“You are the strongest person to ever sit in that chair,” Judge Ericka Sanders said to 16-year-old Bailey*. Bailey and her team of OHU counselors listened intently as Judge Sanders went on to praise Bailey for sharing her story of trauma and abuse, and bravely taking the next step in her healing process.
Bailey’s testimony comes three years after that of her twin sister, Bree*, who testified in court to the horrific abuse both girls endured at the hands of their adoptive father. This man is now in prison for the sexual assault of Bree that resulted in a pregnancy at the age of 13, and for the kidnapping of Bree and her son, Eli*. In the same year that Bree became pregnant, the girls lost their mother to complications from rheumatoid arthritis, a disease that also inhabits Bailey’s body.
Because Bree was the only victim identified in the case, Bailey was denied the opportunity to testify at their adopted father’s trial. For three years, Bailey has carried the weight of this forced silence with her. She has since been placed at One Hope United’s Centralia residential home for a second time after struggling with self-harm, suicidal ideations, and depression.
In February of 2020, Bailey’s counselors had an idea. The team wondered what would be different for Bailey if she could rewrite her narrative. What if she could tell her story to someone who could make real changes in the system? How would life be different for Bailey if she had her day in court? Judge Ericka Sanders, the Marion County Juvenile Judge, agreed that Bailey deserved this opportunity.
Judge Sanders has made great efforts to prioritize the mental health of any youth who comes into her courtroom. Knowing Judge Sanders’ propensity to be an agent of change, Bailey’s care team reached out to her with a novel idea. The team wanted to bring Bailey to the courthouse to testify in front of a judge and to share the story she had been unable to tell three years prior. Within 15 minutes of the email being sent, Judge Sanders responded saying she would be honored to help.
Two weeks later, Judge Sanders met with Bailey’s care team at a local coffee house to iron out the details. OHU counselors Jayme Godoyo, Sarah Downen, Brandon Newcomer, and Jessica Perry shared more details of Bailey’s story with Judge Sanders. They agreed that Bailey’s court session should be treated as if it were a real court session, complete with Judge Sanders in her black robe and calling court into session for The People vs. Bailey’s abuser. Judge Sanders also shared with the team that the courthouse now has access to a therapy dog, and that it would be a good idea for Bailey to first practice being in the courtroom. The team agreed Bailey would love this idea, and it would be the perfect opportunity for the dog to use his skills.
On the day of Bailey’s court session, Judge Sanders offered her the choice to sit at a table or in the witness stand. Without hesitating, Bailey chose the witness stand.
When Bailey took her seat to the left side of the judge, she paused for a moment. Bailey was given the space and silence she needed to collect herself as her counselor, Jayme Godoyo, took a seat next to her. Quietly, Jayme provided Bailey the comfort she needed to regain her composure. Not sure where to begin, Jayme encouraged Bailey to start with her earliest memory.
The adults in the room sat silent and still, fighting back tears at times, as Bailey took the next thirty minutes to tell the story she had waited years to tell. With Jayme at her side, Bailey recounted the abuse she endured, the devastation she felt over her mom’s death, and the guilt she still carries with her today because she couldn’t stop her sister Bree’s sexual assault. “I’m protective of her,” Bailey said. “I’m happy we have Eli [Bree’s son], but I’m sad she got pregnant.”
When Bailey finished, she looked out onto the small crowd of people and said, “does anyone have any questions?” The conviction in her tone was that of a young woman in control of a room. When asked what advice she would give to other young girls who may have shared similar experiences, without hesitation Bailey softly but strongly stated, “Keep fighting…always keep fighting.”
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.