Experts say Esther Combs child-abuse case is unusual
By ANGELA K. BROWN Associated Press Writer
BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. (AP) Esther Combs was not unlike many unwanted children who fall through the cracks of an overburdened social services system.
But experts say her tenure of torture nearly 20 years was unusual. The 410 scars she accumulated from curling iron burns, baseball bat beatings and other abuse went undetected because she was in the care of a minister and his wife, who used a cloak of religion and home schooling to isolate her.
"Many abused children are invisible to the system until they reach school age, but with home schooling, she had no exposure to teachers," said Kevin Kirkpatrick, spokesman for Prevent Child Abuse America, a Chicago-based nonprofit organization.
Rev. Joseph Combs and his wife, Evangeline Lopez Combs, were convicted last month of taking Esther from an Indiana orphanage when she was a baby, never adopting her and treating her as the family's servant. Combs also had sex with the girl. When sentenced on April 25, Combs faces 144 years in prison; Mrs. Combs, 73 years.
Meanwhile, the 22-year-old Esther is trying to start a new life, free to go to school, free to dress and speak the way she chooses free. There are some 1 million confirmed cases of child abuse and neglect in the United States annually, Kirpatrick said, and tens of thousands more go unreported.
Many are abused by their parents, or extended family. Others, like Esther, are abused by adoptive or foster parents.
Last year, a Utah woman was imprisoned for the death of her two adopted daughters, ages 3 and 6. The youngest died of head injuries after she was pushed down stairs. The older girl was starved to death in a filthy locked basement. Both were regularly burned and beaten. The woman's two biological sons were not abused. The Combses also spared their four biological children and an adopted son from abuse.
The Combses told Esther she wasn't as smart as their other children and said her purpose in life was as their servant. When she didn't finish her chores in time, they called her rebellious and punished her.
Esther did what she was told, wanting the Combses to love her. Esther who had no friends, couldn't read or write and was not allowed to watch television I had no way of knowing a normal life. Esther lived as a broken person, devastated by physical, verbal, psychological and sexual abuse without any other family ... and deprived of self-worth, prosecutor Barry Staubus said. "She was utterly dependent on the Combses."
During the first few years of their marriage, the Combses tried to conceive but couldn't. They decided in 1977 to adopt a son and the next year wanted a little girl.
They visited the Baptist Children's Home in Valparaiso, Ind., and chose a 4-month-old girl whom they named Esther. Within seven months, they signed an adoption agreement, but later decided against it because the Combses claim the home requested 10 percent of their income as a fee. However, they never returned Esther.
Dawn Loftis, office manager at the Baptist Children's Home, said the agency never asked the Combses for money. She said the home sent letters to the Combses in 1980, 1984 and 1994 asking for a record of Esther's adoption. The last letter was returned unopened, indicating the Combses had moved. It's unclear what, if anything, the children's home did after that. Loftis acknowledged there were no records showing the children's home or a court ever demanded Esther's return. Esther's earliest memory is being thrown down the stairs in her high chair.
When she was 3 or 4, her hands were burned after Mrs. Combs made her retrieve a spoon she accidentally dropped in a pot of oatmeal. When she was a teen-ager, Combs once wrapped a rope around her neck and draped her over his back until she passed out.
Another time, when the other children told on her for jumping on the bed, Mrs. Combs threw Esther against the wall, knocking out her two front teeth. Mrs. Combs then placed the teeth back in her bloody mouth, where they remained but were crooked and oddly spaced.
In 1986, Combs moved his family to Florida to start a church. Esther says the abuse continued and she was often raped. She says she was forced to cook and clean for the family and care for the Combses two youngest children. She was rarely allowed to attend home-schooling sessions. She says when a babysitter taught her how to write her name, the Combses beat her. They said Jesus didn't learn to read and write until he was 12, so Esther shouldn't either.
That babysitter and another one testified that they suspected Esther was mistreated but didn't want to contradict Combs, who had been their Bible professor at Hyles Anderson College in Crown Point, Ind. The other babysitter reported her suspicions to the college president, but apparently nothing was done, she said.
The Combses left Florida and traveled as evangelists for more than a year before moving to Bristol, where Combs became pastor of Emmanuel Baptist Church in 1989. Esther says thats when the abuse worsened, and the couple would quote Bible verses while punishing her. Mrs. Combs often pulled out chunks of Esther's flesh with pliers. Another time Mrs. Combs threw a shoe at Esther's eye and then stitched her brow with a needle and thread.
She called them her marks of the beast, Esther testified. For eight years the family lived in the gym building and never let church members visit. Esther's only contact with the outside world was with church members twice a week.
Some in the congregation noticed Esther sometimes had black eyes, scars or her arm in a sling. But when told Esther was clumsy and fell a lot, they believed Combs. After all, he was a man of God, they said.
Esther ran away twice, once to a gas station and another time down the street, where she was picked up by a passing motorist and taken to a children's shelter. But both times she never told police she'd been abused and was returned to the Combses, who beat her severely for running away. Esther decided the best way to end the abuse was to end her life. In February 1997, she guzzled a cup of antifreeze while at home. The Combses called 911 and she was taken by ambulance to a hospital, where doctors found layers of scar tissue on her body and fractures that had not healed properly.
Police were curious why Esther had no birth certificate, no Social Security number, no school or medical records. Still afraid, Esther denied being abused and returned to live with the Combses. But detectives remained suspicious.
Seven months later, police filed a petition for guardianship for Esther, who was 19. Even though she was an adult, authorities believed she couldn't function as one because she had been so isolated. Rather than go to court to accept the guardianship, Esther went to live with Combs brothers family in Georgia at his urging.
That move proved to be the one that finally ended her years of abuse. Combs' sister-in-law, Susan Combs, testified that when Esther arrived, she was frail. She had trouble with the simplest of tasks, like making change or reading a menu. She said Esther was oblivious to popular culture and had never heard of Elvis Presley.
But Esther slowly blossomed with her newfound freedom going to the mall with her cousins, dressing how she wanted, watching television and finally opened up about her years of abuse.
In February 1998, four months after Esther had been away from the only parents she'd ever known, she called Bristol police and told them how she got her scars and who was responsible.
She also filed lawsuits against the children's home and the Combses. "A transformation takes place when she gets out from under that family," Staubus said. Esther is apart ... and begins to see and feel and know freedom.
"Finally, Esther speaks."
Published April 9, 2000
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