The much-anticipated child abuse trial of Martin and Kathleen O’Brien, a Wisconsin couple arrested in 2012 on charges of physically abusing children they adopted from Russia and Guatemala, finally opened last week with graphic details of the adoptive parents’ horrifying cruelty right out of a Grimm’s Fairy Tale.
The O’Briens have pleaded not guilty to the distressing charges, claiming that they are the real victims of a “herd” of foreign children who refused to adapt to their American ways, becoming uncontrollable and frightening to the O’Briens’ own biological children.
The case came to light in the summer of 2011 when a longtime neighbor of the O’Briens witnessed one of the adopted girls struggling to push a hand-operated lawnmower through tall grass on a blistering hot day, when the neighbor knew that the O’Brien family owned a riding mower.
The girl did not smile, wave, or acknowledge the neighbor in any way. Just a few weeks later, after an investigation, Child Protective Services removed five of six adopted children from the O’Briens’ home.
Prosecutors at the long-delayed trial on Monday laid out what investigators found, based in part on accusations by the older adopted children, one of whom is now 20.
In their opening statements, prosecuting attorneys detailed “discipline” of the adopted kids that included forcing them to strip naked in the dining room while the couple’s biological children laughed at them, forcing one girl to stand barefoot outdoors on a freezing winter day until her feet swelled severely, slicing one child’s hand with a knife and dousing another with pepper spray.
The offenses for which these “punishments” were meted out, the prosecutors said, included taking food from the kitchen without permission, failure to do chores and answering questions posed by the parents incorrectly.
In other instances, according to the charges, the adopted kids were kneed in the groin, slapped, beaten, stabbed and locked in their bedroom for prolonged periods and not allowed out for any reason, being forced to urinate in a bucket and given no food.
The defense laywers, however, said that the adopted children were manipulated into rebelling against their “welcoming” adoptive parents by the oldest of the group, who convinced the others that the O’Briens were enslaving them.
The kids simply did not adjust to the strictly regimented way that the O’Brien couple chose to run their household, the lawyers said.
But prosecutor Diane Donohoo said in court that a social worker for the oldest child filed a complaint with the Walworth County Health and Human Services Department about the abuse Martin and Kathleen O’Brien were inflicting on their adopted children, but that complaint and numerous others, including from school officials, went ignored.
In a similar case in March, a Michigan couple was charged with starving their adopted son and locking him in a basement with repeated beatings for several years, keeping the boy separate from their biological children.
The trial of Martin and Kathleen O’Brien is expected to run through July 31.
[Images: Walworth County Court]