and a blue ski mask on his person. That would account for why my husband didn’t recognize him when a flurry of images showing a burglar in our home, were transmitted to his iPhone via email, thus prompting the 911 call.
The “burglar” was wearing the ski mask as he crept up the stairs to our living room.
Seven weeks earlier we hid a motion sensor camera in our living room at Trooper Timko’s urging and after being robbed six times in three months.
It was a Tuesday. I was off and had gone out for lunch with friends. Before leaving I did the same thing I’d done every day for the past seven weeks. I unlocked the window leading to a crawl space underneath our porch in the small bathroom just off the family room downstairs. I glanced around the family room confirming that there were a few dollars and some loose change lying around, ran upstairs, made sure the camera was on, dropped a five dollar bill on the coffee table in direct view of the camera’s eye, locked the front door and left.
When I got home, I poked my head downstairs just long enough to immediately notice that the money was gone.
“Oh My God — he was here!” I thought to myself. Although at that time, I had no idea who “he” was.
My heart pounded wildly as I ran upstairs knowing with absolute certainty, that the five dollar bill I’d placed on the glass coffee table two hours earlier would also be gone and it was.
The words tumbled frantically out of my mouth when I called my husband,
“He was here! Why didn’t you call me? He was here! Did you check your email?”
My husband had no idea what I was talking about. There was no email from the camera. No pictures.
I didn’t understand. What the hell happened?
This was burglary number seven and by far, the most invasive. This was the one where much of my jewelry was taken, including my engagement ring and the first pair of gold Italian droplet earrings my husband gave me 18-years earlier. This was the time when it was blatant that my personal drawer and private things had been touched, taken and rooted through. I couldn’t speak. I was devastated. The long wait was over and we blew it. Surely, he would never come back. Why would he? There was nothing left. He had cleaned us out. I went to bed at 4pm.
It took my husband all night and several technical support phone calls to learn that in fact, the camera received 45-minutes worth of constant “hits” which began 10-minutes after I’d left the house but because of a windstorm the day before (and unbeknownst to us) our internet was “down” that afternoon and no pictures were saved or transmitted.
Forty-five minutes of constant hits.
The next morning, I performed my daily ritual before leaving the house but truly, it was only out of habit. I was beyond discouraged and didn’t even bother to leave money on the coffee table.
That’s why it was so hard to comprehend when my husband called me at work that afternoon and calmly said,
“I just called 911. There’s a burglar in our house right now. I can see him. He has a weapon and he sees the camera. I think he’s going to break it.”
I was stunned.
It was shocking to learn the thief, was our neighbor; a 20-year old boy who had been helping himself to our money and jewelry, who had ripped our screen windows, cracked our doors and broke our lock box. It was someone we knew, who had gone through our little girl’s bedroom removing holiday money from jars on her dresser and cards in her drawers. It was the boy next door, who had taken my son’s little, silver bear-bank filled with coins, the one that held the picture of him as a smiling infant in his crib. A quick and cursory search of my neighbor’s bedroom by law enforcement agents after his arrest, uncovered a few personal items that belonged to my family. I identified them and they were taken into evidence.
Once the initial shock wore off, we had a brief stint with elation. It was over. Over. Woohoo! We had caught this CREEP ourselves and it was finally over. Or so I thought. What I didn’t realize, was that it was just the beginning of yet another long journey I had no idea I, we, were meant to take. It began with five months of dealing with phone calls, court dates and an overworked Assistant DA who seemed confused by our level of “participation” and whose comment to me that he just couldn’t get over “how interested” we were in our case, left me dumbfounded and disheartened. Luckily, we had a DA friend from a neighboring town, who coached us along the way.
Sometime at the end of last summer, a NY State Trooper’s car pulled up onto my lawn and Trooper Timko came to my front door. He was personally returning the items found in a sock at the bottom of a closet in my neighbor’s bedroom during that cursory search after his arrest. Returned to me was one of my Italian droplet earrings, a gold “K” charm my dad gave me as a child and the now empty, silver bear-bank that was taken from my son’s room.
Of all the things he took, the one thing I miss the most, is the little round picture of my smiling baby in his crib that sat in the frame attached to the bank. It bothers me, a lot that he removed that picture.
And even though we were awarded full restitution of over $10,500, honestly, I would just like to have the picture back.
It was a year ago this month that I began a new and unsolicited journey, one that opened a Pandora’s box and hasn’t seen fit to close it yet. One that has taken me to a place in my life now, that I never expected to be, interspersed with equal parts of immense joy and pain. One that in the past year, has brought forth many surprising twists and turns in the form of a variety of people, places and things, bringing me face to face with who I am and who I strive to be. It has re-surfaced old truths; the hard kinds, the ones that have been buried for a long time and will no longer go away. This journey leaves me a little sadder but much stronger and more determined than I have ever been. It’s difficult at times but it’s also hopeful, open-ended and holds great promise for the future and clearly, it is far, far, far, from over.
Photo Credits: #1, #2, #3 & #4 - © 2011 Karen Szczuka Teich. All rights reserved.
I was at work when my cell phone rang and I could see from my contact list that it was “Parole Officer – Diane” calling. Diane had been assigned to our case last Spring and had interviewed me for several hours. She was the only person that I encountered within the judicial system, in the five months that passed from arrest to sentencing, who actually took the time to listen, really listen to what happened to my family and understand how much it effected us. During the sentencing in June, she stood in between me and the assistant district attorney prosecuting our case. To my right was the defense attorney, next to him, his client; the offender. We were standing before the judge’s bench when Diane reached up and touched my arm because my right hand had begun to tremble uncontrollably when I started to speak.
It’s not like I’ve never spoken in public before, I have, many times but this was different, very different. It was personal. I was talking about my children. The gentle reminder of Diane’s presence calmed me, enabling me to continue to read aloud the 3-page, typed statement I’d prepared. The court calls it a Victim’s Impact Statement. For me, it was a bearing of my soul, exposing my innermost feelings and fears, in public. Difficult. Painful. But as any parent can relate, when it comes to your children and in particular, their safety, your own comfort is inconsequential. You do what you have to, for them. You do ANYTHING. Diane gave me strength that day to do what I needed to do, so when I answered her call and she asked if I would speak on a Victim’s Impact Panel, I said, “Yes”.
This would be the second time a panel of this kind was held in our county and the second time I would speak on it.
This past Thursday, the panel gathered in a small room off to the side of the community room at our city’s police station. We met with a victims advocate who is also a psychiatrist. She gave us breathing techniques and other ideas on what to do if we got anxious while speaking. We introduced ourselves to each other and briefly mentioned the type of crime that had effected our lives. The woman next to me was one of three of us from the first panel. It was oddly comforting to see her again. Hers is a powerful story. She and her husband were attacked by her daughter’s ex-boyfriend. He had machetes hidden in his jacket when he entered their home and cut them both, badly. Her husband lost a thumb. He was a carpenter. He turned to alcohol. They’re separated now.
Shortly after the introductions, we took our seats at the front of the community room and watched the parolees shuffle in, one by one, sitting three at a table. There were ten, maybe fifteen tables. Questionnaires had been placed in front of each seat and they were instructed to fill them out at the end in order to receive “credit” for being there. Five officers were strategically placed throughout the room.
Like the last time, Diane introduced me first and rather abruptly, the room went from chatty and busy to silent while all eyes settled on me. I took a deep breath and began to recount what happened to my family and how it has effected our lives. After a while, even though I could still hear myself talking, a part of me seemed to detach from the speaker and I also became the looker, the watcher, the observer; scrutinizing the bodies that sat before me. I found myself noting what they were wearing, how they sat; their demeanor. There were men and women of various ages, although the majority of them were young. They were dressed in every fashion, whether it was proper attire, or not. Although, they were told to remove their hats before we started. They were black, white, Spanish, Asian and other. It was a mixed crowd and unless you knew what brought this diverse group of people together, you couldn’t guess what they had in common. I didn’t have to. Other than the fact that they were all here by court order, mandated to sit for the next 2 hours and listen to our stories, I knew that each one of these people was a convicted felon, having committed such crimes as aggravated assault, battery, arson, fraud, attempted murder, burglary, illegal drug use or sales.
Like the last time, I found the audience to be quiet and respectful. And again, I was honestly taken by how attentive everyone was. Really. You can’t fake eye contact and most of the people there seemed genuinely interested in what we had to say. For many of these offenders, it was the first time they came “face to face” with real consequences of their actions.
After revisiting the life-changing event that brought us to this room, we were escorted back into the smaller room to “debrief” and discuss our experience with the psychiatrist and other law enforcement agents that were there. About ten minutes later, Diane came in holding the questionnaires that the parolees were required to fill out and handed them to us to look at. It was interesting to learn what crimes these people actually committed and fascinating to learn what, if anything about our stories had an impact on them. I was curious to see what they would say to their victims if they had the opportunity, “I’m sorry”, was the most popular response.
Just like last time, it was the effect the crime had on my children that made the biggest impression on the offenders that were impacted by my story. Perhaps it was the fact that I was too distraught to put up a Christmas tree for my kids or that my 9-year old daughter was having nightmares and wetting her bed. Maybe it was hearing that my son (who had just turned 11) was a primary suspect and upon learning that, I instinctively refused to sign the complaint statement that would allow the detectives to pursue their investigation, leaving us effectively, on our own. Or, it could have been me telling them, that for most of November, December and January, my boy would sit outside our house, in the cold, for over an hour after school, waiting for me to come home from work, rather than go inside by himself because he was too afraid, that struck a chord with some.
One man who commented on my story said he felt “helpless” while listening to me talk about what happened.
So did I — at the time.
And just like last time, I remained unemotional and composed, throughout– until I got into my car to go home.
I realize, you can’t let an event in your life define who you are. It’s not what happens to you but what you do when something happens that becomes part of your character. It’s recognizing what you would do differently and what you did well. It’s about trusting your instincts and finding the strength to do what you know in your heart is right, even when the person closest to you is trying to dissuade you.
Ultimately, it’s what you learn from the event that helps shape who you are.
I’m not quite finished dealing with the aftermath of this event. It’s opened up a Pandora’s Box in my life. It’s put me onto a path I never expected to be on. But I’m Okay with where I am today and even though it’s not a very comfortable place to be, I believe I’m where I’m supposed to be. I think that’s true for the rest of my family, too.
When I ask myself if it was a good thing for me to speak and tell my story, again and when I wonder if it made a difference or mattered to anyone, I can honestly say, “Yes, it did”, to me anyway. It helped me put things in perspective and reminded me that I am living life on life’s terms, not mine and of how far I’ve come from feeling helpless and not being able to put up a Christmas tree.