exposing the dark side of adoption
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ESTHER COMBS' adoptive parents have been charged with kidnapping, assault, child abuse and rape after she said they used her as a slave for 10 years.

FARMINGTON HILLS, Mich. - Esther Alice Combs once thought God wanted her to be a slave.

She says that's what her "family" told her as they subjected her to years of slavery, torture and sexual abuse.

"They would call me slave or Cinderella," the young woman said of her East Tennessee "parents" who had promised to adopt her, but never legally gave her their name.

Esther is no longer a "slave," but she knows no fairy-tale ending can whisk away her past.

Ten days before Thanksgiving, she quietly celebrated her 21st birthday here with new acquaintances in secured seclusion, now safe and free. But, authorities say, the emotional damage done during her years as a "slave" run as deep as the injuries permanently etched on her frail body.

Today, the life of abuse and terror she describes are embodied in criminal charges against her "parents."

From the safety of her new home, she told her story about her ordeal while the couple that authorities say enslaved her - a Baptist preacher and his wife - sit behind bars.

Esther's "parents" - Joseph Combs, 50, and his wife, Evangeline Combs, 49, of Bristol, Tenn. - were arrested three weeks ago and are held on bonds of $250,000 each.

They are criminally charged with kidnapping and assaulting Esther Combs. Mrs. Combs is separately charged with aggravated child abuse. Joseph Combs faces eight additional charges of raping Esther, the first time when she was 12.

There are no witnesses outside the "family" to confirm what Esther Combs said. But, the physical carnage to her body is real - including broken bones, never set by a doctor, that have healed misshapen.

Her lawyers did not allow her to discuss certain aspects of the criminal and civil cases.

But Combs was surprisingly candid on some topics, especially as she tugged on her clothes to reveal the scars and untreated broken bones that mangle her thin frame.

"This scar came from scissors," she said, extending the inside of her left forearm and pulling up her sleeve to reveal a continuous row of marred flesh. Then she slowly explained the causes of the others.

"I asked them to take me to the doctor a time or two," she said, "but they'd say something like, `Esther, it's not that bad,' so I quit asking."

She was never taken to a dentist, she said, not even when three of her permanent front teeth were knocked out shortly after they grew in.

Combs said she rarely was allowed to leave the confines of her home, and when she did, she was never alone. She never set foot in a school, she said.

Singled out as a `slave'

She is unsure why she always seemed to be singled out from the five other children in the family.

But one day, she recalled, those "parents" came upon a Biblical quiz of sorts, in which a series of questions and answers led to an individual's supposed "gift" in life. While the quiz deemed others in the Combs family to have the gift of teaching or organizing, Esther was deemed to be best suited as a "servant."

That did not surprise her, she said, explaining that by the time she was "7, 8 or 9, I was already doing everything a servant or slave would."

In the very beginning, Esther simply wanted to please.

"I was little when I heard Vangie (Evangeline) say she was hungry," Esther said, a tiny smile rising with the memory. "I wanted to make her happy, so I went to the kitchen and made her a sandwich.

"It was just a cold hamburger, but she really liked it. She thanked me for it. The next time, I made her a bologna sandwich, and she liked it, too."

Instantly, any trace of Esther's smile is erased.

"That's what started me cooking."

Before long, Combs said, she was required to fix all the meals for other family members, then clean up the mess. She was required, too, to wash the family's clothes, clean the house, scrub the bathroom and make all the beds.

And, at age 9, her chores grew, she said, when the Combses' youngest daughter was born. Instantly, Combs' duties included feeding, washing and clothing the new baby.

Punished for slip-ups

As with all her chores, the slightest slip-up, day or night, meant certain punishment and pain, she said.

"It could be anything," Combs recalled, slowly shaking her head.

"One time, they said I left the milk out on the counter too long when I was making everybody's breakfast."

She stopped before describing what happened next, then continued with a different thought.

"Oh, it really could be anything. They'd say I gave somebody a dirty look, or that I said something sassy. I never did anything right."

One area of her life as a "slave" that Combs will not discuss are the allegations of sexual abuse by the only "father" she's ever known.

However, Joseph Combs' indictment in Sullivan County charges he repeatedly raped her, beginning in April 1989, when she was 12, and continuing through the "summer months of 1995."

As the years passed, Esther Combs said, a "feeling" began rising from somewhere inside her, a feeling that no one should have to live as a slave.

She tried to run away, once in 1992 and again in 1996.

Each time, she was returned, only to face additional punishments for trying to escape.

Then came a turning point, though her lawyers won't allow her to explain the details behind what might have been her motivation.

On the cold night of Feb. 18, 1997, Esther decided to end her life.

"It was a 24-ounce foam glass, and I filled it to the top with antifreeze," Esther said.

Esther does not remember the next eight days.

But one of her "sisters," Cindy Combs, said she discovered Esther in her bed later that night "shaking, moaning and having these awful seizures."

It was during a week in the hospital, authorities said, that doctors and nurses discovered both years-old and fresh injuries scattered from the top of Esther's scalp to her toes.

Bristol police were called in and, suddenly, Esther's scars and broken bones were secrets no more.

1998 Nov 30