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Fighting the Hand That Bleeds You


TURNING A BLIND EYE: Judy Taege isn’t talking to me. If I were Judy Taege, I wouldn’t talk to me either. Or anybody else in Santa Barbara, for that matter. And she’s not. At least not without a lawyer from the State’s Attorney General’s office glued to her elbow. Taege-who lives in Fresno-is of local interest because of her work with the California Adoption Agency , where for many years she’s struggled to find decent homes for some of the most abused, traumatized, and hardest-to-place kids on the planet. She testified in Santa Barbara a couple months ago during the trial of Sylvia Jovanna Vasquez , the popular Santa Barbara childcare provider who pleaded guilty to four felony counts of child endangerment for, among other things, locking up three of her four adopted children, two in cages. It was Taege who gave Vasquez the green light to adopt these children in the first place.

Throughout Vasquez’s five-week trial-not regarding her guilt, but as to whether the charges should be reduced from felonies to misdemeanors-Taege was much on my mind. Sitting in Judge Frank Ochoa ‘s courtroom, I kept wondering how someone like Vasquez managed to adopt not just one child, but four. Vasquez’s attorney, Bob Sanger , sought to portray his client as a tragically misguided soul, heroically struggling to impose loving boundaries on damaged kids determined to act out in the most fecally and sexually disturbing ways possible. Ochoa conceded that Vasquez did some good, but he definitely wasn’t buying Sanger’s pitch.

Insisting the felony charges stand, Ochoa ordered Vasquez hauled off to county jail-as part of a 10-year suspended sentence-on the Friday before Mother’s Day . Ochoa was moved by the tearful testimony of the two child welfare workers who described the conditions uncovered in the Vasquez home as “cruelty” and “torture.” There were the locked cages, the white plastic buckets two of the kids had to poop in, the cold rooms, the cold outside showers, substandard meals, and harsh punishments. For all but the favored child-a gifted violin prodigy-Ochoa found basic childhood needs, like exercise, could be secured only by writing long homework essays “filled with contrition, apology, self loathing, self blame, and self hate.” And while Vasquez’s favorite enjoyed the run of the house, she was also injected with a drug to block the onset of puberty . She was also the subject of nearly 100 nude and semi-nude photos. Even with the best of intentions, this was some weird stuff.

Naturally, I assumed Vasquez had snuck through the bureaucratic cracks , a nasty surprise to an unsuspecting Judy Taege and all the state officials who approved the adoptions. Vasquez is nothing if not presentable. She drives nice cars. She owns a nice house. But it turns out, that’s not the case. In fact, there were plenty of warning flags -big bright ones that snapped loudly in the breeze. Yet, somehow, they were ignored. Even before Taege approved the first of two sets of adoptions to Vasquez, she was aware that Santa Barbara County law enforcement, mental health , and Child Protective Service workers all expressed serious concerns about Vasquez.

Taege had heard how in 1982 Vasquez had kidnapped a young girl named Flor -then about nine years old-from Mexico and brought her to Santa Barbara. Vasquez, who had been the girl’s tutor, went to Flor’s school and took her with her. She bought Flor new clothes, spreading the ones Flor had been wearing by a beach so that it appeared the girl had drowned. When Vasquez mysteriously showed up at Child Protective Services-where she worked as a receptionist-with her brand-new nine-year-old daughter, her coworkers took note. When Mexican authorities contacted the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department about the missing girl, it didn’t take long to connect the dots . At the time, Vasquez claimed she was rescuing Flor from the clutches of a sexually abusive relative. Although Flor now denies any sexual abuse ever took place, at the time, she did say an uncle had touched her improperly. But investigators found it suspicious that Vasquez never obtained treatment for Flor that would be suitable for a victim of sexual abuse. Ultimately, the prosecutor assigned to the case-former DA Tom Sneddon -declined to file charges. All the witnesses lived in Mexico and it would have been a financial hardship, he concluded, for them to come to Santa Barbara.

Taege was also aware of how, in 1986, Vasquez had written a letter on Child Protective Services stationery that enabled her to remove three children from a Mexican orphanage in Tijuana. She was exposed when the orphanage called her work asking how the children were doing. According to Laura Cleaves , who investigated the case for prosecutor Joyce Dudley , Vasquez was not fired, but instead allowed to resign. Cleaves said she knows Taege was aware of both these incidents before approving Vasquez as an adoptive parent because Taege told her so. Cleaves said Taege explained there was no paper trail -no charges filed, no conviction obtained-to confirm these accounts. While Taege wouldn’t talk to me, her superior, Mary Ault , deputy director for Children and Family Services , would. Speaking only generally-and not about the specifics of the Vasquez case-Ault said, “We are bound by documentation. Anything that is not documented is hearsay. It continues to be an allegation as opposed to a fact.”

It’s true Vasquez’s paper trail was less than clear-cut. The county’s personnel records had been purged, and the sheriff’s record system had changed, too, making it difficult, though not impossible, to track down records of the 1982 investigation. But in the 1990s, Vasquez applied to Santa Barbara County to obtain a foster home permit . Based on the recollection of her former fellow employees at Child Protective Services, she was rejected. Likewise, the county adoption agency rejected Vasquez’s application to become an adoptive parent. When it appeared that Vasquez might sue the county over these rejections, at least one of Vasquez’s former coworkers was instructed to draft a memo by the county counsel’s office detailing these concerns. Ain’t that paper? One might think this memo would raise serious concerns in Taege’s mind, but Taege’s not talking.

Then there are the documents from Santa Barbara juvenile court proceedings regarding the fate of the four adopted children-documents submitted to Judge Ochoa by Vasquez’s attorney-that indicate Taege was given even more reason to wonder about Vasquez’s suitability. In these, Taege admitted she was given a letter written by a psychiatrist then on the county payroll- Sylvia Warholic -dated October 12, 1998, indicating Vasquez had been diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder and borderline personality disorder -both serious mental illnesses-in the 1980s. Warholic’s letter also indicated Vasquez had been hospitalized because of these problems two separate times in 1983. These documents indicate that Taege was troubled by Warholic’s letter and referred the matter to her supervisors. But Taege also admitted she never had Vasquez undergo any independent psychological evaluation prior to the adoption of the kids to Vasquez. When asked if she ever asked Vasquez about Warholic’s concerns, Taege is quoted in court documents stating, “I don’t recall speaking to her about the letter.”

I’m the first to admit that the boulder Taege pushes uphill on a daily basis makes mine look like a speck of sand . Her job is to juggle the impossible with the desperate. The line of people willing to adopt the soul-scarred kids of meth-heads and child beaters is getting shorter every day. Still, there’s only so far you can look the other way before you break your neck. Given this pitiful record, I can easily understand why Judy Taege isn’t talking. But the real question remains why she didn’t listen

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