The September 19 stabbing death of Peter Gonzales has shocked the core of Davis in ways that few cases really have. Many have argued that this exposes the long unaddressed and growing problem of the Davis Downtown.
While I understand that sentiment and agree that we need to address problems in the downtown, I am also concerned that we may be overreacting in some ways to a single incident. As I noted in my commentary yesterday – it is far from clear from the data that the problem is growing.
However, at the same time, as I have watched this unfold, I am troubled by the strong reaction to this death and the lack of reaction to other murders in our community. As some have said, just because we underreacted to other murders does not mean we should not appropriately react to this murder and I can appreciate that viewpoint.
I can also appreciate the fact that this was a murder in the heart of downtown where people go every day and that some of the problems associated with drinking in the downtown have nothing to do with the murder and have everything to do with student-downtown-community relations and how best to merge very different lifestyles and worldviews into a small area.
However, for me there is the troubling and, in my view, unresolved issue of the death of five-year-old Tatiana Garcia, who was drowned in 2013 by her mother Aquelin Talamantes, who last year was sentenced to life in prison.
This one hit home at the time because the murder likely took place around the corner from where I live and where some of my children go to school at Pioneer Elementary. Moreover, the five-year-old was only slightly older than my own daughter at the time.
But, most of all, this murder drives at my heart because it was entirely preventable. The issues of Ms. Talamantes’ instability were laid bare during a contentious custody battle between her and the father of the child.
Finally, this murder gnaws at me because, while the community of Davis is up in arms about the stabbing death of Peter Gonzales, there was barely a murmur of protest in the wake of the death of the five-year-old. There were rarely comments on the Vanguard in a number of articles we ran at the time, and the community failed to demand changes to a system that failed the young victim.
Court documents that the Vanguard acquired shortly after the death of Tatiana Garcia showed that there was a lengthy custody battle between Ms. Talamantes and the victim’s father. There were accusations of child abuse from each parent.
In a declaration from the father, he accused Ms. Talamantes of anger problems, with periods of violence and property damage in front of the children.
Last spring, Barry Goldstein author of the book, The Quincy Solution, was the keynote speaker on Sunday at the 21st Annual Northern California Child Sexual Abuse Awareness Conference. Among other things he discussed the fact that there are different systems for how to handle claims of child abuse in the system.
If it is a stranger, the reports are aggressively investigated by law enforcement and the findings are forwarded to prosecutors, who then file criminal charges and the case proceeds in criminal court.
However, if it is a family member, it is handled very differently. It is not investigated by law enforcement and often custody courts operate under the presumption that the allegations are false and initiated in order to gain advantage during custody hearings.
He writes, “When the alleged predator is someone the child knows, particularly a family member, the approach is completely different. The investigation is led by a social worker. They are required to provide notice to the parents which provides the opportunity for the molester to destroy evidence and silence the child. There is a delay in interviewing the child and the abuser. The purpose of the investigation is to reunify the parent and child and little effort is made to gather evidence.”
Mr. Goldstein cited evidence that false allegations of child abuse, including sexual abuse, are exceedingly rare (less than two percent of all cases that were eventually investigated), and yet the courts award custody to the offenders 85 percent of the time.
He writes in an essay, “Although mothers rarely make deliberately false allegations of sexual abuse, in 85% of cases in which mothers raise these concerns, the alleged abuser is given custody. This means courts are sending an awful lot of children to live with their rapists. The only thing worse than raising these grizzly statistics would be for someone to say it is inevitable and we do not have the ability to do a better job protecting children.”
Mr. Goldstein explained that professionals expect to see physical evidence of abuse before they even consider sexual abuse allegations. He writes, “If the case later leads to a custody dispute, this lack of evidence caused by the substandard investigation is treated as proof the allegations are deliberately false.”
This is clearly what happened in the custody battle for little Tatiana. The custody court had competing claims of child abuse, and, rather than investigating those claims, the custody court granted custody to the mother, an unstable individual – and the welfare of the child was not taken into account until it was too late.
But where was the outcry to fix the custody court system? Last spring, the Vanguard had a program on the family courts and the appalling ineffectiveness of the system that often places the children with their abusers.
The death of little Tatiana, had it provoked the kind of outcry in this community that the death of Peter Gonzales has, might have impelled our state and local officials to do something to correct this system. But, sadly, this death did not impact the community in the same way that the death of Peter Gonzales did, and so, two years later, the same flawed custody system remains in place.
—David M. Greenwald reporting