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Court records: Starved kids lived a nightmare

Starved Children
Three emaciated children, at least one of whom appeared to be repeatedly sexually assaulted, were kept day and night in a bathroom for about a year in a Dallas motel before police found them earlier this month.Donna Mcwilliam / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The hotel bathroom was a de facto prison cell — a cramped, foul space where three young children were starved, beaten and sexually assaulted for at least nine months.

The toilet didn't work. The bathtub was a place to sleep. Meals were rare, and the two oldest children — once each a healthy 90 pounds — withered to less than 60 pounds.

Each day for reasons unknown, their mother's boyfriend would force the 10-year-old boy to stand in the corner with his arms raised above his head; his 5-year-old half brother had to kneel in another corner, arms also raised.

The disturbing details emerged in court records that tell the horrific story of the torture borne by the two boys and their 11-year-old half sister, all of whom have different fathers. The children were found July 2 after their mother called a relative to say she feared for her own life and those of her children.

The 10-year-old, his face and limbs covered in bruises, told a social worker that the experience was "my living nightmare." The 11-year-old said she repeatedly was sexually assaulted. The 5-year-old was so thin that bones were visible in his limbs.

Rescued by aunt and uncle
The children were rescued by their uncle and police, their ribs protruding and their bellies distended. After throwing up food given to them by stunned officials, the children expressed gratitude at being found.

"God was watching over us and listening to our prayers," the 11-year-old said.

The 10-year-old agreed. "My prayers have been answered," he said. "I'm safe, that's all I need."

The mother's boyfriend, Alfred Santiago, 37, faces charges of aggravated sexual assault and continuous sexual abuse. He remained jailed Wednesday, unable to make his $125,000 bail. No court appearance has been set.

The mother, Abneris Santiago, 30, is charged with injury to a child. She remained jailed on $50,000 bail and is expected to appear in court next week, when a judge will decide whether the case will go to a grand jury.

"She realizes she is going to face some consequences," said her attorney, James Jamison. "And that's OK with her. She wants her children to be safe, and she realizes she is not able to provide them with a safe home right now."

Alfred Santiago's attorney did not return a phone call Wednesday from The Associated Press. The two suspects have declined to be interviewed.

Children placed in foster care
The three children and their healthy 1-year-old half sister — the daughter of both Santiagos — were placed in foster care. They will remain with their foster family at least through September, when a status hearing is scheduled.

In interviews with Child Protective Services officials, the children described their imprisonment in heartbreaking detail. It began roughly three years ago, when they moved from Fort Myers, Fla., to Texas, ostensibly to take care of Alfred Santiago's ailing mother. Abneris Santiago's relatives now doubt that story.

Until the move, Alfred Santiago was a "nice, nice gentle man," the 10-year-old said.

That seemed to change in Texas, where the blended family took residence in a Super 8 motel. The children were permitted to go outside but forbidden to play with other kids. Alfred Santiago began accusing them of being rapists. Later, after his daughter was born, he accused his girlfriend's children of molesting the infant.

In an interview with CPS officials, Abneris Santiago admitted the allegations left her "doubting" her children.

What freedoms the children had were taken away when the family moved into a Budget Suites of America, an extended-stay hotel located along a busy freeway. Police records indicate they had lived there since at least August 2007.

No school, no food
The children never attended school, and the 11-year-old said she had not been in a classroom since she was in second grade.

"She never put the kids on the phone," said Ruth Leon, Abneris's mother. "They told me they were playing or that they were with friends or doing homework or doing something."

Inside the bathroom, the children said, they would go days without eating. Their mother said she gave them breakfast and dinner, though she was aware her boyfriend would not feed them while she was at work. She sneaked them food when she could, Abneris Santiago said, but "risked a beating" every time.

The children hid scraps of food in shampoo bottles, their pockets and "anywhere else they could hide it, not knowing when they might get to eat again," a CPS report said. Such behavior continued even after their rescue. The children were hospitalized for 10 days, "requiring constant supervision due to food hoarding," the report said.

Doctor: Children were underweight
The examining doctor said the children were of average height but in the bottom fifth percentile for weight. Their cheeks and eyes were hollow and sunken, their skin was flaky and they emitted a repugnant odor.

The report described Abneris Santiago as medically obese. During an interview with CPS officials, she repeatedly said she was hungry but that she was so upset she had been unable to eat for two days.

Abneris Santiago might not have done much to help her children, but her oldest son came to her defense. She told CPS that three weeks earlier, her boyfriend beat her and her 10-year-old tried to stop him. Alfred Santiago punched the boy twice in the face, she said.

Abneris Santiago denied knowing of any sexual abuse. She knew she had to get out of the situation, she told CPS officials, "before something really bad happened."