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Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?

Concerned About Unconventional Mental Health Interventions?
Alternative Psychotherapies: Evaluating Unconventional Mental Health Treatments

Thursday, February 25, 2016

What Happened to the Caged Vasquez Children? A Little Bit of News

It may be that most readers do not remember the 2007 trial of Sylvia Jovanna Vasquez, an adoptive mother in Santa Barbara, California, on charges of mistreating her children. According to testimony, Vasquez had kept three of the children (then 13, 9, and 6) in cages with buckets for sanitation and had limited the quantity and variety of their food. A fourth girl was treated very well--  except that arrangements were made for her to receive injections of Lupron, a drug used to treat precocious puberty and delay development. (Because she was already 12 years old, whatever signs of puberty she showed were certainly not precocious. In addition, nude photographs of her were found.) In spite of evidence of mental disturbance (see ), Vasquez had been permitted to adopt these children--  and she ran a day care center as well. It was an altercation with a worker at the day care center, and Vasquez’ threat to have her deported, that led the worker to report the mistreatment of the children to authorities.

Santa Barbara judge Frank Ochoa heard Vasquez’ claims that she had simply been following the directions of a book by Nancy Thomas that was recommended to her by a caseworker and a psychologist, and he told her that if she would explain exactly what had happened, he would give her the minimum sentence. But by the time the trial was done--  and especially after the cages were brought into the parking garage under the courthouse and Judge Ochoa actually crawled inside one—he expressed regret that he had made that commitment. Incidentally, although Vasquez was forbidden to communicate with the children, who were in foster care, during the trial, she did so through notes in books.

Vasquez was finally sentenced to one year in prison plus years of probation, over the objections of the prosecutor, but in line with the promise Judge Ochoa had made. Because she had already been incarcerated for 6 months during the investigation and trial, she actually served only 6 more months after the conviction. The children remained in foster care and information about them was very properly not available to the public.  

Nine years later, the children are about 22, 21, 19, and 15 years old, respectively. Nothing appears to be known about the older two, but there has recently been news about one of the caged girls. Nineteen-year-old Cynthia Vasquez is working at the shelter where she was taken by authorities when the children’s situation was first revealed ( ). Cynthia commented that as a child she just assumed that what was done to her was supposed to happen, that it was part of the experience of an adopted child and would eventually be over. However bizarre it seems to us to have a child live in a cage and eat raw eggs, it was probably no more bizarre or improbable than anything else that had occurred in Cynthia’s life until that time--  a point we should keep in mind when we think how abused children try to make sense of their mistreatment and why they may be emotionally attached to their abusers.

Vasquez claimed that she needed to cage and starve the children because they had “attachment disorders”. It is hard to know what she was thinking, but she seems to have accepted uncritically the claims of Nancy Thomas and others that any child who has been abused and/or separated from the birth mother must perforce have “attachment disorders”, that these children may appear to behave perfectly normally by means of their cunning and skill at exploiting other people, that they must be treated in order to prevent them from becoming dangerous, and that the treatment involves the total assertion of adult authority.  Like Thomas, Vasquez placed this “treatment” as the top priority for the children’s care, so she did not send them to school--  education being, as Thomas has put it, “a privilege and not a right”, and of course this action prevents the treatment from becoming known to nosy teachers and unsympathetic social workers or neighbors.

I am not bringing up this case in order to intrude further into Cynthia’s life or the lives of her brother and sisters. I simply want to point out that, contrary to the beliefs of Thomas & Co., Cynthia obviously understands cause and effect relationships and has a strong empathic response to children in the shelter. These capacities she developed in spite of her exposure to the Vasquez version of Nancy Thomas methods, not because of them.

In all candor, of course, I would like very much to know what has become of all of the children (if I recall correctly, the boy had been sent to a Utah boarding school), how they are doing now, and not least, what has Vasquez been doing during her period of probation? If she has managed to get involved with children, that is something that should be made public.


  1. Nancy Thomas may or may not have meant the below statement to be taken literally, but in the context of her other advice, I can see parents interpreting it as gospel, especially as in the same presentation, Thomas recommends other horrendous parenting methods, such as the need to sit on non-compliant children, as well as dogs, with a good book to read.

    "When they have no bonding, they basicly [sic] need a cage. They don’t identify with you. They don’t care what you think. They don’t care if you’re happy or not happy, if the rug is done or not done." — from Bonding & Attachment Workshop (Chatsworth, CA: Foster Care & Adoptive Community, Online Training Program, 2 parts) [Material has been available for CEUs for social workers and other mental health professionals for years.]

    1. No doubt Thomas would argue that this was a metaphor, if she knew what a metaphor was.

      As for the sitting with a good book, this is exactly what Milton Erickson recommended, in the article that Foster Cline published in bits in one of his books. This seems to be one of those "Darwin's fox terriers" things again, only a whole lot more harmful.