US Marshals arrested the only woman on their 15 Most Wanted list Wednesday, bringing to an end a five-year search for Janet Barreto and her husband, Ramon Barreto – both accused of severe abuse of children they had adopted abroad, including a two-year-old girl who died as a result.
The two were apprehended near a shopping mall in Portland, Ore., and an infant they had with them was placed with the local child protection agency. Deputy Marshal Jamaal Thompson, who worked on the case with the Gulf Coast Regional Fugitive Task Force in Oxford, Miss., said he did not have any additional information on the baby’s origin.
Although the charges against the Barretos may represent an extreme, the abuse of adopted and foster children is a real concern, experts say. Adoptees from abroad, as well as foster children in the US, “may have faced serious trauma … [and then if you] place them with people who want to exploit those vulnerabilities, you can come up with some pretty terrible results,” says Tamara Hurst, a child welfare expert and social work professor at the University of Southern Mississippi In Hattiesburg.
“There are systems to screen people [who want to adopt], but you’re not going to catch everybody,” she says. Fortunately, she says, there’s growing awareness and law enforcement efforts to crack down on the abuse and trafficking of children in the US.
But in general, “abuse and neglect is far more likely to occur in families where the children are the biological children than it is to occur in adoptive families,” says Elizabeth Bartholet, a Harvard law professor who studies child abuse.
In the United States, child abuse or neglect against more than 6 million children is reported every year, and an average of at least four children a day die from maltreatment, according to Childhelp, a national advocacy group that runs a 24-hour hotline (1-800-4-A-CHILD) and offers assistance to victims. In 2012, nearly 19 percent of the cases nationally involved physical abuse and just over 9 percent involved sexual abuse, the group reports.
While parents are often forced into treatment or children are removed from abusive homes, criminal cases generally occur in cases involving extreme violence, sexual abuse, or the death of a child, Professor Bartholet says.
Authorities say Ms. Barreto fled Mississippi in 2009 before she was due to be tried on abuse and manslaughter charges. She was placed on the much-publicized wanted list last summer, with an offer of up to $25,000 for successful tips.
Many leads came in, Mr. Thompson says, but the key was a call from a concerned citizen on Aug. 11, who said Barreto was in Washington State or Oregon, and possibly had an infant with her.
That tip led to an investigation in coordination with the US Marshals-led Pacific Northwest Violent Offender Task Force in Washington State, which ultimately led to the capture. The Barretos were using false identification and were uncooperative at the time of arrest, Thompson says, but a mobile fingerprinting system enabled authorities to confirm Ramon Barreto’s identity, and Janet’s identity was confirmed at the jail.
“It’s a relief.… I’m glad to get her behind bars,” Thompson says. He expects the couple to be extradited to Mississippi within 10 days.
One priority during the investigation of the tip was “to get somebody to where she was residing to make sure she wasn’t in possession of any other kids,” Thompson says. She was not.
The Barretos are suspected of traveling to Guatemala on multiple occasions in 2005 and 2006 to adopt children, and then subjecting them to physical abuse in the US, including beatings and submerging their heads in water.
“Through her alleged crimes, Barreto demonstrated a blatant disregard and lack of respect for life other than her own,” said US Marshals Service Director Stacia Hylton in a statement Wednesday. “I am greatly appreciative of the extraordinary efforts made by our dedicated men and women in apprehending one of our most wanted fugitives.”
Guatemala stopped allowing international adoptions in 2008 out of concerns about kidnapping and corruption, but prior to that year it sent one out of every 100 adopted children abroad, according to a 2013 report by CNN.