Friday marked another day of notably grim testimony as the prosecution makes its case against former Santa Barbara child care provider Sylvia Vasquez (pictured on the stand earlier this week), who has plead guilty to several counts of child abuse and neglect. Two of Vasquez’s former day care providers broke down in tears on the witness stand, and a former county Child Protective Services officer testified she was so troubled by the Vasquez case that she sought a new line of work. Although Vasquez has plead guilty in exchange for a deal that guarantees her no more than one year in the county, at issue now is whether she’s found guilty of felony or misdemeanor charges and the length of the underlying sentence. The latter would be of great significance should Vasquez violate her parole upon release from county jail. The longer the sentence – and the more serious the crime – the more time she’d be eligible to serve.
Friday afternoon, however, belonged to a young, pretty, and pregnant woman named Marisol Plasencia Garcia, who worked nine months for Vasquez from May 2006 to January 5, 2006, when police raided the house. Speaking through an interpreter, Garcia painted a picture something straight out of the Grimms’ fairy tales – Hansel and Gretel in particular – and the American prison in Guantanamo Bay.
Paid $1,000 a month to work at least 50 hours a week, Garcia testified she spent most of her time caring for anywhere from eight to 14 very young charges – some only one-month-old – in Vasquez’s upstairs day care center. Parents were not allowed to step inside the premises, Garcia testified, and Vasquez did nothing other than greet the parents when they dropped their kids off in the morning and picked them up in the afternoon.
But it’s allegations about Vasquez’s treatment of her own adopted children – four of them, who lived downstairs in the basement – that’s landed her in such legal hot water. The youngest girl, according to Garcia, was kept locked in a cage in the “cat room” morning, noon, and night, where she was fed a steady diet of peanut butter sandwiches, cheese sandwiches with mayonnaise, and butter sandwiches. There were bananas and fruit as well, accompanied by bottled water and very small servings of milk. In lieu of a toilet, the youngest used a white plastic bucket to urinate and defecate.
Garcia testified that the girl wore only two sets of clothes, which frequently reeked of urine, during the nine months she worked there, and that the boots didn’t even fit, being too big. In addition, Garcia said the girl was not allowed upstairs, except when she was taken outside in the yard to receive an outdoor shower. In those instances, Garcia said, the girl was given a shower while dressed in her clothes, and was not given a fresh set of clothes to replace her wet ones afterwards.
Under questioning from prosecuting attorney Joyce Dudley, Garcia said she never saw Vasquez read to the youngest, never cuddled with her, never kissed her. All this, Garcia testified, stood in stark contrast to the treatment afforded the second oldest of the four kids, an astonishingly gifted classical violinist and an accomplished figure skater. She was allowed the run of the house, said Garcia, and could eat whatever she wanted, whenever she wanted to. (Investigators found many nude photographs and one nude oil painting of this girl in sexually provocative poses. Vasquez testified that the girl wanted these images of herself. This girl was also given injections of a drug to prevent the onset of puberty and delay her growth.)
On occasion, Garcia testified she fed the littlest girl, spending money out of her own pocket to do so. But she never told Vasquez when she did so. “I knew she [Vasquez] would get real upset and because these were her orders,” Garcia testified.
Likewise, Garcia testified that Vasquez’s oldest adopted child – now 14 – was kept locked up most of the time, though in a small room rather than in a cage with dogs and cats. While he was sometimes allowed out – and enjoyed a somewhat wider diet – Garcia said he was kept in a room with a lock on the outside of the door. She testified that she snuck food to him as well, and that on one occasion she snuck him out so that he could play with two of her cousins. He too had a bucket in his room for taking care of his feces and urine.
Vasquez’s defense attorney Robert Sanger sought to discredit Garcia’s testimony by suggesting she wanted to go into the day care business with her aunt and had hoped to take some of Vasquez’s clients. He pointed to a letter Garcia had written to the parents of Vasquez’s day care clients in which she lamented the poor level of care the kids were receiving because there was only one day care worker on the job – herself. She cried when testifying how the kids deserved better and denied that she was trying to steal Vasquez’s clients. Likewise, he also argued that because most of her job duties involved caring for the kids upstairs, Garcia would have limited knowledge of the conditions that obtained in the basement.
Overall, Sanger tried to paint a picture of the Vasquez household in more normal hues. For example, where prosecutor Joyce Dudley sought to suggest that the 14-year-old boy was punished for sticking a carrot down the toilet by being made to dig holes in the backyard – perhaps with his hands – Sanger indicated he was merely digging holes to plant some rose bushes. He also noted that the boy regularly went out to dinner with friends of the family on Wednesday nights.
Vasquez has argued that she had to lock up two of her four adopted children because they suffer from a syndrome common to some foster children who experience serious difficulties forming emotional bonds. Some act out in a violent and sexually aggressive manner, and on the witness stand, Vasquez indicated that her eldest may have tried to have sex with his sister as well as one of the cats. She’s been forced to take such drastic measures, she explained, because the kids have such deep emotional problems.
To counter this argument, the prosecutor demonstrated that Vasquez never followed any of the advice offered by any of the many experts Vasquez said she contacted for help. None of the children, for example, have ever received any therapy.
The sentencing hearing resumes next Tuesday at 10:30 a.m.