Foster mom - loving caretaker to 5 sisters or cult-loving abuser?
By: John Welsh
Meyers Tax & Fax's parking lot is often used as a dump zone for unwanted animals. Employees of the Moreno Valley business never expected to find a child curled up on the sidewalk outside.
But there she was - a little girl, all alone.
Meyers employee Nancy Neeley said the child had a black eye. Denise Meyers tried to get the girl to talk.
"I said, `Where's your mommy at?'" Meyers recalled. "She just looked up at us."
Now, a year later, the girl and her four sisters, ages 5 to 12,
are in foster care, and their adoptive mother, Jessica Banks, 61, is accused of child abuse. Deputy District Attorney Ambrosio Rodriguez said the girls were beaten repeatedly, forced to eat moldy food and slept in a cave-like setting inside Banks' garage. Banks, who denies guilt, faces multiple counts of child endangerment and abuse and two counts of sexual abuse involving two of the girls.
Rodriguez said the girls were subjected to punishing religious rituals and that Banks removed them from public school in 2004, shortly after she adopted them.
Banks, free after posting $250,000 bail, is due in a Riverside courtroom today so a judge can decide whether she is mentally competent to stand trial.
Banks said the accusations against her are unfounded. Police didn't find any evidence the girls were mistreated, she said.
"They came here looking for child pornography and latches on the doors," Banks said during an interview at her home this month. "They looked for cages and stuff like that."
Banks said she can't believe her daughters would say anything negative about her.
Her attorney, Donna Ortlieb, said in court that it's possible the oldest girl led the others in fabricating stories of abuse against their adoptive mother.
Rodriguez said Ortlieb expressed some doubt whether Banks is mentally competent to stand trial, so Judge Gary B. Tranbarger ordered an evaluation by two doctors.
Ortlieb declined to be interviewed for this story.
The accusations Banks faces are based on the children's statements to investigators and on physical evidence, said Rodriguez, who called this one of the "most troubling and disturbing cases" of his career.
The girls were removed from their biological family after they were abused, he said. Banks, a retired X-ray technician, took them into her Moreno Valley home as foster children in 2000. She adopted them four years later, and was no longer subject to visits by social workers, authorities said.
Rodriguez said that's when the abuse began to escalate.
When authorities removed the girls from Banks' custody, the children had cropped, boyish hairstyles and wore long, black dresses, he said. They wore two layers of diapers, although they had been potty trained, Rodriguez said.
All the girls were pale and gaunt, with the look of a child living in a country struggling with famine, he said. "Now superimpose that on a 5-year-old American girl."
County sheriff's Sgt. Cheryl Owens, assigned to investigate after the Meyers Tax & Fax employees found the unattended child, described the girl during a March preliminary hearing. The child had "hollow, sunken eyes" and a downcast look, "not wanting to make eye contact," Owens said.
The Banks home was described as "clean, immaculate, organized." But authorities said there was a dark side to this orderly house in the 10700 block of Breezy Meadow Drive near Canyon Springs High.
"Five little girls in an immaculate home? They are mutually exclusive. They were treated like animals," Rodriguez said. "All they did was do chores for her."
Owens testified in court that the girls told a therapist they were beaten daily with telephone cords and sticks. One girl was beaten for placing a leaf in a toilet bowl, she told the court.
During testimony, Rodriguez asked Owens about the girls' meals.
"They described them as consisting of rotten food, rotten milk, because the milk tasted bad, and rotten cheese because they described green spots on the cheese," Owens said. "They described green spots on the bread."
Also, "Miss Banks would push pillows on their faces and attempt to choke them," Owens testified, based on her discussions with the therapist. "She (the therapist) told me the accounts she was given that were very, very detailed and she did not believe the children were making them up."
The girls told the therapist they attended church school with their adoptive mother and would sit in circles, and candles would be lit and they would talk about Jesus and going to hell, Owens testified.
One of the girls said Banks used a paint stirrer to poke one of her sisters "in the area where she pees from," according to Owens' testimony.
Rodriguez said that the girls, once they were moved into a foster home, stopped using diapers and went back to using the bathroom.
CLOTHES OF ALL COLORS
The allegations are untrue, Banks said in an interview.
"The only way I can think of them saying anything against me is someone made them say it," said Banks, who has lived at the Breezy Meadow Drive home for a little more than three years.
Banks said authorities never inspected her refrigerator and that she was a good cook and fed the children well. The children did not sleep in the garage, she said.
Authorities searched her home but they found nothing incriminating, she said.
The girl found outside the Moreno Valley business was in the custody of Banks' grown granddaughter when she wandered away, Banks said. She said she and the other girls had gone to the grocery store.
As for testimony that she drugged the girls, she said a doctor prescribed medication because the girls had trouble sleeping. The girls are mentally retarded, she said. When asked for the doctor's name, Banks said he had just died. Rodriguez said the girls have normal intelligence.
Banks was a foster parent affiliated with a private foster-home agency in San Bernardino when the sisters came to live with her in 2000.
Banks said she felt sorry for the girls, so she adopted them. She took them to the doctor regularly, often took to them to amusement parks and the movies and twice took them on road trips to visit her relatives in Texas.
The foster agency, Children's Way, had no reason to believe Banks wasn't a fit foster parent. Social workers who visited the home did not remove the girls.
She had a clean record; otherwise she would not have been chosen as a foster parent, said Alex Powell, attorney for Children's Way. Banks receives $3,400 a month in government assistance, Rodriguez said.
Someone filed a child-abuse complaint about Banks in 2003, but investigators found that the complaint was inconclusive, said Shirley Washington, spokeswoman for the state Department of Social Services. The complaint is confidential, Washington said.
Rodriguez, the prosecutor, said suspected abuse was reported after a teacher discovered dried blood in one of the girls' ears. It's not clear if the complaints involved the same incident.
Banks said she knows that authorities are trying to make it seem as if she was involved in some type of cult-like school, because her daughters all had the same, short hairstyle and because investigators said the girls all wore black dresses. She dismissed the cult accusations.
Her daughters attended school at a church, Word of Life Apostolic Church, in the same strip mall as Meyers Tax & Fax, she said. She ministers at the church, she said. Sunday services draw about 20 people, she said.
Ortlieb, Banks' attorney, said in the preliminary hearing that the evidence doesn't support the charges.
"I'd ask the court to exercise care in looking at some of this evidence, because some of it was clearly presented to give a picture of some sort of horrific environment," Ortlieb said. "Saying all these girls were found all wearing black, when in fact - the investigators said - that there were lots of clothes in the garage of all different colors and different types.
"So they didn't wear long, black dresses all the time. And it may have well been a uniform for school," Ortlieb said.
The attorney said that some of the girls' statements might have been sparked by abuse in the home of their biological family. Plus, no one - not a doctor or other person legally obligated to report abuse - has alerted authorities about trouble in the Banks home, Ortlieb said.
"Some of this is just way out there," Ortlieb told the judge. "These children were in Miss Banks' home for a number of years. They were seen by doctors."
Regarding the accusation that the children were forced to sleep in the garage, Ortlieb said: "Perhaps they may have camped out there on occasion."
A child-abuse and neglect expert said children can be good witnesses, even very young children.
Tom Lyon, a USC law school professor and psychologist, has heard attorneys question children's memories. But a child age 5 and older would have little difficulty distinguishing past abuse versus more recent abuse, Lyon said.
"Five-year-olds can be very reliable," Lyon said in a telephone interview.
DEDICATED TO THE CHURCH
Next-door neighbor Jennifer Tran, 36, said she did not notice anything unusual at the Banks home. She described Banks as loving and caring.
"I've seen the kids dressed in uniform," Tran said. "They go to church every Sunday. They're very dedicated. They played in the backyard, just like other kids."
Businessman Raj Desai co-owns the strip mall where the church is located and runs a trophy and clothing company next door. He called Banks "not a bad lady, to be honest."
Tim Noble, a manager who collects rent from businesses there, said Banks continues to pay the rent on the church building.
Banks said she is leaning on her faith to help her through this period.
"I haven't done anything," she said. "I know I'm a good mother. I want them back. I love those girls. We had a good bond together."
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THE PEOPLE VS. JESSICA BANKS
2000: Jessica Banks takes in five sisters as foster children
MAY 2004: Banks legally adopts the girls
MAY 9, 2005: One of the girls, age 4, discovered curled up on a sidewalk outside a Moreno Valley business
JUNE 16, 2005: District attorney's office files abuse charges against Banks; authorities say the girls have been repeatedly beaten and were malnourished
TODAY: Hearing to determine whether Banks is mentally competent to stand trial