An Anchorage woman who was supposed to provide a safe place for her six adopted children confined them in her large, secluded Hillside home and subjected them to years of emotional and physical abuse, police say.
Anya James, 50, is charged with six counts of first-degree assault and 10 counts of kidnapping. An eight-month police investigation culminated in her arrest Tuesday and her first court appearance was Wednesday. Defense lawyer Rex Butler entered not guilty pleas on her behalf and later told reporters that police are only presenting one side of the story. James took in damaged and disturbed children whom many people couldn't handle, Butler said.
James is being held at Hiland Mountain Correctional Center on $100,000 bail. Under a court order, she can't have contact with her children or any minors under 16.
The mistreatment began as early as January 1999 and continued until October 2010, according to the indictment. Police say that's when they first learned of the troubled home. A state licensed foster parent from 1994 to 2005, James took in a number of children over the years, police detective Chris Thomas said.
Three of the children were severely malnourished when found in October. The youngest, who is 13, had to be hospitalized immediately and two others were bony and looked pre-pubescent even though they were 15 and 20, prosecutor Talitha Henry said a memorandum to set bail. All three were covered by downy hair that is characteristic of starvation victims, the memo says.
Officials with the state Office of Children's Services say they are cooperating with the police investigation. OCS Director Christy Lawton couldn't immediately say when a caseworker last visited the home. The youngest two were adopted in 2004. After an adoption, the state no longer has legal authority to monitor a family, Lawton said.
"Basically, the department is not looking over their shoulders," Lawton said. "Once we have done our checks and they have passed home studies and a court has granted them full legal responsibilities as an adoptive parent, then that's it. We no longer do any sort of monitoring or follow-up with them."
A neighbor, Lorri Davis, complained several times to OCS and other authorities but no one took her complaints seriously, she said.
James received state adoption subsidies to help provide for their care, as do most parents who adopt children through OCS.
Between 2000 and 2010, James collected more than $750,000 in adoption payments, police say. She received the children's Permanent Fund dividends as well as Native corporation dividends for those who were shareholders. And she received Social Security Disability Insurance payments for three of the older children, according to a prosecution memorandum.
The adopted children now are age 13, 15, 19, 20 and two are 21. Prosecutors say James also was trying to adopt an infant, "whom she secreted away while the police were investigating her."
In 2001, the family moved from the Eagle River area to a 4,300-square-foot home on the Anchorage Hillside that sits on about an acre of woods. The home is currently assessed at more than $560,000.
The children were home schooled and had minimal contact with the outside world, police said. James told people the children were severely emotionally disturbed and sometimes used sign language to communicate with them in public, even though none were deaf, according to assistant district attorney Henry.
James took all the children to the same psychiatrist and insisted on sitting in on their sessions, Henry wrote. James suggested diagnoses and medications. They all were on prescription medications but since leaving the home either have had the medications cut back or are off them entirely, Henry wrote.
James told medical providers her youngest child had "wheat-induced schizophrenia." But since he was taken out of her home, doctors have determined the child is neither schizophrenic nor allergic to wheat, Henry wrote.
Some of the neighbors didn't even know James had children for the first years that she lived there. Some eventually became suspicious but each saw different things and no one put it all together, said Thomas, the detective.
Four of the children tried to run away at various times, Henry wrote. Two ended up at a neighbor's house, she wrote. "The neighbors were shocked by the appearance of the children, as well as their ravenous appetites," Henry wrote. The children said they were being abused by their mother, and the neighbors called police. But James was able to convince officers that the children were disturbed. They were turned back over to her.
Their bedrooms were downstairs in a converted garage with a concrete floor. Police said they had buckets for a toilet. The doors and windows had alarms so James would be alerted if anyone tried to escape, police said. The rooms also had video and audio monitors so she could track them.
They couldn't have any personal items in their rooms except journals, Henry wrote. They had to write 20 pages each day before they could get food, said one of the oldest of the adopted children, Alice James, who is now 21.
Butler said the children were not locked in their bedrooms. He also said they didn't have to use the buckets but could do so if they didn't want to walk to the bathroom.
"Miss James took in a number of children who ... mentally and emotionally needed a lot of watching and care," Butler told reporters after the brief court hearing. "To say that somehow she's kidnapped these people, these young folks, when in fact she had the kinds of children that a lot of people will not take in even as foster parents because of the kind of intense care that is required."
James didn't work outside the home, but ran a dog-and-cat boarding business. The animals were well cared for and well-nourished, police said. A website for Sarah's Sanctuary says the facility also served as an animal shelter.
"She always cared for those pets more than us," Alice said in an interview Wednesday. "They always came first."
During busy times around Christmas break, there would be 30 or more dogs and 50 to 60 cats inside the house, Alice said.
The children often were hungry and argued over the food each would get, she said.
If James wanted to go out to eat, she would leave the children in a van in the parking lot, according to Henry. They often ate in their rooms.
They might get a piece of fruit for breakfast. Other meals consisted of beans or what James called "powermeals" dished into Tupperware containers, according to Henry. Alice said powermeals sometimes consisted of a mushy mix of oatmeal, mashed potatoes and raw eggs slurped out of the Tupperware without silverware.
James was a vegetarian, but the children were not malnourished, Butler said.
HOW IT CAME TO LIGHT
James' control over the family began to unravel in March 2009 when Alice, then 19, ran out the door and across the street to neighbor Lorri Davis. Reached by phone in Washington state, where she is visiting relatives, Alice James said she had lived with Anya, as she calls her adopted mother, for just under 10 years when the break came.
Alice said she ran from the house because she knew she was about to lose her "upstairs privileges" -- the right to stay on the top floor, where the kitchen and living room were, because she took a phone call from a boy.
Over the next year and a half, Alice moved in with birth relatives in Anchorage and stayed in touch with Davis. She met a boyfriend whom she intends to marry. The relatives, the boyfriend and Davis talked to her about going to the state, but never pushed it, she said.
Davis herself said she complained by phone and email to the state Office of Children's Services, city animal control officials and the state medical board about the psychiatrist who prescribed drugs to the children.
She could never get any officials to investigate, she said.
Then, in October 2010, Alice said she decided to bring her own complaint. She asked Davis to come with her, and the two saw an investigator at OCS. Alice said they talked for at least an hour.
Within days, the state took the children out of the house. After a few more days, the street in front of the house on Homestead Trail filled with police cars as detectives executed a search warrant.
Among the evidence collected, according to Alice, were boxes of journals she said the children were forced to write in.
By LISA DEMER and RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News
Alaska Dispatch Publishing