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Signs of abuse weren't pursued by various authorities

Child welfare, police and other authorities had numerous opportunities over the years to discover and stop the abusive discipline, over-medication, hunger and other harmful practices that Anya James is alleged to have inflicted on six of her adopted children.

But the officials, along with a neighbor who blew the whistle and two of James' adopted children, said that James was able to forestall authorities through her own skills at using the jargon of psychology and social work. And rather than the image projected in criminal charges as that of a cruel and controlling witch, she had convincingly presented herself as a heroic figure who adopted special-needs children and rescued unwanted cats and dogs.

While officials appeared to have dismissed some complaints without serious investigation, police and child welfare officials did confront James at least four times before the big raid on her Hillside home in 2010, when the four children still there were removed. In some of those earlier cases, starting in 2003, the children themselves disputed claims of a sibling that James was starving or harming them, and the family remained intact.

Today, James, 50, is in jail charged in a state indictment with 10 counts of kidnapping and six counts of first degree assault, all felonies. She has pleaded not guilty and faces trial later this year. Her initial bail was set at $100,000.

After James' arraignment Wednesday, her attorney, Rex Butler, met briefly with reporters and urged the public to withhold judgment. He said that James took in difficult children who many people couldn't handle, kids who "mentally and emotionally needed a lot of watching and care."

Two of the adopted children, Alice James and Leeaster Collins, now adults, said they were offended by that remark, but recognized it as an assertion often made by James herself.

"No one really understands what it's like there, no one can unless you lived there," said Alice, now 21. She lived with James from age 9 to 19.

She was one of the children who told police, back in 2008, that nothing bad was happening in the house.

But it also was Alice who precipitated the raid and the criminal charges with a formal complaint to the Alaska Office of Children's Services in October 2010. It took her more than 18 months after running away to a neighbor in March 2009 to overcome her guilt at leaving James and her other siblings and understand that what was happening at the big house on Homestead Trail was not normal, she said.

"SHE MADE THEM HATE HER"

James used a system of beggarly rewards and draconian discipline to run the household, according to the charges and interviews. Bread and a visit to the bathroom were privileges that could be revoked, replaced with lumpy "power meals" of oatmeal-based gruel and buckets for toilets. While the siblings, from several different biological families, could pull together to support each other, Alice said, the system also encouraged them to quibble for favor from James and to snitch on each other.

At the request of Alice and others, the Daily News is not naming the two underage siblings cited in the charges, nor two of the three others who couldn't be reached to give their consent.

The oldest of the adopted James sibling, Leeaster, 27, is now in Tennessee. Leeaster was not cited as a victim in the indictment, though she said in an interview she too was abused by James and filed an official complaint on behalf of the other children that went nowhere.

An additional sibling not cited in the indictment, between the ages of Leeaster and Alice, could not be located for comment.

Christy Lawton, the head of children's services, said some 25 children passed through James' homes on the Hillside and in Eagle River since she became a licensed foster parent in 1994.

Alice and Leeaster said their lives are relatively normal now. Alice is engaged and Leeaster is married and has a child herself. Leeaster has a college degree and Alice is taking classes at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Both work.

But some of the other siblings are not so well off. One, Julia James, 21, said she is a resident of Brother Francis Shelter. She said of her life with James: "It was a tough time."

Another sibling lives in Covenant House, the downtown shelter for runaways. A third is institutionalized in a residential facility in Utah. The state says the two youngest children, age 13 and 15, are in state custody and are safe.

It's true that all the children arrived at James' home with problems stemming from their biological families, Leeaster Collins said.

"She made these kids worse than what they were," Leeaster said. "She did not better them. She made them hate her."

REINVENTING HERSELF

Little has emerged so far of Anya James' background. She grew up in New Hampshire, where her name was Cynthia May Jones. Leeaster recalls the first visit the family took to James' parents there. It was confusing hearing the mother she knew as "Anya" being called "Cynthia" or "Cindy."

Neighbor Lorri Davis said she remembers learning that James went to college in Boston but doesn't know which college or what she studied.

Cynthia May Jones wouldn't be the first Alaskan to reinvent herself, but her change went particularly deep.

She changed all three names, becoming Anya Arlin James. (Anchorage prosecutors said last week she had no prior criminal record under either identity.) She grew up a Catholic but adopted Judaism.

Rabbi Michael Oblath of Congregation Beth Sholom, the reform synagogue in Anchorage, said last week he didn't know if James had formally converted, but she was a member of the congregation for a number of years, though not recently. She sent the children to religious school there and gave most of them Hebrew first or middle names as part of their adoption.

Many of the Facebook friends of James' children are kids, volunteers and staff they met at the synagogue. Because they were homeschooled and insular, the synagogue was one of the few places they socialized with other children, Alice said. But as homelife deteriorated in the last few years, even the synagogue was withdrawn from them, she said.

In Eagle River, where James lived until 2001, she briefly had a business license for The Art of Healing Counseling Center, though she was not a professionally licensed therapist.

Leeaster moved in with James when she was 12 and was officially adopted Oct. 29, 1997. The others followed.

"These kids came to her just fine," Leeaster said. "When they got there, she was nice to them for a while, then all of a sudden they started having these problems."

Unlike the later children, Leeaster attended school outside the home. As time passed, conditions grew more restrictive. Leeaster observed James get physical, wrestling one of the boys to the floor and pinning him if he was inappropriately loud. Restrictions on food began when they moved to the Hillside, Leeaster said.

In April 2003, that boy, then 12, dashed out of the house, ran through the backyard and into the yard of a neighbor on Jollipan Court. The boy told the neighbor he "was being abused by his mother. He didn't want to go home, was being deprived of food," Anchorage Police spokeswoman Marlene Lammers said last week.

The neighbor called the police, who checked out the James home.

Reading from a police report prepared at the time, Lammers said the home had "some odors of animals, but it still appeared to be a well-kept home."

The two refrigerators were stocked with food. James told police the boy was severely emotionally disturbed. The police officer sent a copy of the report to state child welfare authorities.

Lawson, the director of the Office of Children's Services, said she couldn't discuss individual complaints because of the pending criminal case.

"The Office of Children's Services certainly did receive some reports of concern. Those were things we did look into," Lawson said.

Leeaster left the house around the time of her high school graduation that June and never came back.

Though the upstairs of the house was expansive, the children were mainly confined to a converted garage on the lower floor, Alice said. A previous owner had made a bedroom there, and James divided that room into thirds -- a large room for girls and a smaller one for the boys, the third, even smaller, used for punishment. They were once carpeted, but the carpet was pulled up after a plumbing flood, leaving just bare concrete, Alice said.

Breakfast had to wait until each child wrote 10 pages by hand in the logs. If they were punished, they might have to write five or 10 more pages before food, or be forced to slurp the power-meal gruel, Alice said. Sometimes they'd have to write page after page with just the lead from a pencil.

"Our breakfast was a piece of fruit," Alice said. "If you didn't get it by noon, you were allowed to ask. If you asked before that, it was considered begging and you didn't get it at all."

They'd have to wait until 5 or 6 p.m. for lunch, she said.

"Dinner would come around 11. We were already asleep. We'd hear the door open, we'd all wake like dogs -- like dogs hear the bowls moving and know dinner's coming. I remember I'd be in the middle of sleeping and hear the door open, I'd wake up like that. I knew that door meant Anya was bringing down food -- that's the only reason she ever came downstairs."

Everyone had different food, based on their privileges -- unless they were all on power meals. They'd squabble over who got more. If they were allowed upstairs and were alone in the kitchen, they might snatch some food. Alice learned she could steal a slice of bread undetected if she lifted it from the middle of the loaf.

On some levels, the family life might appear rich. An upstairs library was packed to the ceiling with 17,000 books, paid in part from homeschool subsidies, Alice said. James took the children to the Grand Canyon, Washington, D.C., and historical sites in the South. But even on vacation, James would not tolerate a misstep by a child. For punishment at the Grand Canyon, Alice had to look down as spectacular scenery passed outside the van window.

But mainly the children spent day and night in the divided bedroom downstairs, doing their writing. The doors were alarmed and they could only go to the bathroom when James came down and turned off the alarm for bathroom break. They'd have to leave the bathroom door open so James could see if they were hiding food or other contraband in their underwear, Alice said. If it wasn't official bathroom time, they'd have to go in a bucket.

Alice once decided she had enough and refused to use the bucket.

"I didn't go to the bathroom for 28 hours because I would not use it," Alice said.

Did she win?

"No. Finally I caved. It hurts."

TURNING POINT

Leeaster got married in Tennessee on April 21, 2007, and James brought the kids to the wedding. The groom's family thought the children looked sick and wondered why they stood by themselves and wouldn't join the party, Leeaster said. She told them they didn't feel good. "I had to create a lie," Leeaster said.

But that was also a turning point. While Leeaster had seen the beginnings of the family's decline, it had gotten much worse since she left the house in 2003.

"When we went to her wedding, we weren't allowed to move or sit or eat anything," Alice said. "People were asking questions." Prosecutors have pictures from the wedding showing the children standing in the background, looking wan and out of sorts, she said.

Leeaster was upset. Later, the other sister who had moved out, the one in age between her and Alice, told Leeaster that things were getting worse still. She said James had shoved Alice down the steps and injured her.

Leeaster phoned the Office of Children's Services.

"Told them everything she knew -- we're on medications, we're all skinny, we all look like we're dead, and the bedrooms," Alice said.

It was 2007 or 2008. Two women from OCS showed up at the house, Alice said. James wouldn't let them inside, so they talked to the children on the front porch.

"They interviewed all of us in front of one another and Anya was in earshot, and they didn't even go inside where Leeaster told them the bedrooms were," Alice said. "If there's abuse, you really think you can interview the kid in front of the parent? That's just stupid."

Nothing happened.

In July 2008, James and three of the kids, including Alice, were walking on the track at Trailside Elementary School when one of the girls, then 16, saw an off-duty police officer and broke away, according to spokeswoman Lammers from the police department.

"(She) approaches him and starts explaining to him that she's being abused by her mother, she's not being fed," Lammers said. The officer called for someone on-duty to take the report.

"She relays the same information to him, indicating that Mom is not feeding them, and that there's other forms of abuse that are going on," Lammers said.

The officer then interviewed the other two children there, Alice and Julia.

"They provide conflicting statements. They don't corroborate this juvenile's allegations at all. In fact they state there's nothing going on at all," Lammers said.

James told the officer the complaining child is "high special needs, that there is no abuse going on in the home." The case appeared to have been closed with no further action, Lammers said.

Alice remembers that day, and agreed that the officer accurately reported what she said.

"I knew we were all hungry and everything, but even if I did say something, they wouldn't have done anything then anyway -- it would've taken a long time, and Anya would've questioned us. It's just really not worth it."

That was part of the internal struggle Alice was going through at the time.

"There are times around that time that I wanted to leave -- I knew things were wrong. And then it was, no, nothing's wrong, I don't want to leave, because you don't know what the rest of the world is like, you've never been out in the rest of the world. It's very hard to explain. She says she's a good mom, like it's our fault."

What Alice didn't know was that the neighbor across the street, Lorri Davis, was beginning to document the goings on.

'AM I BLOWING THIS OUT OF PROPORTION'

Leeaster said Davis, over the years, was like the James kids' den mother. She had three active children of her own. But Davis said James was very cautious in allowing the adopted children to visit.

In March 2009, Alice ran across the street and knocked on Davis' door. She was sobbing.

Alice had gotten "upstairs privileges" that allowed her to remain on the main floor during the day. She had to care for the 20 or so dogs and 50 cats in the house, but as tough as that was, it was better than being trapped in the tiny bedroom all day, she said.

But Alice suspected her privileges were over. She had taken a call from a boy against the rules. Her sister told on her, in revenge for Alice telling James that the sister had eaten dog biscuits.

Alice decided she wasn't going back downstairs, but breaking away wasn't easy.

"I felt so guilty because the last thing I said was, 'I hate you and everything about you' before I slammed the door."

Davis told Alice she could spend the night.

"She felt very guilty, she felt like she was the one that was wrong," Davis said. "She felt very protective of Anya."

Davis called James to tell her Alice was OK and spending the night there.

"And Anya's answer to me was, 'You don't know what you have in your house. You have a ticking time bomb in your house.' " James said Alice was off her medications and was capable of "being very disastrous."

Davis listened but didn't pay any heed. Alice said she didn't want to go home. Davis said, "Fine."

For the first time, Alice began telling her the details of life the house across the street and of the six medications she was taking, prescribed by an Anchorage psychiatrist. Davis was shocked. In the next few days, Alice moved in with her natural uncle and aunt in Midtown, but stayed in touch with Davis. Davis took her to the school district to finish her education and get her high school diploma. She never lived in the house again.

Davis also began paying closer attention.

"You'd look at them bringing the garbage out, and they were skinny as all get out. They looked terrible."

Without telling Alice, Davis begin calling authorities: children's services, the medical board, even animal control -- anything to get an official into the house to see what was going on. No one seemed very interested, she said.

When she spoke to someone at OCS after Alice ran away, "the response was pretty weird," Davis said. " 'Well, did you see any bruises? What else can you tell me?' I said, '(The kids) look bad, I hate to say it, but they smell really bad. They looked sick. They looked like zombies.' "

Nothing happened. She sent emails. Nothing happened. The principal from the district's home school program called, Davis said, and nothing seemed to happen.

"After a while, I felt, am I just nosy? Am I blowing this out of proportion?"

'I NEVER SAW MYSELF AS A VICTIM'

In June 2009, the same teen who complained to the off-duty officer at the school ran to the backyard neighbor's house on Jollipan Circle, who again called police.

The cops knocked on James' door just as James was reporting the teen as a runaway, spokeswoman Lammers said. Again, James said the girl had "very special needs" and was on medications.

"The mom was very convincing in all of these cases," Lammers said. And the teen "had no outward injuries to substantiate her claims of abuse," Lammers said.

Alice once got to hear a recording of James talking to police dispatch about her.

"Anya is very good at making herself sound like a hero and making us sound like we're very bad," she said. "She had the dispatch officer drooling over her and making me sound like I was a pyromaniac. 'Oh, yes, I'm a therapist and I adopted eight children,' and the dispatch officer is saying, 'You adopted eight children? Wow.' "

After moving out, Alice got her diploma. She stopped taking her psychiatric medications cold turkey. "I was sick for weeks because my body was addicted to it, but I haven't been on meds for two years and I'm just fine," she said. "I always knew I never needed medication."

Apparently prosecutors believe that, too. One element of the kidnapping charges is that James used drugs to restrain the children, according to assistant district attorney Talitha Henry.

By October 2010, Alice no longer felt guilty about leaving.

"I never saw myself as a victim until I started realizing, hey, that's not normal. Why do people act so shocked when I tell them some small thing that was so normal in our life there, like the honeypots or the writing? For me it was so part of my everyday life that I didn't see it as crazy, and slowly started seeing it as, this isn't OK."

Once again, she turned to Davis. "Lorri's helped me finish school, encouraged me emotionally during a lot of things, encouraged the education part like going back to college." She knew Davis wanted her to report James.

"Lorri, she didn't push it, but she made hints for a long time." And besides, four of her siblings were still in the house.

The two went to the OCS office and spoke with an investigator. Within days, the children were taken from the house. Then more than a dozen officers executed a search warrant. The investigation continued for eight months, and on May 11, after hearing testimony from the six adopted children, Davis, medical providers, police and child welfare officials, a grand jury returned a true bill -- a 16-count indictment. She was arrested last week.

Reach Richard Mauer at rmauer@adn.com or 257-4345, and Lisa Demer at ldemer@adn.com or 257-4390.

By RICHARD MAUER and LISA DEMER

Anchorage Daily News

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