Abused siblings now have loving home – and $1 million from feds

By Pamela Manson and Jennifer W. Sanchez
Salt Lake City, Utah (AP) 2-08

More than three years after California brothers Jose and Emilio Rodriguez were beaten and tortured by their maternal grandmother while living on the Ute Reservation, their physical and emotional scars remain.

Jose, now 7, has paralysis on his right side and walks with a pronounced limp. He was a bright little boy in preschool but now struggles to learn, the result of permanent brain damage from a skull fracture.

His 6-year-old brother, Emilio, is in speech therapy and can’t forget the torment inflicted on him and his brother. Their little sister, 5-year-old Mona, escaped physical harm but still fears that she will be taken away again from her beloved paternal grandparents.

But now there is money to help them. To settle a civil lawsuit alleging the children were negligently placed in the home of an abusive relative, the federal government has agreed to pay $1 million for their care.

Even better, paternal grandmother Leoncis Rodriguez says she has adopted the siblings, which guarantees the children will never be moved unwillingly from her home.

“They’re mine now,” said Rodriguez, who the children call “Mama.” “No one can take them away from me.”

That wasn’t the case a few years ago, when the children were living with Leoncis and Samuel Rodriguez in Palmdale, north of Los Angeles. The youngsters had been left in their care in spring 2003 by their parents, who relatives say were struggling with substance-abuse problems.

While their father was serving a prison sentence in Wisconsin for narcotics distribution, their mother lived in the Rodriguez’ Palmdale home for awhile. When she allegedly became violent with the children, Leoncis and Samuel asked her to leave and petitioned in California Superior Court for custody of the kids.

Then, a social worker with the Ute Tribe stepped in. She told a judge that because of their mother’s Ute heritage, the children fell under the jurisdiction of the Indian Child Welfare Act, which gives tribes some authority to control placement of American Indian children.

The assertion, it would later become known, was inaccurate: The Rodriguez children fell outside the act because a person must be at least five-eighths Ute to qualify for tribal membership, and they are three-eighths Ute. Still, in August 2004, tribal officials picked up the children – Jose, then 3; Emilio, 2; and sister Mona, 1 – and took them to the Uintah-Ouray Reservation in eastern Utah.

They placed them in Fort Duchesne with maternal grandmother Charlissa Sireech, who had convictions for child endangerment and a history of alcohol abuse. Prosecutors said Sireech began battering the boys within a week of their arrival, possibly because they spoke Spanish.

Sireech beat Jose and Emilio with her fists, a cane, a wooden back scratcher and fly swatters, and used a hot curling iron to prod Emilio, according to investigators.

An 8-year-old child living in the household told police the grandmother held Emilio’s head under water “until bubbles came out,” and placed her hand over Jose’s mouth and plugged his nose so he couldn’t breathe.

The toddlers were brought to a hospital at the end of August. Jose was unconscious from being slammed down on the floor and not expected to survive a skull fracture. Emilio also had a fractured skull.

Sireech later pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Salt Lake City to seven felony counts and was sentenced to just under 20 years behind bars. Her live-in boyfriend, Michael DeHererra, who admitted ignoring the beatings, pleaded guilty in Utah’s 8th District Court to two counts of child abuse and was sentenced to up to 15 years in state prison.

After two surgeries at Primary Children’s Medical Center that left a long jagged scar on his skull, Jose was able to go home to Palmdale with his brother and sister, where they joined three other children in their grandparents’ home.

But life never returned to the way it was before. They still live with the effects of the abuse.

Los Angeles attorneys Jonathan Weber, Tracy Baer and Andrew Treger, who represented the Rodriguezes, and government attorneys on the case were unavailable for immediate comment. The government was sued because it can be liable for the acts of tribal employees paid through a federally funded program.

A hearing is scheduled for March 10 in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles to ask a judge to approve the deal.

The children still talk about what happened to them in Utah. They were traumatized and now are scared of police and social workers, wondering if they will be taken away again, Leoncis Rodriguez said.

But regardless of what happens in court next month, she said, they are safe with her.