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Paul Wellman

Caged Kids’ Case Nears End, Vasquez’s Fate in Judge’s Hands

Wicked Witch or Fairy Godmother?


When Judge Frank Ochoa goes behind closed doors later this week to decide the fate of Sylvia Vasquez-the Santa Barbara childcare provider who pleaded guilty to locking two adopted children in makeshift cages and a third in his room-he’ll decide whether she’s a modern-day Cruella De Vil or a heroically misguided fairy godmother struggling to cope with the insurmountable psychological problems suffered by three of her four adopted children.

But in a way, Vasquez has already won, no matter what Ochoa decides on that score. The judge already struck a deal with Vasquez over the strenuous objection of prosecuting attorney Joyce Dudley. In exchange for Vasquez pleading guilty, Ochoa agreed not to send her to state prison. Instead, Vasquez is now looking at a maximum sentence of only one year behind bars in county jail, much of which she has already served. To the extent Ochoa hoped his deal might have obviated the need for a prolonged and emotionally wrenching trial, he’s been sorely mistaken. Vasquez and her attorney, Robert Sanger, have spent the better part of the past four weeks asking Ochoa to reduce to misdemeanors the four felonies to which Vasquez pleaded no contest. While such hearings are exceptionally common, they typically last no longer than 10 to 15 minutes. In terms of duration, the Vasquez “trial” has already set a new county record-and it’s not over yet.

The past week has clearly belonged to the prosecution. One after the next, prosecution witnesses took to the stand and described Vasquez as a “Mommie Dearest” on steroids: imperious, dictatorial, and withholding. They included three of Vasquez’s former daycare workers, two child welfare workers, the former foster parents of two of Vasquez’s adopted children, and even Vasquez’s own nephew, who now works for CALM (Child Abuse Listening and Mediation) counseling abused children and their families. So vivid and disturbing were their recollections that a Kleenex box had to be kept at the witness stand at all times. Four of the last five prosecution witnesses found themselves overcome by tears and struggling to compose themselves as they testified. “In my six years as an investigator, these are the worst conditions I’ve seen,” declared child welfare worker Carolina Serrano, who was the first one in the door when police raided Vasquez’s home January 5. It was so bad, Serrano said, that she needed to get help afterward. “It was detrimental to all concerned.”

As her critics described it, Vasquez was generous to a fault with her favorite daughter, a 13-year-old violin prodigy of uncommon beauty and talent, but her other three-a 15-year-old boy and two younger girls-were locked either in cages or in their rooms. Their diets consisted of peanut butter, mayonnaise, or butter sandwiches morning, noon, and night. Denied access to the bathroom, two were forced to urinate and defecate in buckets kept in their quarters. The clothes of these two reeked of urine and feces. And when one-an 11-year-old girl-got too dirty, she was given a shower in the yard, while still wearing her clothes.

But even where Vasquez’s pampered prodigy was concerned, there were troubling sexual overtones that wouldn’t go away. Yes, the girl enjoyed the run of the house, ate whatever she wanted, and slept in a large room with a queen-sized bed and a closet stuffed with gowns. But the prodigy also received injections designed to stunt her hormonal development and keep her forever prepubescent. And then there were all the racy photos-and painting-depicting the young girl nude and sporting a decidedly come-hither look.

Troubled Children

In the weeks prior, Vasquez and Sanger presented a host of friends, supporters, and psychological experts who testified that if Vasquez resorted to extreme measures by locking up her children-which Vasquez has conceded was wrong-she was responding to extreme conditions. Psychological experts testified that three of the adopted children had been diagnosed with RAD (Reactive Attachment Disorder), which afflicts people who are denied the opportunity to bond with adults while in their infancy. Those with RAD can seem normal but terrorize their immediate family members behind closed doors. Often people with RAD exhibit sexually aggressive behavior. Vasquez said she had to lock up her oldest adopted child, now a 15-year-old boy, because he had tried to have sex with the prodigy-his biological sister-as well as one of the family cats. Likewise, she had to lock up her next-to-youngest daughter to prevent similarly outrageous sexual outbursts from occurring.

By Paul Wellman

Was Sylvia Vasquez a victim of extreme circumstances, or did she actually create them?

One of the experts testified that RAD is so overwhelming an affliction that little can be done to help. That Vasquez maintained the good fight-even while resorting to admittedly dubious measures-is testament to her essential good intentions. Additionally, they sought to portray the Vasquez family, however dysfunctional, in less macabre hues. The family went out to dinner twice a week-Vasquez’s friends noted-attended church services regularly, and went on family outings to the beach, Disneyland, and Sea World. A devoted mother, Vasquez made sure her adopted charges received musical instruction. Her 15-year-old son had been diagnosed as mentally retarded when she adopted him, they claimed, unable to tie his shoes. Now, under Vasquez’s tutelage, he’s become an avid reader.

Some of the prosecution witnesses actually bolstered Vasquez’s claim that her children were extremely troubled. For example, the prior foster parents of the two oldest children-a San Bernardino County Sheriff and his wife-testified that the kids had been perfectly normal and wonderful children for the three years they lived together as a family. But they also acknowledged that the two had such serious food issues that they would eat dog food out of the trash or gorge themselves until they puked. They also suggested that Vasquez could go out of her way to be hurtful. Shortly after Vasquez had adopted the kids-nearly 10 years ago-the couple claimed she asked them in a phone call, “Will they forget me as fast as they’ve already forgot you?”

But likewise, Vasquez may have been the most compelling witness for the prosecution. While Vasquez testified how much time and effort she spent looking for professional help, she also admitted under cross-examination that she never acted upon the recommendations of any of the experts she consulted. Vasquez never took any of her children to see a therapist. Even her nephew, Alfonso Garcia, testified that he repeatedly urged her to seek therapeutic help. Now working professionally to help a family dealing with a RAD-afflicted child, Garcia stressed that the solution requires an intensive therapeutic approach. He even took his aunt to attend a seminar hosted by one of the foremost experts on the disease. Still, she never sought therapy either for her children or herself. Garcia noted that the expert strongly disapproved of many of the methods that Vasquez said she deployed to deal with her children’s condition, locking them in cages or in their rooms being the most blatant. Had he known what his aunt was doing, Garcia conceded, he would have felt compelled to call Child Protective Services.

The Vasquez hearing should continue at least through the end of the week.

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