This past March 2017, we were contacted by Elsa Garcia, previously known as Esther Combs, because as an adult survivor of abuse, she desires to have an impact on her surrounding community. Some of you may know her story from hearing it on the news, many years ago, but for those who have not, you can watch her story in the video below. As an infant, Elsa was taken from an orphanage in Indiana, by a preacher and his wife, was given a new name, and then kept as the family’s servant, suffering extreme physical and sexual abuse, for close to 20 years. Eventually, Elsa disclosed to her uncle what had been going on her entire life, and in April, 20 years ago, Joseph Combs was convicted of aggravated assault, aggravated rape, and perjury and sentenced to 114 years in prison. Evangeline Combs was convicted of aggravated child abuse and sentenced to 65 years in prison. Elsa is now living in the Lapeer County area, with her daughter, and is ready to speak out and provide hope for children and adults who have been victims of trauma and abuse.
Elsa admits that when she was removed from the Combs’ care and put into the “real world”, it was terrifying. She wasn’t afraid of being free, but she was mourning because everything she once knew was gone. Everything she knew as “normal” was stripped from her and she was left with no guidebook on how to live a “normal” life. She turned to alcohol to drown out the pain, attempted to end her life on one occasion, and continually jumped from one abusive relationship to another because she had never seen or experienced a healthy one. Through one of those relationships, she became pregnant with her daughter, who Elsa claims pulled her through a lot of her healing process. She admits she was not and is not a perfect parent, but it was through her daughter that she learned to love. She was adamant about not perpetuating the cycle of abuse and said, “I just began loving her the way I always wanted to be loved...I consider her one of my best friends.”
Elsa went on to explain that if someone hadn’t cared for her and kept insisting that something wasn’t right, she probably never would have said anything. In her case, her “father” sent her away to a preacher friend to hide her when people started asking questions. The friend recognized that something wasn’t right and sent her to her aunt and uncle’s house where he thought Elsa might feel more comfortable opening up. It was her aunt and uncle who took her in, cared for her, and urged her to speak up about what had happened. They continually asked her to say something so they could help her, but she remembers, “It killed me on the inside to tell because I knew it would ruin the family and crush [my uncle] because it was his brother.” When Elsa finally spoke up, she says it wasn’t what most people expect. She didn’t feel free and happy and relieved, instead she felt responsible for the letting the secret out and kept thinking “If I would’ve been good, I wouldn’t have gotten into so much trouble.” She carried the guilt for a long time.
In speaking with Elsa, she was adamant that you cannot force a child, or an adult, to heal any faster than they are ready. She emphasized that the healing process is not easy and it takes time for the pain to go away. In fact, she remembers thinking every day, “God when will the pain be over? 7 years? 10 years? And finally, at 16 years, I was like ‘Wow, it doesn’t feel as bad.’” And she admits it’s taken every bit of the 20 years to heal, but by focusing on the here and now she is able to make it day-to-day. She told us:
“There’s no rules or timeline for when it’s better, but it does get better.”
In talking with her, Elsa mentioned how surprising it is that out of everyone she encountered throughout her childhood, not one person reached out to help her, until her aunt and uncle. She reflected that our society tends to mind their own business; they will see things that they know aren’t right and choose not to act. For example, she stated, “There are Sarah McLaughlin commercials all over our TV’s raising awareness about animal abuse, but why aren’t we doing the same thing for our kids who are victims of the same?” It’s up to us, as a community and as a society, to reach out to these children and understand they may not come out and clearly state they are being abused and need help, because they may not see it the same way. Kids are innocent and loving and naïve and don’t understand that it’s not their fault. Elsa admits that through the whole prosecution and trial she still believed she did something to deserve those punishments, and it took her close to 20 years for her to realize she didn’t do anything wrong. As a community, we need to come together and come alongside our children, to support them, listen to them, and believe them. Most of these children don’t have a voice or the understanding that they are being wronged. It’s up to us to step up, give them a voice, and help light the way for their future.
It was such a pleasure meeting with Elsa Garcia and hearing her story and the impact she wants to make. If any part of Elsa’s story resonated with you, or you just have a desire to talk with her about her story, she provided her e-mail, firstname.lastname@example.org. She is not affiliated with The Child Advocacy Center of Lapeer County, but rather wanted to meet with us to share her story and offer a glimmer of hope to anyone who has been abused or traumatized.