SMITHFIELD, Va. (AP) - They met for the first time at his office inside the Isle of Wight County courthouse.
To Steve Edwards, she looked like a frightened teen.
To Ashley, he looked too casual to be a lawyer.
But Edwards, a prosecutor, helped put away her abusive stepfather in 2012.
And the attorney brought her to his horse farm to help heal.
In the process, he became a mentor and friend; a singing partner at open mic nights.
He was also her teacher on the farm, where together they train wild mustangs.
A few years later, she asked him a question: How hard would it be to change her last name?
She wanted to break free from her past. To separate herself from a name that caused her pain and grief.
Turns out, making the change would be easy. The only question was what name to take.
What about his? he suggested.
The change meant more than what was on paper. It was the beginning of becoming a family.
Today, prosecutor and witness are now father and daughter.
Ashley reported her stepfather for sexual abuse when she was 17. She knew she was going to meet with someone at the courthouse to talk, but she didn’t know what to expect, “whose side” he was on, she said.
When she spotted Edwards, he was dressed in a bright orange shirt. He noticed something about her, too.
“Her face, her nose, her shoulders, everything. She just looked scared to death,” he said.
Edwards, a deputy commonwealth’s attorney, specializes in cases involving children and sexual abuse and already knew a lot about her case - the worst he said he’s seen in his nearly 20 years as a prosecutor. But they didn’t discuss it at that first meeting.
“He just said, ‘I’m going to have to ask you some questions later, but let’s talk about music. I hear you like music,’” Ashley said.
Early on, he brought her to his Smithfield farm, Mill Swamp Indian Horses. The farm offers a calm setting that helps victims of trauma open up.
Edwards instructs riders of all ages in natural horsemanship, which uses the animals’ own instincts and body language to train them. He also runs a breed conservation program meant to protect the Corolla Spanish Mustang from extinction.
About 50 horses roam open fields at Mill Swamp. Piglets, puppies and goats wander through pastures. When Edwards took Ashley to the horse lot, she showed an innate ability to connect with the animals, wrapping her arms around a mustang that wouldn’t let anyone else touch him.
“Her survival for so many years depended on her ability to read every single thing that was going on around her,” he said. “She understood the idea of being scared and being in a cage.”
When Ashley turned 18 and her case was over - her stepfather sentenced to serve more than 19 years in prison - Edwards did something he’d never done before for a witness.
He gave her a horse.
Without that connection, Edwards worried she’d be isolated. Unlike other cases he’d handled, Ashley didn’t have family to support her.
“I most certainly did not want her to be stepping into the rest of her life without having an anchor,” he said.
A young colt named Peter became her link to the farm - and to Edwards.
“It gave me a reason to come out here as often as possible,” Ashley said.
Over months and years, the two trained the colt together.
And in time, Edwards helped Ashley start her own business - Road to Repair - combining her talents with the horses with her own story of survival.
Ashley now takes local law enforcement officers to the farm, where she teaches them how to use natural horsemanship as a model for working with trauma victims.
She teaches them how to build security and trust with victims by using passive body language, such as sitting next to victims instead of across from them and not looking them directly in the eye. The Virginia Victim Assistance Network has since honored her with an innovation award for her work.
As her relationship with Edwards grew, Ashley also began interning for the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office, where, as an abuse survivor, she put victims at ease.
The prosecutor and former witness started singing together at open mic nights across Hampton Roads, too. They perform old folk and bluegrass - Steve Earle, Townes Van Zant.
Ashley said singing brings her out of her shell, and she can tell it relaxes Edwards after a challenging day. When she sings, “I feel like I’m making him proud,” she said.
Several years ago, Edwards and his wife, Beth, invited Ashley to live with them.
Edwards describes the decision very matter-of-factly: Ashley needed a home and they had plenty of room.
“Everybody needs a family,” Beth Edwards said. “Everybody needs to have someone they can turn to and someone who will be there for them.”
Through example, they showed her how she deserved to be treated, Steve Edwards said. Their home was her home. She didn’t need to ask permission to take food from the fridge.
“This is what it is to be in a family,” he said.
Somewhere along the way, she started calling him “my dad” or “my Steve” when talking about him with friends.
“I slowly began to realize that he is my father figure,” she said.
“And I felt like I did deserve to be part of that kind of family.”
When Ashley asked about changing her name, she couldn’t believe Edwards’ offer. It was huge.
He’d never seen her cry that hard. “Hysterically happy,” he said.
It didn’t take long to file the paperwork, and in 2015, she became Ashley Edwards.
The family talked about adoption soon after.
“I told Beth that I thought this was the thing to do, and she said, ‘I do, too,’ ” he said.
“That was the whole thing.”
Legally, Ashley was already an adult. But adopting her wasn’t a leap for the Edwardses.
When Steve Edwards was growing up, his parents fostered over 100 children and adopted eight, he said. It was one of the reasons he became an attorney, to help children who didn’t have a voice.
After he and his wife married, they fostered several kids and adopted one of their daughters when she was 5.
“To add a third daughter, it seemed like the right thing to do,” Beth Edwards said of Ashley.
They researched adult adoptions and initially thought they needed to wait to file paperwork until they had known each other for five years, Steve Edwards said.
Several years in, “we figured out it’s only one year,” Ashley said. “So then we started right away.”
Last fall, a judge signed off on the adoption papers. There was no ceremony, no court hearing.
Just like that, they were family.
Now 22, Ashley said she’s started to heal from her past and gain confidence in herself. She’s blended in with the Edwards’ two other daughters and five grandchildren. She takes pride in cooking for her new family - shrimp scampi, cordon bleu, bacon-wrapped jalapeno poppers.
She’s found a support system she never had before. Families, she’s learned, don’t give up on each other.
“You don’t ever get to a point where you’re like, ‘I’m done with this,’ ” she said. “They’re always a part of that unit. You don’t give up hope.”
Last Christmas, there was still one more gift - a picture frame.
Ashley smiled when she unwrapped it.
The adoption decree was inside.
Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com
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