New details on the disturbing living conditions of four Tucson children, who were adopted out of foster care in 2013, suggest possible lapses in oversight by Arizona child welfare workers.
Tucson couple Carol and Benito Ocho Gutierrez have pleaded not guilty to 16 counts of child abuse, unlawful imprisonment, aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and kidnapping. They were arrested Feb. 20.
The Gutierrezes, who court records show admitted to locking their children in their bedrooms each night, were arraigned in Pima County Superior Court on Monday and released on $25,000 bond each.
Last month, Pima County Sheriff’s Department deputies investigated conditions in the Gutierrez home, in the 4100 block of North Flowing Wells Road, after their 12-year-old son sneaked out of a window in his locked bedroom and asked an employee at Family Dollar if he could use the phone. The concerned store clerk eventually called 911.
Deputies learned the parents had been locking the children in their bedrooms for 12 hours at a time, without access to food, water or the bathroom.
Carol Gutierrez, 65, told deputies she “cannot handle the children, because, they are menaces, by stealing and eating all the food, so she locks them in their rooms,” according to a search warrant affidavit. The Arizona Department of Child Safety has placed the children, ages 6, 10, 11 and 12, in foster care.
The couple’s indictment also includes two counts of aggravated assault with a deadly weapon, alleging Carol Gutierrez assaulted two of the children with a knife.
Attorneys for the two defendants did not return calls seeking comment.
The Gutierrezes’ children had been receiving services from Pathways of Arizona, a behavioral health provider in Tucson, according to an email a Pathways director sent to employees after news broke of the parents’ arrest.
In the email obtained by the Star, Pathways director of quality management Mary Moreno advised her staff that the agency provided services to the children. She told employees not to give any information about the case to the police or the media, and to refer any inquiries to their superiors.
Pathways of Arizona CEO Cindy Greer referred a Star reporter to Molina Healthcare, which is Pathways’ publicly traded Fortune 500 parent company. Laura Murray, spokeswoman for Long Beach, California-based Molina, said in a Thursday email, “Due to privacy laws we are not able to discuss or confirm any services this family may have received.”
An interim complaint filed on March 9 in Pima County Superior Court shed more light on the alleged abuse, and the timeline of events raises questions about how the children’s living conditions weren’t flagged years ago.
The kids got only one meal a day at home, were forced to eat outside and had to remain outside until it was time to get ready for bed at 5 p.m., according to the complaint. On weekends, the children were locked outside all day. Neighbors said they would give the children food on a regular basis when they complained of hunger. The bedroom doors had “audible alarms” on them to alert the parents if the children opened the doors at night.
“When the children would have an ‘accident,’ they were made to sleep in their soiled clothing and the soiled linens as punishment,” the complaint said.
After being read their Miranda rights, Carol and Benito Gutierrez admitted to locking the children in their rooms at night and removing the lighting from their bedrooms, the complaint said. Benito Gutierrez, who is 69, also admitted to placing a bucket in the eldest son’s room for him to use as a toilet when locked inside.
The Gutierrezes became foster parents to the first of the four siblings about 10 years ago. They adopted the children in 2013, Deputy Cody Gress, Pima County Sheriff’s Department spokesman, said Friday.
Once the adoption was finalized by the courts, the family would have stopped receiving home visits from child welfare workers. But in the years before the adoption, a Department of Child Safety caseworker should have visited monthly, and the foster licensing agency would have made quarterly home visits, said DCS spokesman Darren DaRonco.
The children said they had been exposed to these living conditions since around 2011, according to the complaint — two years before the adoption.
“Although a bad outcome doesn’t always mean that something in the system ‘went wrong,’ we examine every incident to determine if anything can be done to improve child safety and DCS practices,” DaRonco said in a Friday email.
The DCS-contracted agency that facilitated the Gutierrezes’ foster-care licensure was Casa de los Niños. The Tucson provider would have conducted a home study and provided foster-care training to the family before DCS approved the foster license.
Susie Huhn, executive director of Casa de los Niños, said that because of privacy laws, she could not share any details about the case. But she said the licensing worker did make the required home visits to the family.
“If we would have seen what is now being alleged, we would have made a call to the (DCS) hotline. We make calls to the hotline for things a lot less serious than that,” she said. “We haven’t had eyes on the family for some years. Other people have, and it (the abuse) still gets missed. ... It’s unfortunate all the way around.”
Deputies told reporters the Gutierrez home was in relatively clean condition, except that the kids’ bedrooms were padlocked from the outside and held only mattresses.
DaRonco said in an email that potential foster placements go through a thorough vetting process before they are licensed, including background checks, a central registry check for prior DCS history, a fingerprint clearance card issued from the Arizona Department of Public Safety, home inspections, reference checks and licensing classes.
“Despite all of these safeguards, people are sometimes able to avoid detection, especially if a person has no prior criminal or child abuse history,” he said.
DCS told the Sheriff’s Department it had received no prior reports about the couple.
The children had not told anyone about their living conditions, likely because they thought it was normal, the Star reported. School officials told police they saw no red flags that would warrant a mandatory report. The interim complaint added that school personnel said one of the children had gone to the nurse’s office on multiple occasions, with stomach aches due to hunger.
Kris Jacober, president of the Arizona Association of Foster and Adoptive Parents, said she hopes DCS will determine if there were failures in vetting this family, but abuse is not always preventable.
“This is one family out of tens of thousands who adopted” in recent years, Jacober said. “It’s an aberration and I don’t know what you can do to stop that from happening. It’s just heartbreaking.”
Court records show that in 2006, multiple petitions for an injunction against harrassment — a type of restraining order — were filed against members of the Gutierrez family. The petitioner, who said Benito and Carol Gutierrez were godparents to two of her children, alleged the Gutierrezes filed false reports against her with Child Protective Services. She also alleged they drove by her house late at night. A judge found a legal basis for the restraining order against Carol Gutierrez, who denied the allegations, but the judge found no basis for the injunction against Benito Gutierrez.