Lawsuit: Kids left in ‘house of horrors’ for years despite complaints to state

By Levi Pulkkinen | The Seattle PI

Six children left to be brutally abused by a Federal Way-area woman described as a “sadist” in court documents have sued the state, claiming child services failed to act after more than a dozen abuse complaints.

Maria Gonzales Esquivel – the 47-year-old accused of abusing the children herself and forcing them to abuse one another – has been jailed since August, when a teen living in Esquivel’s home for five years went to police. Esquivel currently faces five assault charges in King County Superior Court.

The allegations against Esquivel are stomach-churning.

King County investigators contend Esquivel doused one girl’s genitals with pure alcohol, beat a child until she was unrecognizable and forced the children to take hundreds of strikes from a belt to protect their younger siblings. She is also alleged to have starved the children while also denying them access to showers or proper clothing.

Now, though, attorneys for six siblings – presently between 7 and 19 years old – who were living with Esquivel claim Department of Social and Health Services investigators didn’t step up to protect the children after 17 complaints from counselors, teachers and others close to them.

“You had countless concerned citizens … calling CPS and reporting suspicions of abuse,” said attorney Julie Kays of Connelly Law Offices.

“When you get a referral, you’ve gotta stop, you’ve got to listen and you’ve got to investigate,” Kays continued. “They completely dropped the ball.”

Kays, a veteran violent crimes prosecutor, described the abuse the children suffered as among the worst she’s seen. Citing department policy, a spokeswoman for the Department of Social and Health Services declined to comment on the allegations contained in the lawsuit. The department has not yet responded in court.

Attorneys for the children contend Department of Social and Health Services workers failed to respond properly to the complaints of suspected abuse, the first of which was made in 2008.

While the eldest child moved in with Esquivel in 2006, it wasn’t until January 2008 that all six children and, apparently, their father were living in her home, which is located in unincorporated King County just east of Federal Way.

Abuse was ever-present during the children’s stay with Esquivel, Kays said.

“Esquivel’s sadistic acts of torture and abuse of these children defies comprehension,” Kays and co-counsel Lincoln Beauregard told the court. The children “were literally living in a house of horrors, and (the Department of Social and Health Services) failed to protect the children from this horrific abuse.”

Charging Esquivel with five counts of felony assault last year, King County Senior Deputy Prosecutor Christina Miyamasu summarized the injuries suffered by those closest to Esquivel.

“The known assaults in this case have resulted in closed head injuries, contusions, scalp lacerations, leg edemas, a macerated (or) swollen penis, broken fingers, eyes swollen shut, facial lacerations, a broken rib that punctured a lung, a detached retina, broken noses, and at least two surgeries,” the prosecutor told the court in August. “After years of reports, the truth of these assaults is just coming to light.”

According to documents filed in the criminal case, allegations of abuse were first made to law enforcement in January 2011, six weeks after the children’s father was rushed to Harborview Medical Center – the region’s leading trauma care facility – with significant injuries he claimed were delivered by an unidentified homeless man.

On Jan. 12, 2011, King County deputies responded to Esquivel’s home after a school counselor reported one of the children’s face was badly bruised. The teen told police she was attacked by friends of her mother, a statement prosecutors contend was a lie told to protect her siblings from Esquivel.

In the weeks and months that followed, detectives investigated several suspicious assaults that occurred at the home. Each time, the victims offered outlandish claims about the attacks.

Child services workers and a King County detective interviewed all six children in April 2011 and again were told nothing of Esquivel’s abusive behavior.

Kays said the children’s statements were given too much weight by state investigators, who should have conducted a complete investigation.

“Anybody who knows child physical abuse knows that kids are coached by their abuser not to tell anyone what is going on,” Kays said. “They had 17 opportunities to protect these kids, and they blew it.”

Authorities were finally spurred to act in August, when the eldest child told child services investigators she and her siblings had been abused by Esquivel for years.

The teen told detectives she was sent to live with Esquivel in 2006. She dropped out of school shortly thereafter and went to work as Esquivel’s personal assistant. Her parents and siblings moved into Esquivel’s home two years later.

Now 19, the young woman told detectives the abuse was constant.

“She said she was assaulted so frequently that she has a hard time separating the events,” King County Sheriff’s Office Detective Robin Cleary told the court in the criminal case against Esquivel.

Esquivel beat the eldest girl on multiple occasions, leaving her face so badly broken she was “literally unrecognizable to those who knew her,” the children’s attorneys told the court. The girl required medical attention after several of the beatings, which left her with broken bones and significant scarring.

According to the lawsuit, Esquivel threatened to hurt the girl or her siblings if she told anyone about the abuse. Still, others close to the children contacted child services years before action was taken.

Like the detectives on the case, Kays and Beauregard contend Esquivel beat the other five children as well. Beyond the beatings, Esquivel forced two of the older children to attack their younger siblings, the attorneys told the court. The older children also took lashings for their younger siblings when Esquivel appeared ready to whip them to death with a belt.

Esquivel is alleged to have sexually abused at least one of the children by pouring alcohol on her genitals then forced her brother to kick her in the groin.

“Esquivel is a sadist,” Kays said in the lawsuit. “The pain, suffering and agony inflicted on (the child) … defy comprehension.”

According to the King County criminal case, Esquivel attacked the girl with kitchen appliances while denying her food and forbidding her from going to school.

While living with Esquivel, the children’s basic needs were neglected as they went without food, adequate clothing and basic hygiene. School staff noted that the unwashed children were hoarding food in their desks. “Esquivel drastically restricted the food intake of the … children,” Kays told the court. “She would only permit them to take one shower per week, and often that ‘shower’ would consist of being hosed down outside with a garden hose.”

Workers at day care centers and schools attended by the children reported their concerns on numerous occasions, the attorneys told the court. The children remained in the home until the eldest child went to police.

Speaking with investigators, the young woman said she escaped from the home on one occasion and sought help at a church. The abuse continued, though, until she went to police out of fear that her developmentally disabled brother was in danger.

Days after the young woman came forward, King County deputies arrested Esquivel and interviewed the children’s father.

According to charging documents filed in the criminal case, their father told police Esquivel had been beating him for years.

Once, claiming the man was suffering from an infection, Esquivel beat his penis with a stick “for several hours,” according to charging documents. She is also alleged to have forced him to eat 20 hot peppers, beaten him with a mallet and blinded him in one eye.

Asked why he didn’t go to police, the man said he believed Esquivel was “possessed” but was otherwise a good person.

“He said that she provides him and his children with a home (and) food, and she pays the bills,” Cleary told the court. “He felt it was better than everyone being homeless and he didn’t want to return to his ex-wife.”

The man contended he “took” many of the beatings so his children wouldn’t have to suffer them, the detective continued in court papers. He said he was afraid Esquivel eventually would kill him.

All the children were removed from the home the day of Esquivel’s arrest. Kays said they are currently residing in loving homes.

Esquivel remains jailed on $200,000 bail. She’s currently scheduled to face a jury later this summer.

The civil suit filed earlier this month against the Department of Social and Health Services may take months or years to resolve. Similar lawsuits have seen multi-million dollar payouts to children who the state failed to protect following reports of abuse.

In May, a young woman abused as a child by her father received a $2.85 million settlement from the Department of Social and Health Services. That settlement followed on a $4.6 million payout to two Carnation children abused by their father and stepfather; in that case, the department had investigated one report of abuse but failed to follow up after an initial investigation.

The largest settlement in recent months – $6.6 million – was paid out in January 2011 to six siblings abused by their parents for 11 years. Again, advocates for the children faulted the Department of Social and Health Services for failing to act on reports of abuse.

Speaking Tuesday, Kays said her clients hope their lawsuit forces the state to take action when abuse is reported.

“If we can make sure this doesn’t have to happen to other kids, that is justice for them,” she said. “They’re little guys and little gals, but I know they wouldn’t want this to happen to anyone else.”

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