Sleepy Hollow's Theresa Gorski spent more than a decade with the Bronx Legal Aid Society helping children facing violent situations at home – ironically enough, said her sister.
Theresa died on Jan. 9, pulled off life support following the alleged strangulation by her husband, Christopher Howson, four days prior.
Her sister, Jo Anne Gorski is a practicing clinical psychologist, a job which gives her the tools to deal with such a shocking loss, if only she had the time.
Instead of grieving, Jo Anne Gorski has been busy dealing with the details of death. Her time since that horrific Saturday of Jan. 5 has been spent talking with investigators, making court appearances, wrangling with custody issues, going through her sister's and the children's things.
There are the mundane but depressing tasks like bringing in the family's outdoor holiday decorations and taking down the Christmas tree. Most of all, there's caring for the two young girls left behind.
“Obviously going [to their home] is traumatic, packing up the things from their life,” Gorski said. “For all intents and purposes they are kind of orphaned.”
Gorski received custody of the 5- and 8-year-olds last week. She is a working single mother of a 3-year-old girl she adopted from Russia in 2011. They live in a condo in western Connecticut.
Her mother, who has a home in Purchase, has been staying with them to help out with the day-to-day stuff, cooking, caring for the girls. Together, they form a house full of females, a role not new to them.
"We are a woman-dominated household," Gorski said. She and Theresa were raised by a single mom; their dad died of a heart attack when the girls were ages 5 and 10. Gorski went through the Harrison public schools while Theresa went to Catholic school through high school.
This new female-centric household they've created, missing a main member, isn't as sad as you might think.
“The girls are great girls,” Gorski said, commending how well-behaved and adjusted they’ve been during this unimaginable time. “They’re little troopers.”
Gorski immediately started them in a new school district following the incident, so they could get a fresh start in a fresh place. They’d been staying with her since the morning police woke them up a few hours after they arrested their father, who’s been in the Westchester County Jail ever since. He called police himself early that morning to report the domestic incident from which his wife never recovered. Luckily, the girls, said Gorski, were asleep when it happened.
Howson at first faced an attempted murder change until his wife died and the charge was upgraded to murder. He’ll have no contact with the children, said Gorski, as there’s a court-issued order of protection out against him.
Gorski said that the girls know their mother, according to the charges, died at their father’s hands, and that he’s in jail — but they don’t know the details. “There’s definitely a fine line,” she said, “because you don’t want to create any negativity.”
The 5-year-old is “innocent” and still at an age where she doesn’t require more information but the 8-year-old, even before this incident, said Gorski, seemed to “go silent” sometimes in a way that indicated to her something was amiss in that household.
Gorski said she plans to get the girls some counseling, for sure. “At times the grief hits them and they feel sad and want their mother. They’re just kids.”
Gorski couldn’t talk much more about what went on in that household as she’ll have to save this for court, where she expects she’ll likely have to testify. She said the girls will break down at times but for the most part are enjoying their new school, new friends, and even returning to their old neighborhood on occasion to have play dates with old friends.
Gorski’s mom, helping hugely, cries daily, Gorski said. “She’s devastated by this, that’s her baby.” Valentine’s Day, Jo Anne's birthday, was particularly hard for the family.
Gorski described her sister, five years her senior, as “incredibly brilliant” – she graduated number one in her class from Georgetown with a 4.0 GPA. She was a nature and animal lover, a reader, and a great benefit to the children coming through the Legal Aid Society where she combined her two post-graduates degrees in law and social work from Columbia.
The Bronx Legal Aid Society agrees and will be honoring Theresa on March 8 with a special ceremony involving poetry readings, music, and a very special tribute: the Family Court Childcare Center which attends to children whose parents are in court will be renamed the Theresa Gorski Children’s Center in her honor.
Even more special: Theresa's daughter plans to play the violin that day. The 8-year-old has been playing violin since the age of 3 by the Suzuki method, which often required a parent in attendance at sessions, an active role Theresa played for years, Gorski said.
Gorski hopes to get the older daughter back into her violin lessons soon, as the girl says it’s her favorite thing to do.
There are many things Gorski hopes to do. At some point she’d like to move into a place that better accommodates her sudden family. In the meantime, attorney fees and daily expenses are adding up fast: the release of any of Theresa's money only happens when Gorski wins actual guardianship, another upcoming proceeding.
Neighbors, friend and colleagues helped set up a fund for the girls which they’ve been contributing to generously. Longterm, there’s college to worry about, of course, but for now immediate needs overshadow all.
“There’s been so much outpouring of support,” Gorski said. Her sister’s funeral was an invite-only affair but still had about 100 Legal Aid Society employees asking to attend as well as her own colleagues from her practice in Bedford Hills. Relatives came from as far as Ohio, and as near as Mahopac.
To learn more about how to donate to the Howson Children's Fund click here.
There was a whole climate of despair already in the air when her sister died – Gorski had watched coverage of the nearby Newtown school shootings and was “reeling and upset about those children.” She watched parents who had lost their children and were sorrowful but seemed “almost forgiving.” She was surprised at the time by their lack of anger, she said, but now she realizes they were simply shell-shocked.
“I wasn’t initially angry because there are so many things I have to take care of,” she said.
Events like Tarrytown’s energetic participation in the Hudson River Rising offshoot of One Billion Rising may add a note of hope to the tragedy, but there’s no getting around the fact that it’s just a “terrible situation.”
As Patch reported last week, Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow Police Departments received a 209 calls related to domestic violence in 2010.
Hope's Door reported it has served 765 victims of abuse in 2012.
The Pleasantville-based non-profit organization Hope's Door last week applauded the re-authorization of the federal Violence Against Women Act (VAWA), which had expired for the first time in 2011 for the first time in 17 years, according to a press release.
"Of the women served, 45 percent had been strangled by their abusive partners and 43 percent reported that their partners had threatened to kill them," the statement said. "There were 944 children in the families Hope’s Door served last year."
Elyssa Feldman-Most, producer of Hudson River Rising said they donated 30 percent of their 50/50 raffle proceeds to the Howson fund for Theresa Gorski's daughters.
Feldman-Most writes: "Hudson River Rising's two One Billion Rising events were very successful! The Dance Your A** Off party at Purple Crayon (2/9) drew about 125 people, even Blizzard Nemo didn't keep them away. We raised about 27k. The Strike, Dance, Rise flash mob on Valentine's Day (2/14) in Tarrytown was amazing! We had about 100 people dancing, plus close to another 100 onlookers. Women, men, girls and boys danced to demand an end to the violence against women and girls."
Read about domestic incidents in the village in light of the recent tragic death of Theresa Gorski here.
Read more about Hope's Door here.
Donations to the children can be sent directly to the:
Howson Children’s Fund
c/o Jo Anne Gorski
P. O. Box 4552
Danbury, CT 06813-4552
where condolences can also be sent.
For your convenience, donations to the fund may also be made online at http://www.giveforward.com/howsonchildren, although please note the site takes a processing fee from each donation.