Owner of Mexican shelter defends tough love

July 23, 2014 - 12:37 PM
The Week That Was Latin America Photo Gallery

In thus Thursday, July 17, 2014 photo, a boy peers out through the door of a cell-like room inside The Great Family group home in Zamora, Mexico. After a police raid on the refuse-strewn group home, residents of the shelter told authorities that some employees beat residents, fed them rotting food or locked them in a tiny "punishment" room. Shelter residents were still being kept at the home while officials look for places to transfer them. (AP Photo/Rebecca Blackwell)

MEXICO CITY (AP) — The owner of a group home raided last week amid abuse and filthy conditions defended her "tough love" approach, but acknowledged that things got out of control.

Seventy-nine-year-old Rosa Verduzco spoke with the Univision television network in an interview, excerpts of which were published Wednesday.

"My strength was failing and there were things I couldn't keep an eye on," said Verduzco, who was detained but later released because prosecutors said she showed signs of senility.

She appeared lucid and largely unrepentant in the interview.

The "Gran Familia" group home she founded was raided by police on July 15 and about 600 children and adults were rescued from the filthy, trash-strewn compound.

Some residents alleged they had been sexually abused by a male shelter employee, but Verduzco did not comment on those allegations in the interview.

While she apparently was not implicated by any of the residents in the sex abuse, many did complain she hit them.

Verduzco proudly acknowledged that, saying she hit children because it was part of disciplining them and showing affection for them.

"You've heard the expression, 'if you don't hit someone, you don't love them?'" Verduzco asked the interviewer. "Correcting them (residents) did not mean harming them."

But she denied there was a punishment cell at the shelter in the western state of Michoacan, saying the small, barred room was an infirmary used to hold sick residents so they wouldn't walk around.

The shelter housed children with behavioral problems or from broken homes; many stayed on after reaching adulthood. Most were taken to the shelter by their parents or child welfare agencies.

A frequent complaint against Verduzco, who started taking in children about 65 years ago, was that she demanded money from parents who sought to remove their children from the shelter.

Verduzco said in the interview that parents had agreed to pay the shelter part of the cost of housing their children, a charge of as little as $1.50 per day, but that few did.

But the money may have been the least of her concerns; Verduzco confirmed that when parents showed up, she just did not want to give up the kids, who she considered her children.

"I'm not giving them up ... because that's my child," Verduzco said. "She who rears a child is more of a mother than she who gives birth."

However, Verduzco did acknowledge making some mistakes, like keeping rotting food around, much of which she said was intended for pigs kept in an adjoining lot.

"Our error was not throwing things out," she said.

Six employees of the shelter have been charged with kidnapping for allegedly refusing to release residents leave, and with human trafficking for purportedly forcing them to beg for money. The six also face organized crime charges.

Prosecutors say sexual abuse charges may be brought against some of the six, especially three men who have been accused by residents of sexually abusing them.