ESTIMATED READING TIME: 7 Minutes
NOTE: I originally became aware of Yonatan Daniel Aguliar from this Los Angeles Times article.
Yonatan Daniel Aguilar died on August 22, 2016, in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. Yonatan suffered from autism. He was 11 years old. He weighed 34 pounds. Yonatan was almost entirely bald. He had lived the final three years of his life locked in a closet by his mother, Veronica Aguliar. His body was covered in pressure sores from the cold, tile floor he was forced to live and sleep upon.
Just feet from the closet where Yonatan lived and died two of his siblings slept in a comfortable, if not always clean, bed. A crucifix, more a symbol of superstition for Yonatan's mother than of any devout religious belief, hangs nailed to the bedroom wall just opposite Yonatan's closet cell above his siblings bed. The crucified Christ, his face twisted in pain, looking down upon Yonatan either to bear witness to, or mock, depending on your spiritual perspective, the little boy's brutal suffering. Christ's crucifixion, from arrest to torture to execution, lasted a mere three days. A long weekend. Yonatan's crucifixion lasted for three years, if not for over a decade.
Christ's crucifixion was put into motion when he was betrayed by his closest friend, Judas. Post-capture, Christ was denied by his one of his most stalwart apostles, Peter. As painful as the betrayal and denial were, Christ did get to live a life where he knew the gentle love and kindness of his mother and the guidance of his father. Yonatan, on the other hand, was viciously betrayed by his mother almost immediately, if not in utero, never knowing any love from the woman who bore him. He was also betrayed by an absent biological father and also by his older brother, a man of 18 when Yonatan died, who for years actively concealed his mother's brutal treatment of Yonatan to the outside world. When questioned by authorities Yonatan's eldest brother implied that he believed that Yonatan deserved the treatment he got because Yonatan was "smart" and "knew what he was doing" when autism caused him to act out. Yonatan was betrayed by his teachers, therapists, social workers and police and denied by them as well as all of the bureaucrats from the relevant agencies meant to protect Yonatan who scrambled to cover their backsides once his tragic death and horrible life were discovered.
11 YEARS OLD
When I think of Yonatan locked away in that closet, I can't help but think back to when I was 11 years old. What did I dream about at that age…maybe Battlestar Galactica and The Planet of the Apes? Or of growing up to play pro football or basketball? Did Yonatan have dreams while he was locked away in that closet? If so, of what could he dream? Escape? Freedom? Love? Tenderness? Is it even possible to dream of things of which you have no experience?
Did Yonatan think back to better times? Were there better times? Maybe he thought of being on the playground at school watching the other children play, happy and free. Yonatan's autism forced him to always be on the outside of things while trapped inside himself. Those distant memories of the warm sun on his skin while watching other children play would be the closest he got to sunlight for the last three years of his life. Yonatan could only catch fleeting glimpses of daylight through the cracks between the closet and the cold, hard tile floor he lay upon, hour after hour, day after day, week after week, month after month, year after year.
I imagine the shame, pain and confusion Yonatan felt listening to life going on around the house while the family waited for him to die. The conversations he couldn't help but over hear where his name was never mentioned or his existence even acknowledged. Yonatan was dead to his family long before his body gave out, and that must have crushed his spirit and broken his bruised and battered heart every moment he drew breath.
PRAYERS FOR THE DYING
Years ago a Holy man taught me a prayer to recite during times of great suffering. The prayer was "God, please teach me with gentleness, kindness, compassion, love and ease." As the suffering of the person praying becomes greater and their physical energy reduces, so does the prayer. At first you eliminate the calling of God's name and simply say "teach me with gentleness, kindness etc." God knows you are talking to him, he doesn't need to be addressed, I was told. And finally, as you are at the zenith of your suffering and despair and your spirit is at its nadir, the prayer becomes a mantra to be said over and over…"gentleness, kindness, compassion, love and ease….gentleness, kindness, compassion, love and ease…" I taught that prayer to a friend as he was preparing to die years ago, to help him with the transition. I did the same with my own father just this past year, teaching him the prayer so that he could get over the mountain of physical suffering and emotional and mental despair that always accompany our leaving of this body and this world. Did Yonatan have anyone to teach him this prayer? I would like to think that maybe in a dream one of his ancient ancestors, one from the family line from well before the curse and the affliction came into it, taught him the prayer and assured him of his salvation from the nightmare of his life.
As I go over the details of Yonatan's death in my mind, imagining the horror and isolation that little boy felt, I imagine I can retroactively comfort him during his most dire moments, so I say the prayer for him, over and over…"gentleness, kindness, compassion, love and ease". Then I realize that sometimes magical thinking becomes the option of first resort when confronted with the type of unspeakable evil and inhumanity that Yonatan had to endure in his long, short life. My prayers feel like mere delusion to comfort my own troubled soul, not Yonatan's. My prayers also feel more impotent than empowering. The part of me that is empowered is not the light of compassion, but the darkness of revenge and the righteousness of anger.
When Yonatan's heart finally gave out and he died in that closet, court documents state that his mother Veronica said to his step-father, who allegedly knew nothing of the boy imprisoned in his closet, "I took care of the problem by ruining my life". Even with his death, Yonatan could not be the first thing on his mother's mind, he was not her child or her son but her "problem". The first thing Veronica thought of when discovering her little boy had finally died was how it would "ruin HER life".
When I think of Veronica and her oldest son, who was her eyes, ears and muscle keeping Yonatan quiet and imprisoned when she wasn't around, the affliction that infects them gets hold of me too. Even as my compassion for Yonatan and his suffering grows, with it comes a rage, a calculating savagery that grows deep in my heart. I want to have a few minutes with his mother Veronica in a room somewhere, just the two of us. I guarantee I could make her feel, to the depth of her being, the same helpless, hopeless, horrified feelings Yonatan felt those three years in that closet. I could make her know the absolute dread at being forgotten and abandoned and left to die.
I have the same urge with Yonatan's 18 year old brother. I could unleash upon him the most glorious righteous anger that burns within me when I think of every cell in Yonatan's little body screaming out for sustenance in that dark, cold closet. That older brother saying that Yonatan was "smart" and "knew what he was doing", the blind and selfish arrogance of that...I could exact a terrible price for his depraved indifference to his brother's torture. I know I should consider the life Yonatan's mother and brother have lived and how it formed them and created the darkness that inhabits them. And while I consciously know I should search for sympathy for them in my heart, I instead indulge darker thoughts. The feeling of pulverizing their face to a pulp, their image turned to mush under the powerful force of my fists. The sound of their bones cracking under each devastating blow, the gurgling as they choke on their own blood.
Then I realize that this violent, barbaric urge I feel to punish these people, that is the affliction speaking. This dark urge is about ME and MY unease with the feelings Yonatan's story brings up in ME. ME, ME, ME. These fantasies of justice and revenge are not about Yonatan but about ME. They are selfish and self-serving, just like Yonatan's mother and brother, and they are the acorn from which the roots of the affliction grow and the tree of the affliction ultimately blossoms. This affliction infects everything that comes near it, heart, soul and mind included. In order to stay sane, and keep a grip on my humanity, I need to adjust my focus back on compassion for little Yonatan and not on bloodthirsty revenge for his murder.
THE WORLD WE LIVE IN
It trying to find some empathy or compassion for this mother, I think about the hypocritical world we live in. If Veronica were a tin pot dictator of some third world country she'd be paraded into an international criminal court and tried and convicted and hung by the neck until dead for her crimes against humanity. If she were a high ranking American official she would be lauded for her moral clarity and courage, maybe even given a medal for being brave enough to make tough decisions. Regardless, Veronica will go to prison, a fifteen years to life sentence most likely, which means she will probably be out in ten years or so. She will con the prison system telling them exactly what they want to hear, just like she conned the school system and the child protection system and law enforcement in order to imprison and kill Yonatan. Veronica will not have to suffer the indignities she forced Yonatan to suffer, dying alone, in the dark, cut-off from any human contact or tenderness. No. Veronica won't be put in solitary confinement, or be beaten or starved of either food or affection. Veronica's greatest punishment is that she must live the rest of her life being Veronica. Wherever she goes, she will always be there, that is a true life sentence.
The same cannot be said of the older brother. Mr. Eighteen-Year-Old is not charged with a crime even though he is an adult and was an accomplice to torture and murder. This older brother won't go to prison, at least not for this. And the troubling thing is this young man will no doubt in the next few years, find a young woman who is desperate to escape her own troubled home life, maybe she has an abusive father, and she will fall for his charms, choosing what she believes to be the lesser of two evils. Yonatan's older brother will then have a child or multiple children with this poor woman. The affliction that has infected the Aguliar family will now be passed to another generation. The affliction will be passed onto these children, and they will either suffer under it or perpetuate it, or both. No doubt this oldest brother will brutalize his hapless children like he assisted his mother in brutalizing his brother Yonatan. And no doubt he will justify his brutality by telling himself that those kids deserve what they get…they are "smart" and 'know what they are doing". This affliction will live on in Yonatan's other siblings as well who have been taught and conditioned to be indifferent to the suffering of others and to think of only themselves, their survival and their comfort. This family's bloodline will suffer with this affliction of depravity for thousands of generations to come, with infection going from father and mother to son and daughter. DCFS was not there to protect Yonatan when the affliction reared its head, will it be there for the children of Yonatan's older brother or the children of his other siblings? Will DCFS be there for the Aguliar grand-children? And their great grand-children?
IN OUR SKIN
I think back to my high school biology class and I vaguely remember being taught that the skin is the largest organ of the human body. I don't know if that is true, but it sounds familiar. Yonatan's body was covered with pressure sores from being forced to lie on a tile floor day and night for years on end. I remember being a little kid, probably around Yonatan's age, when I had a bike accident and my face got smashed in. While the injuries to my face were severe and traumatic, it was the minuscule cuts on my hand that hurt the most. These little cuts and scrapes felt like a thousand bee stings and somehow overshadowed the pain of my facial injuries. This makes me think that the open sores on Yonatan's body that seared with pain with every breath he took and every move he made, overshadowed the pain accompanying the decay of his organs and bones. Was Yonatan trying too scream out in agony from the wounds on his flesh but his failing innards prevented his being able to muster the energy to cry out? These are the thoughts that wake me in the middle of the night.
ECHO PARK IN THE CITY OF ANGELS
Yonatan died in Echo Park, and I hope his stifled screams echo through the souls of his mother and brother for all eternity. Echo Park is in Los Angeles, the city of Angels as they call it. I try to comfort myself with the thought that maybe Yonatan was comforted by an angel in his most dire and frightening moments. Again, magical thinking intercedes when my mind and heart cannot bear to face such monstrous inhumanity. The affliction rears its head again in me, Yonatan's tormenters still roam the earth, maybe I could be his avenging angel? Then I realize I cannot let the affliction take hold of me and spread to those that I love. I do not want to become the monster that devoured innocent Yonatan in order to slay the monster that devoured innocent Yonatan. This is the struggle that goes on in my heart…the battle to make sense of a world that makes no sense.
If you believe in God, then Yonatan Daniel Aguilar's death can be seen as an act of mercy where that little boy was released from the torture chamber of that closet, the prison of his broken, bruised and emaciated body, and the living hell that was this life into the warm, eternal embrace of God's healing love.
If you don't believe in God, Yonatan Daniel Aguilar's long, short life is powerful evidence in support of your atheist thesis. I am trying very hard to embrace the former vision, but in the face of Yonatan Daniel Aguilar's tortuous, love and affection-less life and lonely death, I feel myself being pulled, maybe irrevocably, toward the latter.
There has been a lot of chatter about how this will be a difficult Thanksgiving for people as they will have to share their dinner table with people who think politically different than they do. No doubt politics at the holiday table will increase what for some is an already tense situation. But this year, as difficult as it may seem, when you are feeling your most uncomfortable and most stressed, try and think of Yonatan Daniel Aguilar. Try and remember that you have a belly full of warm food while he died starving. Try to remember that, if need be, you can get up and leave all those people at that dining room table, while Yonatan was imprisoned and alone. And remember that while these people whose political beliefs you so abhor may be the bane of your existence, at least you can feel their arms around you if you can muster the courage to hug them goodbye, unlike Yonatan who not only starved for food but for human touch and affection. Thanksgiving can be a trying time, but maybe if you can keep little Yonatan in the back of your mind, when things get bad for you, you will be able to recognize that they aren't as bad as they seem.
Little Yonatan was forgotten by everyone, his mother, father, brother and siblings, his teachers, social workers, cops, lawyers and judges. Yonatan died for their sins of selfishness, sloth and gullibility. He also died so that we could finally see him and those children like him still out in the world and still at risk. Please don't let Yonatan or his sacrifice be forgotten. If you could please donate in his name to one or both of these programs that work to protect children just like Yonatan. Even a donation of just $5 or $10 in his name would be enough to make sure the world never forgets the suffering of Yonatan Daniel Aguilar. Thank you for reading and have a Happy Thanksgiving.
Advokids was founded in 1993 by three San Francisco Bay Area child welfare attorneys and a child psychologist. They responded to the alarming number of children entering foster care, experiencing multiple placements, and lingering in temporary care, often for several years.
The founders brought their legal, psychological, and social work training and experience to Advokids. Their experience taught them that the early years of a child’s life set the stage for all that follows and hold the greatest danger for long-term damage and the greatest potential for successful intervention.
California had already adopted progressive laws requiring the courts to pay special attention to the permanency needs of children in foster care, but the laws were poorly implemented. Using the legislative mandates and the strong childhood mental health data that supported every child’s need for timely permanence, the co-founders set out to hold the foster care system accountable. They launched a free telephone hotline, created a legal educational website, and began conducting regular legal trainings for attorneys and child welfare professionals.
Since Advokids was founded, there has been an explosion of research on early childhood development. Current neuroscience research has confirmed the devastating effects that instability and placement disruptions have on the brain development of children. Advokids’ hotline, website, and legal trainings equip child advocates with the legal and scientific principles that they need so that they can more effectively advocate for the well-being of the child and encourage persistent judicial focus on every foster child’s need for safety, emotional security, and developmental health.
UCLA TIES FOR FAMILIES
UCLA TIES (Training, Intervention, Education and Services) for Families is an interdisciplinary program dedicated to optimizing the growth and development of foster/adoptive children from birth to age 21, and their families.
TIES for Families (formerly TIES for Adoption) was founded in 1995 by Sue Edelstein, LCSW, as a model demonstration project to support the successful adoption, growth, and development of foster/adoptive children. The program employs an innovative model of intervention to reduce barriers to the adoption of these children and support their successful transition into permanent homes with stable, nurturing families.
A key feature of the TIES for Families program is that services are offered as children are transitioned from foster care into adoptive homes, a vulnerable period for families that presents opportunities to promote attachment and prevent problems from escalating. The program works in close collaboration with the public child welfare and mental health systems.
Services are available free of charge in English and Spanish to foster/adoptive families of children who are placed and referred by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. TIES offers an innovative intervention model involving a nine hour program of preparation for foster/adoptive parents, assessment of individual children’s development, and pre-placement consultation with prospective adoptive parents by a multi-disciplinary team regarding the child’s mental health, medical, and educational needs. There is a comprehensive array of intervention services available to children and families, including adoption counseling for new families in transition, individual and family therapy, home-visiting, psychological testing, monthly parental and child support groups, skills training, infant mental health, mentoring for youth and parents, in-home and in-school therapeutic behavioral services, and educational, occupational, and speech and language consultation.
TIES for Families provides training at the local, state, and national level on the adoption of children with special needs and on the lessons learned from this innovative model of intervention. Training is offered to prospective and current adoptive parents, child social workers in public welfare, and professionals in the legal and mental health systems. Longitudinal research is being conducted on the effectiveness of the project and the developmental outcome of the children and their families.