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Siblings get $9M in ‘horrific’ abuse case

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

What is the price tag for “ritualistic, sadistic and horrific abuse” of six children?

The social cost is incalculable, because research on the effects of child abuse says victims carry psychological scars for the rest of their lives.

For the state of Washington, the cost was $9 million, although the abuse occurred in New Mexico. A Snohomish County, Wash., judge approved the settlement on Friday.

Washington agreed to the seven-figure sum to resolve claims against its Child Protective Services and Department of Social and Health Services brought by a guardian on behalf of the children taken from Washington and to New Mexico in 2006 while an investigation into the parents was underway.

New Mexico is paying the costs of incarcerating the parents, who were convicted at trial in Los Lunas and are now in state prisons in Hobbs and Grants.

At the heart of the lawsuit was the claim that Washington social workers knew the children were in danger but failed to notify New Mexico authorities.

While there is no statute requiring one state to notify another in that type of situation, an attorney for the children said Washington social service authorities were required to keep the children safe – and didn’t.

BURTON: Had a history of problem parenting

BURTON: Had a history of problem parenting

HEPPLE: Convicted of raping 4-year-old in 1991

HEPPLE: Convicted of raping 4-year-old in 1991

A Washington social worker’s investigation found that the children were “neglected” – a term that also encompasses abuse – because they were left alone with Matthew Hepple, a man convicted of raping a 4-year-old in 1991. Hepple is the stepfather of the older three children and biological father of the younger three.

The severe nature of abuse in New Mexico came to light when the oldest child, a girl then 13 years old, showed up alone outside a movie theater in Los Lunas with head lice and smelling of urine and feces, her feet swollen and callused, and a can of cat food in her bag.

According to the story that eventually emerged, the girl and her 9-year-old brother had been tied to a 6-inch pillar in the “animal room” of a Valencia County home for up to a week at a time. They were not given food or water, forcing them to urinate and defecate within the range of their tether and to forage for food from the garbage because cabinets and the refrigerator were locked.

The girl told a social worker, and later a jury, that on May 10, 2007, she had used her teeth to untie the rope binding her and escape through a window. She hitchhiked to Los Lunas from the house on San Davie Road in Highland Meadows, an isolated community of dirt roads and a single gas station that abuts the Laguna Pueblo boundary.

According to the lawsuit, all the children were abused physically and sexually after the family’s arrival in New Mexico in August 2006.

According to a Washington social worker’s description quoted in court documents, “All of these children were exposed to ritualistic, sadistic and horrific abuse of parents that are high functioning psychopaths. The children are not the average abused and/or sex abused children and cannot minimize what this has done to the children.”

Although the girl divulged some details of the abuse after her escape, she did not immediately tell the social worker who she was.

“The parents definitely trained them what to say and what not to say,” said attorney John Dorgan, whose Seattle law firm Ressler & Tesh represents the children’s guardian in seeking damages from the state.

She lied about her identity even after she was in the custody of the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department, saying that she was from Washington and her parents had died in a car accident. At trial, she later said she was afraid she would be sent back to them.

It took three weeks for her to be properly identified, Dorgan said, and when it happened, it was because of a now retired CYFD social worker, Pam Doster.

“She put two and two together because there was a missing child report,” he said. “(She) was energetic in her follow-through.”

The parents moved out of the house within three days of her escape, giving an address in Moriarty. But by the end of the next month, all the children had been located and placed in foster care, where they remained for another year.

Family history

Matthew Hepple, now 47, was born in Albuquerque, according to documents obtained by the Journal. His parents divorced, and he grew up with his mother and her family. Court documents say he attended Sandia High School but dropped out in 10th grade after drug use affected his attendance. After a series of jobs, he got his GED and joined the U.S. Naval Reserves. He moved to Washington in part because of poor job opportunities in New Mexico and in part to help out an old friend with the rent. It was his friend’s 4-year-old daughter he was convicted of raping.

He was released from prison in late 1998. By early 2000, Hepple was spending time with Sarah Burton, a woman with a history of substance abuse and problem parenting. Her first child had been given up for adoption, and the death of the second was attributed to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome.

Rikki, now 20, and her younger brother, Joseph, were removed from Burton’s custody for a period but returned to her in 2000, about the time she began seeing Hepple.

Hepple’s child rape conviction required him to register his address with the county sheriff, but he did not register the place where he was in fact living: Burton’s apartment.

Burton, meanwhile, lied to welfare workers about the amount of contact Hepple was having with her children.

Over the next few years, Burton and Hepple had three children together. But by then, social workers had learned Hepple was having contact with children and created a “safety plan” that said he could not be alone with them.

In 2006, a supervisor in Washington’s Child Protective Services documented serious concerns based on Hepple not reporting his true address required for sex offender registration.

That August, the sheriff’s office told social workers Hepple had “de-registered” as a sex offender in Washington and moved to New Mexico.

He gave a new address – 18 San Davie Road, Laguna.

A supervisor ordered the Burton case to be referred to New Mexico authorities, but that never happened.

Parents convicted

The 13-year-old weighed 96 pounds when she escaped from the house where she lived with her stepfather, mother and five siblings.

The two older children testified at the parents’ trial in state court in Los Lunas that they got food only once a week, weren’t allowed to go to the toilet and often scavenged in the garbage for food.

A neighbor told the jury that at a birthday party at his home, the Hepple children weren’t allowed to play games or have cake, and Hepple’s explanation was “if animals are given treats, they’ll do less work.”

Though the defense challenged the credibility of the two child witnesses because of psychological disorders, Burton-Hepple and Hepple, whom she had married in 2005, were convicted of kidnapping, conspiracy to commit kidnapping, conspiracy to commit child abuse and child abuse.

Hepple is now serving 28 years at a prison in Hobbs. The children’s mother, Sarah Burton-Hepple, was sentenced to 27 years.

‘Hellish’ abuse

A spokesman for the Washington Department of Social and Health Services said in a news release that the settlement is not a concession that the department “should have filed for dependency, nor that it should have made additional efforts to notify authorities in New Mexico.”

“Dependency” is the term Washington uses for state intervention to protect children from abuse and neglect, often resulting in removal from a home.

“It is our hope that the six plaintiffs, now ages 8 to 20, are able to use the funds for treatment, for education and other needs as they move forward into adulthood from such a traumatic time in their lives. The plaintiffs in this case were subjected to significant abuse while they lived in New Mexico by their adult care providers, ” DSHS spokesman John Wiley said in a statement.

Dorgan, the children’s attorney, said that a trust will be established for the children, and experts will help craft life care plans to address the trauma that affects their ability to form relationships, get an education, keep a job.

“We are confident we would prove the two oldest bore the heaviest brunt (of abuse),” Dorgan said, but the others, including a baby in a high chair, were deeply affected as well. He said they were “sexually reactive,” suggesting they, too, had been subjected to sexual abuse, sometimes dunked in an ice bath, and also deprived of food.

The children were eventually adopted by relatives after a period in foster care.

“It was hellish,” Dorgan said of the children’s abuse in New Mexico. “These kids had nowhere to go. They were trapped.”