WARNING: This story contains graphic content.
The children call them their “war scars”.
They are reminders imprinted on their bodies – the crusted remains of years of prolonged abuse at the hands of their father and stepmother.
Now brothers Diego and Liam, who were only 10 and 13 respectively when their ordeal began in 2016, are closing in on justice as sentencing hearings took place last week for their father and their mother-in-law in Toronto Superior Court.
CBC News uses pseudonyms for the brothers as well as the offenders. Their identities are covered by a publication ban intended to protect the victims.
The hearings are one of the final stages of a process that began in the fall of 2021, in what Crown prosecutors called a “campaign of torture” against two young boys who were beaten, burned, deprived sleepy, hungry and hanging by their hands. and feet in the basement of a Toronto home at various times from summer 2016 to June 2019, when a boy managed to escape and alert authorities.
And although children’s aid was repeatedly informed of the possibility of abuse in the family home, subsequent investigations did not lead to the rescue of the brothers, leaving outside family members wondering how Obvious signs of trauma were not sufficient for agency intervention. intended to protect children.
“We couldn’t be regular brothers. We were survival partners,” Diego wrote in a victim impact statement, which was read in court during his mother-in-law’s sentencing hearing. last week.
“It allowed us to be open with each other, but we were still in survival mode.”
The “punishments” began after the move to Canada
In September 2021, the boy’s father, Gabriel, pleaded guilty to a host of charges including assault with a weapon, aggravated assault and criminal negligence causing bodily harm. Their stepmother, Sofia, was later found guilty of similar charges in a judge-alone trial before Ontario Superior Court Judge Kelly Byrne in May.
The abuse began in August 2016. It was then that Diego, Liam and their father moved from Mexico to Toronto to live with his new wife and two children from a previous relationship.
Court documents show that shortly after arriving in Canada, the two boys began to be severely abused by their father and stepmother. All contact was cut with their grandmother, aunt and uncle in Ontario, as well as with their mother, who remained in Mexico.
The boys endured frequent “punishments”, according to court documents, which were often carried out by their father at the direction of their stepmother – although Sofia also assaulted them herself, the court heard.
In his ruling, Byrne said both parties were equally guilty. In sentencing submissions to Gabriel’s hearing, however, the Crown and defense argued that Sofia was the architect and she pressured Gabriel to commit much of the abuse out of fear and intimidation, as a godfather in the country.
The house quickly started to look like hell, Liam testified at his stepmother’s trial.
“At the time, I was really scared. That would be the best way to describe it – scared of home,” he wrote in a victim impact statement entered into evidence at the determination hearing. pain.
“I was afraid of people you shouldn’t be afraid of.”
I was afraid of people you shouldn’t be afraid of.-Liam
The court heard the brothers were beaten with a metal belt and spoon, had their fingers squeezed with pliers and cut with kitchen knives, among other assaults.
On Halloween in 2018, Liam was forced to immerse his feet in boiling water, which left him with burns and scars that eventually required plastic surgery.
The boys’ food was restricted and they lost a significant amount of weight, while the children in Sofia were getting enough food, the court heard.
Diego and Liam were only allowed to sleep at night while Sofia worked nights if they had her permission, which she monitored through two surveillance cameras, the court also heard.
Another punishment used for about six months, the court said, was for their father or stepmother to hang the boys, usually by their ankles, from the basement rafters of the house for hours at a time.
One evening in June 2019, after a fight with Sofia for being hanged in the basement, Liam ran out of the house and hid under a parked car until 5 a.m. He then went to a library, where he waited for it to open and followed his mother on Facebook. She alerted her mother in Ontario, who in turn notified the police. His brother was later rescued from the house.
The two brothers now live with their grandmother in Ontario, who said she endured a “roller coaster of emotions” over their treatment.
“I have lost faith in humanity,” she wrote in a victim impact statement, where she also detailed the boys’ “war scars.”
“I can’t understand how a human being can do this to other human beings, especially children.”
There were many signs that something was wrong with the house over the years – teachers and education workers noticed injuries, inappropriate clothing and evidence that the brothers were malnourished.
Concerns were forwarded to the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto (CCAS), which conducted several investigations into the family. Court documents show Sofia explained any injuries and told the boys what to say when talking to a doctor or others.
“Everything was scripted – I was told what to say and what not to say,” Diego said in his victim impact statement.
In her decision, Byrne noted that in one case, educators were told by CCAS that “there would be no further investigation and that the school should not contact them about the future of this family”.
In this case, we felt we had done all the steps we could.– Mark Kartusch, Executive Director of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto
Educators were also told by CCAS that “everything was fine at home,” Byrne wrote.
“They couldn’t have been more wrong,” she said.
Mark Kartusch, executive director of the Catholic Children’s Aid Society of Toronto, told CBC News in an interview that he feels for the boys given the abuse they have suffered.
The organization conducted a review of the case in 2019 and Kartusch said he supported the work being carried out by investigators.
“I don’t think it’s fair to be held accountable for things that we only know about after the fact,” he said. “Obviously, if we knew what we know today, we would have taken very different actions. But we just didn’t have all that information.”
During their sentencing hearings last week, Gabriel and Sofia had the opportunity to speak. Only Gabriel did.
“I was really scared… and I want to apologize to my sons, for what I did to them, which I should never have done,” he said, speaking through ‘an interpreter.
In her sentencing submissions, Assistant Crown Attorney Brigid McCallum said she was seeking 20 years for Sofia, saying her “horrible behavior” should be called out.
Defense lawyer Ingrid Grant, meanwhile, argued that a sentence of seven to eight years would be sufficient.
The Crown is asking for a much lighter sentence for Gabriel, submitting a joint submission with defense attorney Paul Mergler of seven years, less time served. The difference in sentencing, both sides argued, was because Sofia orchestrated the abuse.
“I feel like I’ve lost my father,” says his son
Mergler said Gabriel was “cowardly” and “submissive” when he abused his sons at the behest of his wife.
“Obviously he failed miserably as a human being and as a parent,” he said.
In his victim impact statement read at his father’s hearing, Liam said he thought Gabriel was not mean.
“I think [Sofia] was the driving force behind his actions,” he wrote.
“I feel like I lost my father,” Diego wrote – a statement that left his father in tears and holding his hands over his eyes as it was read out in court.
Now the fate of Sofia and Gabriel is in the hands of Judge Byrne, as she decides their sentences – although at Gabriel’s hearing the judge said she was “deeply concerned about the disparity of the sentences sought for the two offenders, as she found in her decision that they were equally responsible.
“It seems to me that [Gabriel] should have risen to the rank of protector of these children,” Byrne said.
“They expected protection from him. That was his role.”
Byrne is due to sentence at the end of October.