Guest Column: The cries of a child still haunt

By Ruth Ann Hepler

Posted at 2:01 AM

In December 2001, my husband and I traveled to China with our two biological daughters, then just barely 6 and 8 years old, to adopt a girl who had just turned 5.

In anxious anticipation of adding this child to our family, we had spent the previous several months sending her photos so that she would know what we looked like when we arrived.

But we were naively unprepared for the crushing emotional response that separation from her “orphanage mama” would cause.

The sight of this tiny, brown child, standing in the chaos of a dingy government office, a single tear rolling down her cheek, haunts me still.

Nearly 17 years later, I still cannot find the words to describe the look in her eyes.

Sitting on my lap in the bus on the way to our hotel, our new daughter cried with a desperation that I had never heard in the voices of my other children — and she kept repeating a phrase over and over again.

In the hotel, there was a room service waitress who knew enough English to explain to us what the phrase meant:

“I want to go home.”

I think of that day many years ago when I see the faces and hear the voices of the children abruptly separated from their parents at our Southern border because of the “zero–tolerance policy” imposed by President Donald Trump’s administration.

And my heart aches.

These children don’t understand what is happening to them; they don’t speak our language.

Many of these children are being held in detention centers where those in charge of their care are instructed not to touch, hold or comfort them.

They don’t know if or when they will see their parents again. And they don’t know why.

When I hear Attorney General Jeff Sessions callously pontificate that their parents could have avoided this tragedy by not coming to the United States in the first place, I shake my head in disbelief that the greatest, richest country on Earth could be so cruel — and so lacking in empathy for people who see no better option left in life but to risk their lives and those of their children to cross the border.

Yes, our immigration system is broken. But we can do better, America.

We can and we must.

By the way, that tearful child on that haunting day in China many years ago — our daughter, Sally — is now a senior at the University of Florida majoring in advertising and women’s studies.

Ruth Ann Hepler is a Jacksonville lawyer.

Ruth Ann Hepler has been a member of the Florida Bar since 1991. Her legal experience includes 13 years at the Public Defender’s Office, more than three years in solo practice, and more than four years practicing with local attorney Michael P. Sullivan. Ruth Ann and Mike wrote four books, including two focused on criminal defense: The State of Florida v. YOU: The Accused’s Guide to Defending a Florida DUI Charge and Domestic Violence In the State of Florida: Beware, Know Your Rights, Get a Lawyer.  In addition to defending all kinds of criminal cases, she has handled family law, adoptions, and Social Security disability claims. Ruth Ann also spent a few years in the nonprofit sector, doing development work at both City Rescue Mission and Catholic Charities.

Ruth Ann received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri and her law degree from the University of Florida. She recently completed a Master’s in Public Policy at Jacksonville University.

Ruth Ann and her husband Carey are the owners of Fibrenew Jacksonville, a mobile leather repair service. They were married in 1991 and have three adult daughters. Ruth Ann is a charter member and past president of the San Marco Rotary Club. She is president of the West Council of the JaxChamber, and she serves on the boards of the Friends of Willowbranch Library and Elder Source. She was a member of the 2014 class of Leadership Jacksonville and served on the Mayor’s Commission on the Status of Women. In addition, she was appointed by the Florida Supreme Court to the Committee on Standard Jury Instructions in Criminal Cases, on which she served for five years.