exposing the dark side of adoption
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The Commercial Appeal

Author: Angela K. Brown The Associated Press

Dateline: BRISTOL, Tenn.

Every day, Elsa Garcia tries to forget. But 20 years of abuse isn't something that easily fades.

She still sees the stern face of the woman she called mother - a woman who cut and beat Garcia as punishment for not completing her chores.

She still hears the soft voice of the man she called father - a man who told her he loved her and that performing sex acts was her duty.

Nearly five months after Garcia's courtroom testimony put the only parents she's ever known behind bars, the terror she endured still comes flooding back - even when she isn't looking at her scars. "I have nightmares every night. It's as if I never left, and they're yelling at me and beating me," she said.

"It's always going to be in my mind, but hopefully someday it will move to the back of my mind." -- Rev. Joseph Combs and his wife, Evangeline, took 4-month-old Garcia from the Baptist Children's Home in Valparaiso, Ind., in 1978 and named her Esther Combs. She grew up believing the couple adopted her, but they didn't.

The orphanage lost track of her as the Combses' worked as traveling evangelists. Garcia can't recall a time when she wasn't mistreated. She says she was singled out from the Combses' other children - an adopted son, two biological sons and two biological daughters. She was often cursed and told she was ugly and incompetent. When she didn't finish the laundry quickly or left food on the kitchen counter, Mrs. Combs would punch her, burn her with a curling iron or pull chunks of flesh from her arm with pliers.

"I thought something must be wrong with me for her to hate me so bad, but I really tried to do what she wanted," Garcia said. "I wanted her to stop hurting me. I really wanted to make her proud."

Her nomadic family finally settled in Bristol in 1989 after Combs became pastor of the now-defunct Emmanuel Baptist Church. They lived in a dark, musty church building and kept to themselves; the children were home-schooled. Garcia was rarely allowed to go outside to play with her siblings. She was never taught to read and was not allowed to watch television.

She says the Combs children seemed to accept that she was the family's servant. At church she was not permitted to sit with people other than her family. If a church member asked why she had a black eye or her arm in a sling, Mrs. Combs said Garcia fell while playing.

Garcia says she was raped numerous times through the years, sometimes just before Combs walked to the sanctuary to preach the Sunday morning service. She says Combs told her it wasn't wrong for them to have sex because she was not his biological daughter.

She says he also told her it was something she should do if she loved him. Garcia ran away twice but was too afraid to tell anyone about the abuse and returned to the Combses, who then beat her severely for trying to leave. She says she prayed hard, in silence and in her heart. "I begged God that if they were going to beat me, it wouldn't hurt as bad. But praying didn't help me," she said.

Finally, at age 19, Garcia decided death was the only way to end her pain. She drank a cup of antifreeze but survived. She was taken to a hospital, where doctors discovered 400 scars on her body and called police.

Authorities found Garcia had no birth certificate, no Social Security number, no school or medical records. But Garcia denied being abused. She thought police would never believe her accusations because Combs was a minister, and she wanted to avoid a severe beating when she was sent back home.

Several months later, police filed a petition for guardianship for Garcia. Although she was no longer a juvenile, authorities believed she could not function as an adult because she had been so isolated.

But Combs sent Garcia to South Carolina to live with a preacher's family and then to Georgia to live with his brother. She missed the guardianship court hearing, but she gained her first taste of freedom and the sense of a normal family life.

A few months later, she told Combs' sister-in-law about the abuse. With her aunt's support, Garcia called Bristol police. The Combses were arrested in November 1998, and Garcia continued her journey.

She went to Michigan to meet her biological mother, Rachel Garcia Whetstone, whom authorities helped her find. She also changed her name to her original birth name, Elsa.

Whetstone, who was young and unmarried when she gave up her baby, had been told her child was adopted by a loving family. She was saddened to learn about the abuse and felt guilty, her daughter said.

"We expected so much of each other in the beginning," Garcia said. "I cried a lot, and I couldn't even look at her. I couldn't say I wasn't angry with her then, but I'm not now."

She stayed with her mother a few months then lived briefly with foster families. Feeling like a gypsy, Garcia returned to Bristol as the trial neared. She slowly made new friends and decided to make the East Tennessee town her home.

Garcia, 22, testified for three days during the five-week trial that ended in March. The hardest part was describing the rapes and seeing pictures of the scars on her genitals.

The Combses maintained their innocence, saying Garcia was clumsy and accident-prone. They said Garcia was making up the stories because she was angry that they never bought her expensive clothes and jewelry.

Jurors didn't believe the Combses and convicted the couple. Combs was sentenced to 114 years in prison for kidnapping, rape, assault and perjury. Mrs. Combs was sentenced to 65 years for kidnapping and child abuse.

Garcia sobbed with relief when the guilty verdicts were read. "I had looked at the jury, and they were so serious," she said. "I thought, `they don't believe me. It's just me against the whole family.'"

Garcia now lives alone in a Bristol apartment, receives counseling and is trying to finish a math class to earn her GED. She wants to attend college to become a nurse.

She enjoys watching television, listening to music and taking walks - things she could never do before. She also wants to get a job. "I'm trying to fill up my day so I don't have to think about all this stuff," she said.

2000 Aug 12