Contrasting portraits emerge of mother charged with starving children
Supporters of a woman charged with starving and abusing her adopted children packed an Anchorage courtroom on Tuesday as her public defender asked that she be released on an unsecured bond.
Echo Terry, 29, a former behavioral-support specialist at an Anchorage non-profit, faces 15 felony counts of assault and endangering the welfare of a child. The charges say Terry starved three children she adopted from state foster care in August 2013.
The purpose of Tuesday's court hearing was to review the conditions of Terry's bail. It offered a time for both sides in the emotional case to come together in court. What emerged were two drastically different portraits of the young inmate and what might have happened in her Anchorage home.
Those supporting her included members of a church that meets in rented space at Spring Hill Elementary School every Sunday, a group of Christians who described her as a God-loving, home schooling and loving mother. On the other side were prosecutors, a state-appointed attorney for the young alleged victims, and the new foster parents of the children who describe Terry as a flight risk and a danger to society.
Terry's legal saga began with her arrest last April after a grand jury found sufficient evidence to warrant assault and child endangerment charges against her.
The Office of Children’s Services (OCS) had placed three biological sisters – ages 1, 6 and 8 -- in Terry’s care in 2011 two months after Terry became a licensed foster parent. A fourth sister was placed in Terry's care shortly after her birth on Nov. 14, 2012.
At the time, Terry was a single woman with no family in Alaska, working with behaviorally challenged children at Denali Family Services.
During their time with Terry, the older children were removed from public school and home schooled. Prosecutors say the kids became socially isolated under her care.
The health of the three older girls deteriorated, with their weight dropping dramatically, according to the state’s bail memorandum. In addition to withholding meals and taping their bedroom doors shut at night to prevent them from “stealing food,” Terry imposed a rigid diet of no dairy, no gluten, no soy, and no corn even though the children had no known allergies, prosecutors say.
Between January 2012 and September 2014, the weight of the oldest girl, identified as V.T., dropped from the 10th percentile to around the 1st growth percentile; J.T’s weight dropped from the 90th percentile to the 2nd percentile; and M.T.’s weight dropped from the 50th percentile to below the 5th percentile, according to the bail memo. The memo is based on information from police, the victims, witnesses, and medical professionals.
All three children displayed lanugo, a dark hair that grows when someone is severely malnourished, according to prosecutors.
State foster care officials didn't see anything wrong. OCS licensing specialist Kelli Carpenter signed off on renewing Terry’s foster care license on July 17, 2013. An OCS inspection less than a month earlier turned up no violations of laws or regulations, according to paperwork obtained through a KTUU public records request.
Terry was arrested on April 12, 2016 after the grand jury indictment. Her arrest came after the oldest girl, V.T, ran away.
An Anchorage doctor from Southcentral Foundation, out jogging, came across the girl near her office. The doctor noticed that the girl looked malnourished and struck up a conversation with her.
V.T. disclosed what was going on in her adopted home and the doctor called police. OCS removed the children immediately and placed them in new foster homes. Eventually, the four kids were placed together with the doctor and her husband who became licensed foster parents.
At Tuesday’s bail hearing, the doctor and her husband, who hope to adopt the girls, testified that Terry poses a threat to society and that the children continue to suffer nightmares about her.
“They have fear of her harming our entire family,” she said. (KTUU is withholding the name of the doctor and her husband in the interest of protecting the children’s identities.)
Terry “has a deep-rooted need to inflict suffering on others,” the foster mother said. She noted that the girls are doing better but participate “in ongoing trauma therapy.”
The foster mother characterized Terry as a flight risk, quoting from a blog the young mother kept detailing the struggles she was having as the caregiver of four children. In an entry from September 2014 -- the month V.T. ran away -- the blog's author says "adopting and raising these girls has been way harder than I ever imagined it would be. I never imagined I would feel anything besides hope, never thought I would feel so alone, so clueless, so out of control."
The blog post continues to describe a desperate home situation and a woman wanting out of being a mother.
"Things are so bad right now that I am thinking about moving out of town to a remote cabin from people and just cutting all contact with people ... And honestly, that's what I want to do, run away. Just run away from all this."
Public defender Gary Soberary asked the judge to drop a third-party custodianship requirement and to release Terry on an unsecured bond pending her trial. He called several members of Terry’s church, Calvary Chapel South Anchorage, who testified that Terry is stable and reliable and, if released on bail, would return to court for her trial proceedings.
“I believe even if with the allegations, Echo would come back,” said Joli Johnson, a former co-worker of Terry’s at Denali Family Services, a non-profit that provides mental health and behavioral-support services to children and adolescents.
Several churchgoers and former co-workers of Terry testified that they spent time with the children and never saw any signs of abuse.
“My children loved her,” said RaShawn Mayberry, who worked with Terry at Choices, a social services agency that offers support to the mentally ill. “Even now my kids ask, 'Where is Echo?'”
“She loyal. She’s a woman I aspire more to be like,” Mayberry said.
Mical James, a stay-at-home mother and muralist, said she and Terry used to conduct a girls bible study together.
“I absolutely know Echo to be reliable,” James said.
Jeff Steiner, pastor of Calvary Chapel South Anchorage, said Terry was very involved with the church’s children’s ministry. If released from jail, Terry “would be welcomed back,” he said.
The girls’ current foster father who hopes to adopt the children with his wife said under no circumstances should Terry be released into the community.
“This is a very dangerous situation. She did heinous things to my children,” he said.
The man said he was appalled that so many people were expressing support for Terry.
“It shows what a sick circle this is,” he said. “The bail should remain the same.”
Terry is being held on $100,000 bail with the requirement of a third-party custodian.
At the conclusion of Tuesday's hearing, Superior Court Judge Michael Wolverton said he needed more information before deciding whether to alter Terry’s bail conditions. He noted the very different versions of who Terry is and the conditions of the children under her care.
As far as whether he views Terry as a flight risk, Wolverton wasn't prepared to make a judgment.
"I'm not unconcerned for obvious reasons regarding what her blog said," he said.
"This may be a case where electronic monitoring makes sense," Wolverton said.
The attorneys involved said they would make available the transcript of the grand jury proceedings, medical records and photos of the children taken after they were removed from Terry’s home. Wolverton set another bail review hearing for July 12.
In orange prison garb with part of her black hair pulled back in a messy ponytail, Terry remained silent during the hearing except to confer with Soberary. But in the days leading up to the hearing, she asked the judge, through her attorney, to close the proceeding to the public.
Prosecutors opposed the motion, noting that bail hearings are typically open to the public and are a time when defendants have the right to confront witnesses and present evidence. The judge agreed and denied Terry’s request.
Terry also asked for a court order to seal OCS records about the adoption of the children and the termination of her parental rights. The judge also denied the motion.
If convicted she faces up to 20 years in prison and a fine of up to $250,000.