Image: Hotel were three emaciated children were found
Donna Mcwilliam  /  AP
The Dallas hotel where three children were forced to live in a bathroom for about a year before police found them earlier this month. At least one of the children allegedly was sexually assaulted repeatedly.
updated 7/23/2009 6:17:10 PM ET 2009-07-23T22:17:10

The aunt of three emaciated children forced to spend day and night in a hotel bathroom in Texas for at least nine months said Thursday that she and their grandmother want custody of the youngsters, who were placed in foster care together.

Sonia Santiago, the sister-in-law of the children's mother, said Abneris Santiago had been deceiving family members about her life in Texas since moving from Florida with her boyfriend in late 2006.

Abneris Santiago, 30, is charged with injury to a child, and her boyfriend, Alfred Santiago, 37, faces charges of aggravated sexual assault and continuous sexual abuse. Both were being held at the Dallas County Jail, unable to make bail. They have the same last name but are not married.

Their attorneys did not return calls Thursday. Initial court appearances are scheduled for Aug. 3.

Children now with foster family
The children — an 11-year-old girl, a 10-year-old boy and a 5-year-old boy — and their 1-year-old sister, who is healthy, were placed with a foster family in Texas, said Marissa Gonzales, a spokeswoman for Child Protective Services. The three older children spent 10 days in a Dallas hospital before being released.

The 10-year-old boy, however, returned to the hospital recently and remains there. Gonzales declined to discuss his condition.

A status hearing is scheduled for September, Gonzales said.

"We're still trying to work it out with CPS," said Sonia Santiago, who lives in Lorain, Ohio. "We are just as interested in getting them as Grandma, and what is in the best interest of the kids will be what we work out. The kids, that's all of our main focus."

The three children, who have different fathers, and their 1-year-old sibling were found by Dallas police July 2 after Sonia Santiago and her husband, Abner, made the 1,200-mile drive from the Cleveland area. They came to check on Abner's sister after Abneris Santiago called her mother in Tampa, Fla., saying her boyfriend was threatening to kill her and the children.

"She was crying and she said: `Mom, I cannot take no more of this monster. He is threatening me, and this monster is making my life miserable, making it a living hell,'" said Ruth Leon, Abneris' mother.

Upon arriving in Dallas, Abner and Sonia Santiago picked up Abneris at the restaurant where she worked as a waitress, called for police assistance and then drove to the Budget Suites of America, an extended-stay hotel that sits along one of Dallas' busiest freeways. The hotel has maid service, but it is optional and costs extra.

The 1-year-old, the daughter of Abneris and Alfred, was found in a crib. The other three were shut in the bathroom, authorities said.

'They were skin and bones'
It was apparent the children suffered from "serious physical, emotional and mental neglect," according to the affidavit. The 10-year-old was covered in bruises.

Sonia Santiago did not go into the hotel room, but said her husband broke down when he returned to the car. She caught a glimpse of the children coming out.

"They were really bad," she said, her voice faltering. "They were skin and bones."

The 11-year-old told authorities that their mother left them with her boyfriend while she worked. She said they were allowed to leave the bathroom only when he took a shower and that they were regularly beaten and rarely fed.

"The older children talked about hiding food in their pockets or in shampoo bottles because they weren't sure they would be fed again," Gonzales said.

Girl claims sexual abuse
The girl told authorities she had been sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend for at least three years. She described numerous rapes and said she was forced to perform oral sex on him. She also said the boyfriend threatened to kill her if she told her mother.

Gonzales said the children were "very skinny and dirty and unkempt." The 11-year-old told authorities the children has been forced to stay in the bathroom since October, with one sleeping in the tub and two sharing the floor. It wasn't clear if they had been there since 2007 or 2008.

Sonia Santiago said she believed they had been at the hotel for about 18 months. She said her sister-in-law and her boyfriend moved from Florida to Dallas nearly three years ago, ostensibly to care for Alfred Santiago's ailing mother.

"At this point, I don't believe anything she's ever said," Sonia Santiago said.

Suspects say he was protecting baby
In an interview from jail, Alfred Santiago said he did nothing wrong and he considers himself the victim. He said the three children were a danger to his daughter and accused them of pouring urine on the baby.

"The one who is being disrespected right now is I, because I'm the one who's being abused," he told The Dallas Morning News. "What I was doing is protecting my baby daughter from her kids. What I did was I did not leave my daughter out of my sight."

He also told the newspaper that the children were to blame for their poor health because of their refusal to eat "mountains of rice, of chicken, of pork chops, of hot dogs."

"They were skinny because they were not eating the food," he said. "I'm not ashamed to say it, I was feeding them, but they were not eating their food."

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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