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A heartbreaking tragedy, A fight for her family

$6,338raised of $50,000 goal
12%

Organizer: Tom and Crystal O'Neill Beneficiary: Zoraida Conde Hernandez

Zoraida lost her son Nathan due to a tragic incident. Now she is in a legal fight to keep her freedom and continue caring for her four other children.

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July 5, 2013 is a day that will always haunt Zoraida Conde Hernandez.  This was the day she lost her youngest child, Nathan, after unknowingly leaving him in her car while she worked.

Without even a moment to grieve, police took Zoraida (Zory to her family and friends) into custody and charged her with felony child neglect.  She was held in jail for weeks while the court evaluated her home and other children and determined how they would proceed.  Zory was finally released on bond, which was provided by an anonymous donor who had heard of the family’s tragedy and was moved with compassion to help reunite her with her other children.  Now, while Zory and her family should be focused on working through their grief and healing the wounds left by this tragedy, she is being forced to focus her energy on defending herself against criminal and civil charges being brought against her by Arlington and Alexandria.

Most recently, the families that have had to fight similar legal charges in VA have spent anywhere from $70,000 - $100,000 in their defense.  Anyone who knows Zory will tell you that she doesn’t have the financial resources necessary to support her defense – as a single mother, she has struggled to make ends meet on a day-to-day basis.  While Zory’s lawyers are providing their services at a significantly reduced rate, the other trial-related costs will still be steep, at an estimated $50,000.  These expenses are the result of:

  • Court fees
  • Court reporter fees, at up to $1000 per day in court (A critical component in any criminal case is ensuring the legal team has a record of all proceedings for reference in mapping out their defense)
  • Expert witness fees, at several thousands of dollars per expert (Includes memory experts who have testified in similar cases about the physiology/psychology that affects memory and contribute to these tragedies;  therapists and social service providers who have evaluated the family; subject matter experts who have tracked and monitored the issue of car-related heatstroke deaths of children unknowingly left in vehicles; etc.)
  • Private investigator to support the legal team in building Zory’s defense by tracking down and interviewing witnesses

It’s important to recognize that the prosecuting attorneys have the full use of the police department, investigators, and a seemingly bottomless pool of financial resources to secure expert witnesses and assist in preparing their case.  Addressing the minimal needs listed above will put Zoraida on closer to equal footing with the counties.

Zory’s family and friends have rallied around her to offer emotional support during this challenging time.  Now, we – her family, friends, coworkers, fellow parishioners, neighbors and community members – need to pool together our financial resources to help her fight these trials and to keep her family together.  They have all been through so much heartbreak already, we need to do all that we can to help relieve them of some of these burdens and keep Zory together with the rest of her children.

For those of you who don’t know Zory and might be struggling with how this could have happened… how a parent could possibly forget her child was in the car, please read this article by Gene Weingarten that was published in the Washington Post in 2009. 

Sadly, Zory and Nathan’s tragedy isn’t unique. This year alone, more than 43 children have died from heatstroke after being left in a vehicle – the second highest on record.  On average each year, 38 children across the country experience similar fates.  It’s important to know that in most of these cases, it’s not because the parent is willfully neglectful, abusive or unloving – in fact, it’s usually quite the opposite.  Rather, changes in routine, miscommunication, unusually high levels of stress and/or unexpected distractions lead to these devastating tragedies.  As Gene’s article highlights, “The wealthy do, it turns out.  And the poor, and the middle class.  Parents of all ages and ethnicities do it.  Mothers are just as likely to do it as fathers.  It happens to the chronically absent-minded and to the fanatically organized, to the college-educated and to the marginally literate.  In the last 10 years, it has happened to a dentist.  A postal clerk.  A social worker.  A police officer.  An accountant.  A soldier.  A paralegal.  An electrician.  A Protestant clergyman.  A rabbinical student.  A nurse.  A construction worker.  An assistant principal.  It happened to a mental health counselor, a college professor and a pizza chef.  It happened to a pediatrician.  It happened to a rocket scientist.”  The most dangerous mistake a parent or caregiver can make is to think it cannot happen to them or their family.

We will try to post updates as Zory’s trials progress and hope you will check back periodically for special posts from family, friends and coworkers closest to her.  We pray that God will fill your hearts with understanding and compassion, and we thank you for any support you are able to provide.

Sincerely,
Tom and Crystal O’Neill
Tom works for the Office for Family Life at the Catholic Diocese of Arlington.  His wife, Crystal, is a public relations professional and volunteer with KidsAndCars.org, the leading organization for child safety as it relates to the dangers children face in and around motor vehicles, with a focused expertise in nontraffic incidents such as vehicular heatstroke and backover incidents.

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Updates

Updates

11/14/2013
by Tom and Crystal O'Neill
Many people have been asking if there's anything else they can do to help Zoraida.  There is!

Some families who have gone through this have had success getting their cases dismissed by the intervention of the local and state representatives who were prompted by outreach from supporters.  Today, I sent letters to local delegates that represent the district Zoraida's office is located (and where the tragedy occured) as well as our state representatives.

Please consider doing the same!  I've pasted the letter I wrote below so you can copy/paste it into your emails or the represenatives' online submissions forms.  Of course, feel free to write your own letter, just figured this might be helpful if you don't have the time.

The representatives to reach out to by submission form are:

https://moran.house.gov/contact-me/email-me
http://www.kaine.senate.gov/contact

And send direct emails to:

Delegate Patrick Hope DelPHope@house.virginia.gov
Senator Barbara Favola district31@senate.virginia.gov

Zoraida will be back in court next week for her Grand Jury hearing.  Please keep her in your prayers.

Crystal
AND HERE'S THE LETTER I SENT

Dear Representative XXXXXX:  

I am writing regarding a criminal case being brought against Zoraida Conde Hernandez in Arlington County.

On July 5, Zoraida unknowingly left her baby boy, Nathan, in her car while she worked all day at 200 N. Glebe Rd., 22203 (your district).  She only discovered him that afternoon when she picked up her daughter from daycare and prepared to pick up Nathan. Upon discovering him, she immediately rushed him to Alexandria Hospital (nearest to where she picked up her daughter) but it was too late.

The police and medical providers who responded to the incident all acknowledge she didn't intend to leave him in the car and most certainly didn't intend any harm to come to him.  All day, she thought he was safe at daycare, where she believed she'd dropped him off.

This isn't a unique case -- 2013 is the second worst on record with 43 recorded infant/toddler heatstroke deaths, including another that occurred in Baltimore the very same day.  Baltimore County is not pressing charges in that case.

Nor should they be.  Nor should Arlington County be doing so against Zoraida.  She committed no crime.  She loves her children -- she has four other children still at home.  What is a crime is Arlington County dragging her through a criminal trial.  No punishment is greater than what she's already experienced in losing her baby and her responsibility in his death.

Further, as KidsAndCars.org -- the leading organization working to address the issue of unintentional infant/toddler heatstroke deaths -- will tell you, punishing a parent in this type of case doesn't do ANYTHING to prevent future incidents for other parents because there is no intent to do harm, this isn't a failure in parenting but a failure of memory.  For many, it's hard to understand how this can happen, and I would encourage you to read the Pulitzer Prize winning article "Fatal Distractions" by Gene Weingarten at the Washington Post: http://articles.washingtonpost.com/2009-03-08/news/36840402_1_courtroom-tissue-class-trip.

This trial is a waste of taxpayer money.  There have been several cases throughout Northern VA and statewide that have been tried by the Commonwealth.  NOT ONE of them has been successfully prosecuted. The amount of money and resources the state and county are pouring into this case would be better spent in supporting prevention and awareness in this region.  The only way to prevent more of these tragedies in our community is by educating parents about the steps they need to take to make sure this doesn't happen to them (e.g. putting their bag/phone/wallet in the back seat with the baby, establishing an agreement with their daycare provider to call if the baby is more than 15 minutes late in arriving, etc.).

I believe you have the power to make a difference.  To stop this poor mother from being dragged through the additional devastation and expense of a trial, and to allow her to continue caring for her other children (whom Alexandria City CPS has agreed are well cared for and loved).

Please, stop this trial from moving forward.

Kind regards,

XXXXXX INSERT WHERE YOU LIVE resident and Zoraida supporter


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11/06/2013
by Tom and Crystal O'Neill
Zoraida and her family celebrated Nathan's brief life with a visit to his memorial site on October 25, his first birthday anniversary. 

We've received a few pictures from their time there with him to share with everyone.  As a mom myself, I just can't imagine the heartache that is expanded on such a significant day.  Nathan is so very loved and missed by his family.

Zoraida returned to court for a preliminary hearing just a few days later, Mon., October 28, where the judge determined the case will go to trial.  A Grand Jury hearing is scheduled for November 21.

Please keep the whole family in your prayers.  More updates to come.

Crystal
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