Grieving mom aims to change system
Every time Katie Tagle's 4-year-old son picks a dandelion, tosses a coin in a fountain or sees a falling star, he makes one wish, and he makes it with all his heart: he wishes the angels would give him his baby brother back. “He wishes it so hard,” says grandmother Maria Brown, squeezing her eyes tight to illustrate the little boy's screwed-up face of concentration. It's a wish Tagle shares, but the Yucca Valley woman can't count on wishes any more — she's trying to stay focused on the future, on fixing a family-court system she says is so broken, it cost her 9-month-old son his life.
After Wyatt Garcia's father, Stephen, shot the infant before turning the gun on himself Jan. 31, Tagle and her family were approached for interviews from newspapers, radio shows and TV hosts.
“The Dr. Phil Show” airing at 3 p.m. today (Wednesday) on CBS channel 2 will feature Tagle telling the story of her own family tragedy, and urging changes in the judicial system.
The Web site for the show calls today's broadcast “Crisis in Family Court,” and is accompanied by a family photo of Tagle hugging Wyatt.
“Dr. Phil is definitely helping shed light on this,” Tagle said in an April 7 interview.
She also has been a guest the John and Ken talk radio show on 640-AM several times, and has given interviews to desert-area newspapers.
Going over and over the details of her ordeal in the family courts and the murder of her son isn't easy, but Tagle, who doesn't receive money for her appearances, said she's doing it for others in similar circumstances.
“It's hard, but I hope I give other moms hope that maybe because I'm talking, their situation can take a turn for the better, instead of a turn for the worse,” she said.
“And the judges know they're being watched.”
It's those judges who are part of Tagle's long-term plan to improve the family law system.
Tagle's first step is to tell everyone who will listen about how family-court judges in Joshua Tree and Victorville ignored her pleas and evidence and gave Stephen Garcia unsupervised partial custody of their son.
Her most immediate goal: convince enough voters to replace Robert Lemkau, the judge who granted Garcia unsupervised custody rights, in the June 8 election.
She and her family are campaigning for deputy district attorney James Hosking, who filed to run against Lemkau June 8 after hearing Tagle's story.
Her long-term aim is to change the way judges in family courts are chosen and trained.
“I'm hoping family-law judges will be experts in family law. Most of them today are coming from criminal law,” Tagle said.
“They'll be better at reading people. They'll see this guy does need help, this mom does need help — and they'll get them that help,” Tagle predicted. “I'm hoping they'll do their job the way they're supposed to.”
“Train them,” added her mother. “Train them before you put them there. Lemkau had only 16 hours of experience in family court before he was sent to Victorville.”
Looking back on her experience with family law and the sheriff's department, whom she often called to report Garcia's harassment and once, his refusal to return Wyatt, Tagle can see plenty of room for training and improvement.
“Everybody blew her off as a complaining woman,” Brown said, something one of Tagle's sisters had described in an interview the day after Wyatt's death.
“They treated her like she was the one who was going to harm the child,” Andrea Rodriguez of Hesperia said.
In a call history for a Jan. 25 incident, when Tagle called the sheriff's substation in Phelan because Garcia would not return Wyatt, the responding deputy reported he threatened both parents if they couldn't “get their heads straight,” he would give the child to the Department of Children's Services.
It was during Garcia's turn at custody the following week that he e-mailed Tagle his suicide letter.
The sheriff's substation in Phelan classified the call as “missing person,” but the call history shows the deputy also classified it as a possible false report of a crime.
Parents need resources, advice
Tagle and Brown say parents of threatened children need more resources and information about how to navigate the criminal justice system and what tools are available.
For example, Tagle did not know she could subpoena a sheriff's deputy who believed Garcia was a threat and obtained an emergency restraining order for her.
“Nobody gives you this information. There should be a Web site with legitimate advice for moms,” she said.
“It's hard to get help. You shouldn't have to rely on a lawyer. You should be able to go into court and tell the truth and get a fair hearing. I should have gotten a fair hearing.”
And the problem is not just in Victorville, or San Bernardino County , she added — something her newfound publicity and her appearance on “Dr. Phil” taught her.
I hadn't realized there were judges like this all over the country. I thought it was just a few cases here and there, but it's not. It's everywhere.”
Despite their experiences, and recent harassment by Garcia's friends and an Internet group that reveres him as a hero, the women advise mothers who are being abused or who fear for their children to never give up.
“I'm hoping they won't stop fighting. They'll just keep fighting and fighting,” she said.
It's her plan, too.
“We're going to keep this going until something changes. They can harass me, but they're not going to break my will. I am here, I'm going to be heard.”
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