Control is what a judge said Kathleen and Martin O’Brien held onto while raising their children, and it’s what the two will live without for the next year while in the Walworth County Jail.
A jury in July found the Lake Geneva couple guilty of six counts of party to child abuse and one count of party to disorderly conduct.
Judge Stephen Simanek sentenced the O’Briens to a year in jail Tuesday. He said he did not send the couple to prison because of a low probability they will reoffend. He ordered one year in jail, he said, because they need to be held responsible for their actions and to show the community such crimes are taken seriously.
“I think that is significant, or will have a significant impact on you, because up to this point you have made a significant effort to always be in control. And that is not going to happen,” Simanek said.
Despite being instructed to show no emotion during the judge’s sentencing, people on both sides of the packed courtroom cried. One man walked out.
Family and friends of the O’Briens and the adopted children’s new family and friends were present.
The O’Briens were charged in May 2012 with a combined 23 felony and misdemeanor charges of abusing their six adopted children from Russia and Guatemala. Some counts were dismissed. The remaining focused on three male children.
Kathleen pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of party to physical abuse of a child and misdemeanor party to disorderly conduct.
Martin pleaded not guilty in December to five felony counts of party to physical abuse of a child.
The two also pleaded not guilty to a mutual charge of party to physical abuse of a child.
Both were found guilty on the mutual child abuse charge.
Martin was convicted on three felony counts of party to physical abuse of a child, and Kathleen was convicted on two counts of party to physical abuse of a child and one count of party to disorderly conduct.
Defense attorneys Kathleen Quinn and Kathleen Stilling argued during trial and at sentencing Tuesday that the O’Briens faced an uphill battle after adopting the children with biological parents who were alcoholics or abusive. The children’s pasts led to the children having attachment disorders and fearing close relationships with adults who loved and cared for them.
The couple struggled with the adopted children, and one of the adopted sons scared and threatened the other adopted children into thinking they were being treated differently than the biological children, the defense argued.
At times, when things became difficult, the O’Briens disciplined their children in ways they weren’t proud of, Quinn said Tuesday.
The sentencing needs to take into context the “complex” O’Brien family dynamic, Stilling said.
“I don’t believe every instance of an adult failing in their parenting needs to be addressed with a prison term,” Quinn said.
Stilling and Quinn requested probation and no incarceration.
The six adopted children were abused for years, starting shortly after some arrived in the United States, prosecutor Diane Donohoo said during the 12-day trial in July and Tuesday’s court hearing.
The O’Briens made a now-17-year-old girl stand outside barefoot in the winter for so long her feet swelled and turned color, Donohoo argued during trial. The adopted children were forced to stand outside in the winter naked for hours and stand naked in front of the four biological children.
Donohoo also claimed the O’Briens made the children eat frozen bread, hit the 17-year-old on the hand with a ruler, used pepper spray on a now-20-year-old and didn’t feed the six for extended periods.
“When children are repeatedly humiliated and tormented for years, prison is the expected outcome,” Donohoo said.
A presentence investigation by the Wisconsin Department of Corrections recommended each serve six years in prison and six years of probation, Simanek said.
Two adopted children spoke during the sentencing and each asked, “Why me?”
The 17-year-old girl wiped tears fas she read her statement.
“To this day, I still wonder, why me? Why did you hurt me? What did I do to deserve this? … I was only good enough to be your punching bag.”
While her emotional family and friends sat behind her in the pews, she explained that she struggles from not having a normal childhood. She said she wondered if the O’Briens ever loved her.
An emotional Martin and Kathleen made separate statements, touching upon the same core topics of love and self-improvement.
“I love my kids on both sides of the aisle today,” Martin said fighting back tears while Kathleen rubbed his back. “I realize I didn’t say that enough. I don’t think I’ve said that enough to any of them.”
Kathleen admitted she should have sought help in managing the struggles the family was going through.
“I now know there can be a profound difference between children who remain with their birth parents and those who have been thrust into a new family dynamic,” Kathleen said.
“I now know those key difference can manifest at any age, and even my background in education combined with years of parenting experience did not fully equip me to most successfully handle the myriad of underlying effects that my children, to no fault of their own, manifested prior to joining our family.”
Simanek ordered that the jail terms be served with release privileges for the O’Briens to go to work, to school and to check on their home.