Judge Brings Hammer Down in ‘Caged Kids’ Case
Vasquez Put in Slammer with 10-Years Suspended Sentence
Friday, May 11, 2007
Just two days before Mothers Day, Judge Frank Ochoa ordered Sylvia Vasquez placed immediately behind bars for abusing her four adopted children, keeping three locked up for extended periods - one in his room, two in makeshift cages.
Although Ochoa sentenced Vasquez - who for years ran a successful and popular daycare facility out of her home on Foothill Road - to 10 years in prison, she will be required only to serve one year behind lock and key at the Santa Barbara County Jail. Ochoa struck a deal with Vasquez before the beginning of what turned into a drawn-out and contentious five-week sentencing hearing, allowing her to serve just one year if she agreed to plead guilty or no contest to four felony charges. That deal was made over the strenuous objections of county prosecutor Joyce Dudley and the county probation department, who together have urged the judge to impose the maximum possible sentence of 10-years. Ochoa alluded to this controversial deal briefly in court Friday morning, stating that he’s “been given pause as to the original agreement regarding sentencing” by the nature of the evidence presented.
By Paul Wellman
Judge Frank Ochoa
The key legal issue throughout the hearing was a motion made Vasquez’s defense attorney, Robert Sanger, to have the four felony charges reduced to misdemeanors. On Friday, Ochoa rejected Sanger’s motion out of hand, citing the severe neglect and psychological damage inflicted by Vasquez on the children. Ochoa was moved by the tears shed on the witness stand by two child welfare workers, who described the circumstances they witnessed as “the worst” of their professional careers. One worker, Ochoa recalled, used the word “torture” to describe the care Vasquez bestowed upon her charges. The other worker dubbed the conditions as “cruelty.”
Ochoa also acknowledged that he has no jurisdiction over whether Vasquez will get any of her adopted children back, but he spoke out against that from ever happening. “These children need to sever their relationship to the defendant and find loving, caring family circumstances so they can develop, as much as possible, into normal children with a reasonable chance at successful adult lives,” he said.
The import of Ochoa’s sentence is that if Vasquez were to violate the terms of her probation she could be remanded to state prison to serve the remainder of her sentence. Because she’s already served nearly half a year, Vasquez has about another six months to go. Sanger asked Ochoa for time to allow Vasquez to apply for home arrest and the electronic ankle bracelet, but Ochoa insisted she be “sentenced forthwith.” Ochoa explained that Vasquez had sought to communicate with at least two of her adopted children several times - often in direct violation of court orders - and commented, “I think these children need a break.”
By Paul Wellman
Sylvia Vasquez (May, 2007)
Throughout the trial Sanger portrayed Vasquez as a heroic, if criminally misguided, adoptive parent, struggling to stand by her four emotionally damaged adopted children even as they acted out in more violent and upsetting ways. Yes, the cages were wrong, she acknowledged, but given the allegedly weird and sexually aggressive behavior of two children, they were needed. Not only did her 15-year old adopted son smear feces all over his room, but he may have killed the family cat after having sex with it. In addition, Vasquez said she caught her son with his pants down around his ankles on top of his nine-year old sister. And that girl, Vasquez claimed, had sought to sexually assault her baby sister with a plastic toy baby bottle.
Prosecutor Joyce Dudley insisted that these horrific incidents never actually happened, and charged Vasquez made them up. Vasquez’s motive, according to Dudley, was to make herself a martyr in the cause of motherhood. In addition, Dudley noted that Vasquez received larger monthly payments from the state’s adoption agency by having her children’s emotional problems classified in the most severe category. Dudley hammered home the point that Vasquez never obtained for her children the therapeutic help that all the experts she consulted said they needed. She also noted that for all the money Vasquez was paid as an adoptive mother - $173,637 over eight years - the second oldest girl lacked a single pair of shoes that fit. When child welfare workers took her away, the best that could be found were a paid of boots three sizes too big.