California kidnapping case: Why didn't woman seek help years ago?

The woman who told police she was kidnapped at age 15, sexually abused, and forced to marry her abductor, reportedly had a car and Internet access. But captors can have a powerful emotional hold, experts say.

Damian Dovarganes/AP
The home of suspect Isidro Garcia, the top floor, left apartment 'G' is photographed in Bell Gardens, Calif., on Wednesday, May. 21, 2014. Garcia was arrested Wednesday for allegedly kidnapping a 15-year-old girl in Santa Ana in 2004.

How can a kidnapping victim who interacts with the outside world be held captive for a decade?

The anguished question arises as the story unfolds of the Santa Ana, Calif., woman who told police this week she was kidnapped at age 15, sexually abused, and forced to marry her abductor.

Experts who deal with human trafficking say there are many factors such as age, the relationship of the victim and perpetrator, and even immigration status that make each case different.

But, they point out, there are commonalities that appear to link the Santa Ana case to others such as the abduction of 11-year-old Jaycee Dugard, who was held for nearly 20 years in a Lake Tahoe home’s backyard, and the imprisonment of three women abducted by Ariel Castro and held for nearly a decade in a house in the middle of a working-class Cleveland neighborhood.

All of the narratives involve rape and children born while captive.

Key to holding captives in such circumstances is the mental domination captors hold over their victims, says Farrah Parker, executive director for the City of Los Angeles Commission on the Status of Women.

“Many may wonder how a woman can have access to the outside world and not seek help,” she says.

The Santa Ana case sheds light on the powerful emotional impacts of kidnapping and modern day slavery, she says.

“While physical violence is incredibly detrimental, the emotional enslavement extends beyond physical infliction. Captors convince their victims that they have eyes everywhere and that even their thoughts are not safe,” she says, adding that if a victim’s self-esteem, self-worth, hope, and belief in humanity have all been deflated, “then she cannot conceptualize life beyond captivity.”

But in addition to feeling the negative emotions of fear and despair, “people often develop strong emotional bonds to people who make them feel vulnerable,” says Robert Epstein, senior research psychologist at the American Institute for Behavioral Research and Technology.

If this were the situation in the Santa Ana case, notes Professor Epstein, an expert on Stockholm syndrome, it would explain how the victim could remain in place for so long and even marry him.

Isidro Garcia, 41, the accused kidnapper in the Santa Ana case, was dating the victim’s mother at the time of her alleged abduction. In her police report, the victim, who has not been identified, stated that she was drugged, raped, and removed from her family. She says she was repeatedly told that her family did not love her and that her mother was not searching for her. In addition, being illegally in the country, the victim says she also feared deportation, a threat she said her abductor held over her head if she tried to leave him.

This sort of alienation from family and intimidation about the consequences of leaving the abductor are part of a familiar pattern in these cases, points out Charles Williams, associate professor of psychology at Drexel University in Philadelphia.

“If the abductor can convince the child that nobody cares for them but him, then he begins to have control over her,” he says, adding that “once you control her mind, you control her body.”

Some caution a rush to judgment in every case, however. In the Santa Ana case, reported details from neighbors have suggested that at least outwardly, the victim and Mr. Garcia lived a quiet average life. She reportedly had her own car and access to the Internet. Indeed, she told police she was moved to report her case once she located her sister on Facebook.

Beverly Hills psychiatrist Carole Lieberman says there must be some reason the woman is coming forward now.

“She seems to have been able to get to the police station and convince them to arrest her husband – even though going to the police could result in her deportation,” she says via e-mail, adding that there does not seem to be any reason why she couldn't have done this sooner.

“No,” says Dr. Lieberman, “There is some reason why she came forward now, probably because she had a disagreement with her husband. Maybe he has been abusive in some way, or maybe she found a man she likes better.”

Nonetheless, Santa Ana police have arrested Mr. Garcia. If convicted of kidnapping and child molestation, he faces serious consequences, points out Los Angeles attorney Ian Wallach. Whether Mr. Isidro is ultimately confined to a prison or a mental institution will depend on what we learn in the future, he notes.

“His fate may turn on what he is convicted of – those convicted of child-molestation are routinely beaten in prison, allowing other incarcerated offenders to increase their social status,” he points out, adding if Isidro is convicted as a child-molester, in a high-profile case, and sent to prison, “then his fate will be among the worst imaginable.”

As for whether the victim’s charges are credible, Mr. Wallach suggests that the Supreme Court has noted that a minor is vulnerable to mental manipulation in ways that mature adults are not.

“In the context of juvenile justice, the Supreme Court has recently recognized that a juvenile offender's mind is not yet fully-formed, allowing them to be more susceptible to the will of others,” he says, adding that the capacity to identify options or make rational decisions simply isn't developed in a 15-year-old, “making this type of capture far more possible than we wish to realize.”

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