With Kelly gone and Little Richard dead, the jury was effectively left to decide the fate of two little girls--three-year-old Monica and 1-year-old Sonya, both born of Richard Sanchez Jr. and Delia Cantu.
After the story of Kelly's abuse at the hands of Sanchez surfaced, the children became the epicenter of a raging custody battle, living in CPS foster homes while their parents were hustled between jail and court, and their paternal relatives fought to win them back.
(Two other children, including 14-year-old Bertha Cantu, who testified against her father at his trial, now live in Corpus Christi with their mother's relatives.)
This tangle of family malfunction was presented last month to the jurors in Gaither's courtroom. It was a typical jury, diverse in its makeup. There were five African-Americans, seven Anglos, and no Hispanics. Among them were a 27-year-old teacher's aide and school bus driver; a 55-year-old reference librarian; and a 48-year-old print-shop foreman. There was a veteran flight attendant and a Ford salesman. One juror, a ponytailed stockbroker who bore a striking resemblance to rock star Don Henley, drove a sleek black Mitsubishi 3000GT with license plates reading NORULZ.
The state tried to convince jurors that under no circumstances should the children be given back to the Sanchez family. The family had protected Richard Sanchez, a child molester and convicted drug dealer, prosecutors argued. The family members had no reliable income and little education. Their extended Hispanic family stretched the limits of convention in a tiny Oak Cliff home, where up to 17 people often shared three bedrooms and one bathroom.
On the other hand, lawyers for Richard Sanchez's mother and two sisters argued that the family should win custody of the children. Lilia Sanchez and her daughters--Patricia and Raquel--contended that Child Protective Services had already proven it could not ensure the well-being of the children. Kelly Cantu ran away not once but twice while in CPS custody. And how could the state brush away Little Richard's death as a mere accident? According to his family's claims, he entered foster care a chubby, active preschooler, and through CPS neglect ended up bruised and brain-dead less than a year later.
Day after day, the jurors heard stories of unspeakable child abuse. They listened to the opinions of CPS "experts," who jammed their testimony with psychobabble and more than a whiff of arrogance.
Lawyers for both sides came packed with ammunition. Seasoned social workers had rarely seen such a textbook case of incest and its effects on a family. The secrecy and the scramble to protect Richard Sanchez was unending. The Sanchez-Cantu family had been rotting for years from this shame; court testimony would reveal allegations of hidden sexual abuse spanning generations. The past two years had simply been the family's public reckoning.
But neither would CPS surface from this trial lily-white. It was the agency's job to keep the children safe and healthy. A team of social workers and psychologists determined early on that the children should never return to the Sanchez home. It was a violent and abusive place, they determined--no place to raise children. Yet while under CPS care, supposedly removed from a hazardous environment, Little Richard died. And Kelly Cantu is still missing.
Who could be trusted to protect these children?
In the snapshot, Kelly Cantu is standing on top of a battered red Pontiac Trans Am, her back to the camera. Dressed in a tube top and daringly short cutoffs, she peeks over her shoulder, grinning and posing for the camera like a lingerie model. Her wavy brown hair cascades over her shoulders. On the back of the photo she later scrawled "Think I'm all it in my Daisys!"
She is 11 years old.
According to Kelly's statements to police and in counseling sessions documented in court evidence files, her stepfather, Richard Sanchez, had begun having intercourse with her only a few months before the picture was taken.
But he targeted her--began "grooming" her, in social work jargon--as his victim years before that. Over the course of 21 counseling sessions from August 1995 to May 1996 with Theresa Vo, a clinical psychologist under contract to CPS, Kelly revealed a seven-year history of sexual abuse that began when Sanchez entered her room one night while she was sleeping.
According to Vo's notes, which the jury also saw, Sanchez told Kelly to "look and learn," then masturbated to ejaculation. "He showed me that white stuff and he showed me his thing," Kelly told Vo. "He said, 'Look Kelly, this is where babies come from. It tastes like milk and looks like milk.'"