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.
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.