MADISON, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin woman accused of torturing her teenage stepdaughter, locking her in the basement and starving her down to 68 pounds was sentenced Friday to five years in prison by a judge who said she and her husband dealt with a troubled child by locking her away.
The Madison woman pleaded no contest in April to first-degree recklessly endangering safety and causing mental harm to a child. Prosecutors had asked for an eight-year prison term, though the charges carried a possible prison sentence of up to 25 years.
The woman said the girl was troubled when she came to live her and her husband, who is the teen’s father.
“We did not have the skills necessary to meet her needs,” the woman told the judge, choking back tears. “There is so much said that’s not true. It seems no one wants to believe what I’m saying.”
The case came to light in February 2012 after a motorist saw the girl wandering through her neighborhood barefoot and lightly dressed.
She told investigators she had run away from home. She said she had spent most of the last five years confined in her home’s basement, where she said she was beaten and denied food. She also accused her stepbrother of forcing her to repeatedly perform oral sex on him.
Dane County Circuit Judge Julie Genovese told the woman she believed the girl had problems that began before the woman met her. Genovese said the woman and her husband tried to get the girl help but ultimately gave up. She said the sentence — five years behind bars and three years on extended supervision — was meant to send a message that people can’t deal with children’s problems by isolating them.
“At some point you left her to fend for herself,” the judge said. “She could have died from lack of nutrition. … I sense still that part of you feels justified in your actions and your inaction.”
The Associated Press isn’t naming the woman or any other family members to avoid identifying the girl, who has accused her stepbrother of sexually assaulting her.
District Attorney Ismael Ozanne called the family’s home “a house of terror.” The girl, now 16 and living with a foster mother, submitted a written statement to the judge saying she was her stepmother’s slave and the woman tried to stab her, stepped on her back, choked her and wouldn’t let her talk. Her stepbrother beat her with a closet rod, bats and “anything else he could get his hands on,” she added.
“I can rally, extremely tell you right now and cross my hear and hope to die that I am telling the truth that I was very cold, really hungry, physically and emotionally hurt, and terrified all those years,” she wrote.
Ozanne called the case “a system failure,” noting county child protection workers took multiple reports about abuse at the home but never removed the girl.
Ozanne suggested the woman and her husband kept the girl isolated to protect the stepbrother, ensuring she couldn’t tell anyone about the alleged sexual assaults. He asked the judge to sentence the woman to eight years in prison and eight years on extended supervision.
The woman’s attorney, Thomas McClure, said Ozanne was exaggerating. He said the prosecutor’s accusation that the family was trying to cover up a crime was “fantastic.” McClure also painted the girl as a liar, saying that she refused to eat and suggesting she liked living in the basement because it had cable TV.
He depicted the stepmother as someone who tried to help another person’s child deal with severe behavioral problems. The woman was negligent but didn’t intentionally hurt the girl, he said. Eventually she became worn out and didn’t know what to do, he argued.
In a halting statement to the judge, the woman said she failed the girl. She said she and her husband believe the girl’s biological mother’s boyfriend sexually assaulted her in Texas before her father gained custody of her and moved her to Wisconsin.
They took her to doctors, one of whom recommended she live on a different level of the house, she said. But the girl wore them down and they lacked the health insurance to get her more help.
A jury convicted the girl’s father of child neglect in March but deadlocked on a number of other charges against him, including intentional child abuse and false imprisonment. He’s set to stand trial again on those counts in November. The girl’s stepbrother is set to stand trial in February.