BROOKINGS - Jessica Garcia’s life changed forever six years ago when she was violently sexually assaulted. After surviving the attack, she quickly realized the worst of it wasn’t over when she tried to go to the hospital.
What followed was an ordeal Garcia believes no one should have to endure. So, she’s trying to change it. And she just might succeed.
Garcia has already made big strides thanks to a partnership with State Rep. David Brock Smith’s office. In 2019, House Bill 2375 passed the legislature and was signed into law by Gov. Kate Brown. The law requires district attorneys and hospitals to have a plan to treat sexual assault survivors or a plan to quickly transfer them to a facility that does.
Garcia pushed for the law because she felt the way she was treated after her rape was an ordeal no one should have to experience.
To understand, one has to go back to 2014. Garcia remembers meeting a man at a local business. While the two hit it off and things were great at first, the man, Lorenzo Ignacio King, was not who he said he was and he violently attacked and assaulted Garcia for hours.
After it was over, Garcia was like many assault survivors.
“After I was assaulted, first, I didn’t want anybody to know,” she said. “I was embarrassed. When I went to the hospital, I didn’t want anybody to know. At first, I wanted to say my ribs were broken.”
A nurse at the hospital knew differently after seeing obvious signs of trauma, including bite marks and extensive bruises.
“That’s when I found out they don’t do our kits,” Garcia said.
At the Brookings facility, she was told to get a rape kit done, she had to drive to Grants Pass or Coos Bay. Garcia almost left it there, but a friend convinced her to fight back, even if it was only so others wouldn’t have to run into King.
After thinking for a few minutes, Garcia decided to do what she thought was best and drove to Crescent City, Calif., 30 minutes from Brookings. At the time, it made sense because Crescent City is much closer than Grants Pass or Coos Bay.
“What I think is a problem is maybe someone should tell you if you cross state lines, you have to talk to the police there, too,” she said.
Over the next 16 hours, without sleep and without food and water, Garcia told her story over and over to the Brookings police, Curry County Sheriff’s Office, Crescent City police, Del Norte County Sheriff’s Office and a nurse advocate.
“You need to be able to do this one time, so you can get as much out as you can,” she said. “It was a nightmare from one end to the other. It’s a completely humiliating experience.”
But it was only starting.
After a 12-hour standoff where he injured himself seriously, police eventually arrested King. He was flown by air ambulance to a hospital and recovered.
“We can give him the best care he can have, but we don’t want to invest in SANE nurses because it’s too expensive,” Garcia said.
But Garcia survived, and the worst was over. Or so the thought. When King came to trial, Garcia said the nightmare started over again. During the trial, she had to testify in public, in front of her friends, her neighbors and even her pastor, about the experience she went through. To top it off, everyone in the courtroom saw blown-up photos of her private parts during the testimony.
After her first day of testimony, Garcia remembered going to the grocery store because her children wanted ice cream. As she pushed the cart around, she saw a man who was at the courtroom that day. She said as he stared at her, and she remembered him seeing close-up photos of her body, she left the cart and ran out.
After the trial, that ordeal continued. For two years, she pretty much locked herself in her home, afraid to venture out.
“I would go to the grocery store 10 minutes before closing,” she said. “My kids never got to go to the river. They were raped from the activities they could have been doing.”
Garcia said just living was difficult. While her rapist was locked away for 46 years, she was still not free.
“About two years later, I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalled. “I looked at myself in the mirror and said, ‘Is this going to define you?’”
It was then she started thinking about changing the system.
“After this experience, I asked does this just happen in Curry County or does it happen in other counties, too,” she said.
It turns out, most smaller counties have similar issues. Because it expensive to train and keep Sexual Assault Nurse Examiners, many small counties have none. At the time, those counties and their medical facilities had no plans on how to help assault survivors. When she first looked, 15 Oregon counties had no SANE nurses, leaving 500,000 people without that service.
“Rape does not discriminate based on geography,” Garcia said. “Rape happens in small towns and big towns, so we need care in small towns and big towns. I decided I’m going to devote my time to this.”
That was when Garcia began working to change the laws in Oregon. She had lots of help, pointing to Jacqueline Swanson, an attorney in Oregon, sexual assault survivor Brenda Tracy and sexual assault reform advocate Leah Griffin. But the real change was when Garcia got to tell her story to Brock Smith. When Brock Smith and his team got on board, things began to happen.
HB 2375 was filed in the 2019 legislative session.
“He and his team, they just took it,” Garcia said. “It passed the committee and went to the House of Representatives. It passed there. It went to the Senate and passed there. It was all unanimous.”
Garcia was even invited to the state capital for the signing ceremony with the governor. The new law went into effect in January, although Garcia admits COVID has delayed some elements of it.
From Garcia’s standpoint, the key element of the law is hospitals cannot turn sexual assault victims away and if they don’t have a SANE nurse, they must provide transportation to and from a location that does.
While Garcia is happy with HB 2375, she is not done. She is already working with Brock Smith and his team on two new pieces of legislation.
One would require hospitals and police to have pamphlets available that tell sexual assault survivors all their rights. While there are pamphlets available now, many list only a small portion of a victim’s rights.
The second is admittedly a little more complicated. Garcia would like to see the state’s Fair Trial Law changed so sexual assault survivors can ask for the courtroom to be cleared of spectators when graphic photos are presented or graphic testimony is going on. All attorneys, jurors and the defendant would be permitted to stay. She said having to go through that in public is nothing short of witness intimidation.
“Having strangers in the courtroom looking at your private parts, that’s witness intimidation,” she said. “I didn’t say everything 100 percent because I was so humiliated.”
Garcia said Friday she had just learned Brock Smith had filed the legislation to change the Fair Trial Law.
“It needs to be a fair courtroom, but when your body parts are up there, do you really want your neighbors sitting there?” she asked. “It’s intimidating witnesses.”
Garcia said the changes won’t help her, but there are others it will. Regardless of age or gender, sexual assault victims should be allowed to confront their abusers without intimidation, she said.
“This is not my story,” she said. “This is every survivor’s story. Think of your mother sitting on the stand with a picture of her vagina. Would you want her neighbors to see her vagina? I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through. I don’t want anyone to sit on the stand like I did.”
While it took years for Garcia to get her life back after being assaulted and testifying, she said she has a focus now. Changing laws in Oregon is a start, but it won’t be the final story. She said she is always coming up with new ideas that could help survivors in the future.
“I really want to work on a training manual for safety personnel to appropriately interview the survivors, so they get as much information as possible,” she said.
She is also hoping to work with others like Griffin to promote federal laws. Griffin has been working with Washington Sen. Patty Murray to push the Survivors Access to Supportive Care Act. If passed, the law would provide the resources to conduct a national survey to identify where gaps are in hospitals nationwide. It would also implement federal standards of care, a grant program to expand access to SANE training, a national task force to address the quality of the exams and a national best-practices clearinghouse so healthcare providers can improve the quality of care.
Garcia admitted it is often difficult to tell her story, but if it helps others, she is willing to.
“It is a purpose, it is a mission, and if I don’t sit in front of you, who will listen?” she asked.
Thinking back on the night in 2014 when she was assaulted and the trial that tore the wounds open, Garcia admits is was terrifying and difficult. More than six year later, there are still moments that are very hard. Just last week, she was with her boyfriend when he had to stop near the house where her assault occurred. She admitted is was difficult, but she made it through.
And today, she wouldn’t change her experience.
“I would not want to be that Jessica again,” she said, referring to before her assault. “I have a voice. I don’t think people realize how important one voice is. If you assert your voice in a healthy way, and you continue to assert your voice in a healthy way, somebody will listen.”