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In California kidnapping: An immigrant girl alone, afraid

By Mel Robbins
updated 1:25 PM EDT, Fri May 23, 2014
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mel Robbins: Some say alleged abduction and escape of California girl raises questions
  • They say: How could she be victim while having kid, living as couple, holding parties?
  • Robbins: Other victims (Knight, Smart) note, we can't know alleged kidnaper's hold on girl
  • Robbins: She recent immigrant, uneducated, and allegedly abused -- don't judge

Editor's note: Mel Robbins is a CNN commentator and legal analyst. Mel is the Founder of Inspire52.com, a positive news website and author of "Stop Saying You're Fine," about managing change. She speaks on leadership around the world and in 2014 was named Outstanding News Talk Radio Host by the Gracie Awards. Follow her on Twitter @melrobbins. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Mel Robbins.

(CNN) -- This week, a California woman who disappeared from her home when she was just 15, walked into a police station and ended her decade-long alleged kidnapping saga.

According to the police, she was just 15, when her mother's boyfriend, Isidro Garcia, drugged her and kidnapped her. She woke up in a barricaded garage and that's allegedly when the sexual, physical and mental abuse began. He allegedly moved her frequently over the 10 years, gave her a fake name (he went by "Tomas") convinced her that her family was no longer looking for her and told her she'd be deported if she looked for them.

I've heard some people say that "there's something a little off" about the woman's story. The reason: In recent years, the victim has been living in plain sight with her kidnapper. In fact, they were apparently married and have a daughter together who is 3. Neighbors of "Tomas" and his wife said they were stunned to learn that the "happy couple" who were "thrilled" about their pregnancy were in reality a kidnapper/rapist and his victim.

Mel Robbins
Mel Robbins

It's easy to be baffled by this case or question the victim's story. She was, after all, not physically barricaded against her will in the House of Horrors, like the three women held captive by Ariel Castro for years in Cleveland, nor was she chained in the wilderness and disguised in a wig, sunglasses and a veil the way Elizabeth Smart was when she was rescued after nine months of absolute hell.

In recent years, the young woman in this case, according to neighbors was often at the park alone with her daughter or at the grocery store. Or dancing happily at the elaborate parties the "couple" threw with caterers and clowns.

I guess it seems a little off because it's natural to wonder why an alleged victim living in the open with her alleged captor didn't escape. Psychologists will tell you that it's natural to not only think about what you might do in the same situation but to also try to convince yourself that you'd have the courage to escape. We do this as a way to reassure ourselves and make ourselves feel safe against the many threats in the world.

To wonder what you might do in a similar situation is psychologically natural, but to judge what this young woman should or shouldn't have done, is unfair. In an interview with The Associated Press, Elizabeth Smart cautioned people to not question why a victim might not have escaped sooner: "We don't know what these evil people are holding over them -- whether it's their families' lives, their lives, whatever it is. We just don't know. There can be stronger bonds and chains than physical bonds and chains."

Or as Michelle Knight said on CNN's New Day: "You don't know what went through her head. You don't know what that was doing to her. You have absolutely no clue what she went through to say things and say that she was lying or she's doing this. You're making her not able to function or heal properly when you do these things to people. You're making people not want to come out, not want to say anything."

California kidnap victim found
Knight: 'Don't break her down'
Defense claims kidnap victim is lying

In the late '80s, I was trained as a crisis intervention counselor and I volunteered on a domestic violence hotline for four years. Abusers typically have a Jekyll and Hyde personality. In public, an abuser often acts like a "friendly guy" or a "nice neighbor," but in private he may be pure evil. Most victims are terrified to come forward fearing no one will believe them because neighbors and friends never witness the abuse. I'm sure friends of the actor Michael Jace, for example, who is accused of murdering his wife were shocked to learn that such a "friendly" guy might be capable of such evil.

And this California kidnapping victim isn't a typical American 15-year-old (like my daughter) with a smart phone, a U.S. education, a large family network and an army of teenage friends. She was a 15-year-old from Mexico, who had been living in America for just six months when she was allegedly kidnapped. She didn't speak English. She didn't attend school. She was undocumented and of course feared deportation. With no network of friends or extended family, no education, no roots and no papers, she was allegedly completely under her captor's control.

Finally, there was the alleged physical and sexual abuse. She told police she was beaten twice when she tried to escape and for many years was never out of Garcia's sight. I've heard immigration experts speak about undocumented people living in "the shadows." This woman may have been living out in the open, but she was in the psychological shadow of her abuser and of a system that makes undocumented immigrants fear the police.

Bottom line: Unless you've lived through the pure hell that someone like Elizabeth Smart or the courageous women from Cleveland have, you are lucky to only have to imagine it. Like Elizabeth Smart, I'm so happy to learn that this man has been charged and held and grateful that his alleged victim finally found the courage to come out from the shadows and save herself.

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