Lawyers Rest in Child "Cage" Case; Sentencing Next Week
A former Santa Barbara day care operator who pleaded no contest to four counts of child abuse earlier this year is "the worst kind of liar," a prosecutor said Friday.
The sentencing hearing for Sylvia Jovanna Vasquez, 51, concluded with lawyers on both sides giving closing arguments.
Defense Attorney Bob Sanger said Vasquez meant well but erred by not seeking enough outside help for her four troubled adopted youngsters. He repeated a request that Superior Court Judge Frank Ochoa knock down the charges against her from felony to misdemeanor status.
Deputy District Attorney Joyce Dudley urged the judge to not only deny that request, but to also place Vasquez on probation for 10 years and never permit her to be left alone with a child again.
"Mrs. Vasquez has said she did things that were wrong," Sanger acknowledged.
However, as caretaker for children with reactive attachment disorder, or RAD, in which youngsters will "glom onto" adults, Vasquez at the time of her misdeeds, "worried about exacerbating the problem," Sanger told the court.
Dudley hit back with a strong rebuke.
"It's always the same, your honor," Dudley said, asserting that Vasquez, like others accused before her, blames her troubled children for her own actions. "She's the worst kind of liar. She has to justify her felonious acts of child cruelty."
Already suffering from an unstable life, she said, "the people she abused are our most vulnerable victims."
Friday capped a topsy turvy hearing that featured testimony from investigators, former employees of Vasquez and others including a daughter, now age 10, who told the court she loves her mother and hopes to return to her home. That same girl also described her mother meting out disturbing punishments.
Witnesses for the prosecution testified that Vasquez never let parents inside her day care, and that her home was found in disarray by authorities.
Attempting to destroy the defendant's credibility, Dudley elicited testimony from a District Attorney investigator who said she found no evidence Vasquez attended college in Mexico as she claimed.
Perhaps even more compelling, investigator Laura Cleaves described a series of incidents in the mid-1980s in which Vasquez allegedly "abducted" a child from Mexico.
Dudley also told the court that Vasquez injected her one "Shirley Temple" daughter with Lupron, a drug that staves off puberty, to keep her small. Moreover, she introduced 71 photos of the girl posed semi-nude and nude — many of them constituting "child erotica" and two of which an FBI investigator categorized as "child pornography," Dudley said.
Further, Dudley painted Vasquez as a greedy person who would take on adopted children and receive financial assistance while embarking on pricey vacations.
Previously testifying in her own defense, Vasquez highlighted her efforts to find expert mental health help for three of her four unruly kids suffering RAD, while also stating she locked them in their rooms for their own protection.
"I couldn't believe my kids wouldn't get well," Vasquez testified. "I was not going to give up."
Speaking about her youngest son Friday, she sounded a similar tone: "I love him very much."
Defense witnesses testified Vasquez did not lock her children up during the day, but only did so at night when all other avenues to protect them were exhausted. Some testified how she frequently took her children to Disneyland, museums and church and enrolled them in ice skating and music lessons.
The 10-year-old girl made disturbing but inconsistent claims on the stand. She confirmed that she wrote a number of letters saying in one that she was forced by her mom to lick up the mixture after she threw it up. She also testified that she wrote letters about wanting to cause harm to her family and her dog, adding she never really meant to do so.
Sometimes she grew hungry or was not able to reach the bathroom, the girl testified. However, she later said that there was a variety of food available at the house.
At one point, she testified her mother put her hand on a hot stove burner. However, the girl also confirmed she wrote in a letter that her mother warned her not to put her hand on the hot burner and she did so anyway.
In response to the prosecutor's questions, the girl said she was fed raw eggs mixed with oil, which the defense lawyer asserted was the Ensure food supplement.
On Friday, Sanger noted his client had already pleaded guilty. And he said she was not trying to blame others.
He questioned whether Dudley had purposely kept information from investigators — she denied this — and suggested their efforts were incomplete.
"Mrs. Vasquez loves these children," Sanger said, asserting that come level of intercession by authorities was probably necessary. Regrettably it came in the form of a criminal proseuction, he said.
MAKING THE CASE
Vasquez was arrested on Jan. 5, 2006 at her home at 2839 Foothill Road after a neighbor reported that her children — at the time ages 13, 12, 9 and 6 — were possibly being abused.
Authorities reported finding a downstairs room occupied by a 13-year-old boy that contained a large bag of trash with rotting food inside, a bed, a toothbrush, a bottle of water and a bucket holding urine and feces. The room had an external dead bolt, according to the Santa Barbara County Sheriff's Department.
The nine-year-old girl allegedly stayed in another room downstairs built into a storage area with an external lock, authorities said.
There was a separate room and hallway in the downstairs area that reportedly was littered with cat urine and feces, authorities said. The downstairs bathroom was filthy and the toilet was stopped up with feces, authorities also alleged.
The 6-year-old girl had a bedroom upstairs, at the opposite end of the house, according to investigators who described a bed in that room located within a 3-by-5-foot "cage," which was described by the defense as a bunk bed with a door.
The 12-year-old girl also stayed in a room upstairs. Authorities said it looked as though this girl was "well cared for and given all of the necessary amenities."
The children were removed and placed into protective custody following Vasquez's arrest.
In the months that followed, she was bailed out and remanded back into custody twice at the prosecution's request following alleged contact with the children.
On the eve of trial at the beginning of this year, Vasquez pleaded no contest to the charges in exchange for the judge's offer to cap her potential sentence at no more than one year in the County Jail if she did so.
However, before Judge Ochoa can sentence Vasquez, he had to hear evidence from the defense and the prosecution concerning the severity of the charges. The judge said Friday he would take a week to review volumes of material in the case and sentence Vasquez on May 11.