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.
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.”
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.
Ochoa ultimately rejected the motives attributed to Vasquez by both sides as one sided and simplistic. More germane, he said, was the actual consequence of Vasquez’s criminal conduct on her children. In his recitation of offenses, the judge noted many of incidents already seized upon by the media: two of the kids forced to urinate and defecate into plastic buckets kept in their rooms, two children caged downstairs without heat and subjected to inadequate food, and punishment by cold early morning showers. The judge seemed equally upset by some of the less dramatic forms of abuse. “Basic childhood needs were reduced to privileges,” he wrote, “The children were allowed basic childhood needs only if they exhibited what the defendant deemed to be good behavior,” Often, he said, that involved homework – long writing assignments in which the children took themselves to task for shortcomings that Vasquez brought to their attention. “The court read reams of pages of so-called homework filled with contrition, apology, self-loathing, self blame, and self hate. If those “homework” pages were not written in sufficient number, so-called privileges would be removed.” When her oldest adopted boy stuck a carrot in the toilet, Vasquez took him to task for his “cruel and selfish” behavior. She accused him in writing of trying to manipulate her by this behavior to some “sick advantage,” adding, “Today I want to spend time with my loving family so I will see you tomorrow.”
Ochoa faulted Vazquez for “the complete lack of drastically needed professional psychological services,” she obtained; likewise he took her task for injecting the oldest girl-a gifted violin player and Vasquez’s clear favorite-with a puberty-blocking hormone. Ochoa acknowledged that all four of the children Vasquez adopted came with significant psychological baggage; after all, they’d been the children of neglect and abuse in their previous lives. But, he added, “These children’s problems prior to the defendant’s adoption of them pale in comparison to the damage done by the defendant’s abuse.”
The one bright spot that Ochoa found was the conduct of the childcare workers employed by Vasquez, all Spanish-speaking Mexican immigrants. It was one such worker who reported Vasquez to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff in the first place. And it was the immigrant helpers that risked Vasquez’s wrath, the judge said, and quietly comforted the children, hugging them, talking to them, feeding them food outside the exceedingly limited menu proscribed by Vasquez, on occasion letting them out to play, and on rarer occasion still, bringing kids over to play with them.