After Horror, A Custody Plea — (The Hartford Courant)

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The Hartford Courant

December 1, 2006

By MATT BURGARD And COLIN POITRAS, COURANT STAFF WRITERS

When Margaret Valentin picked up the phone in the pre-dawn hours of Nov. 18, she recognized the voice on the other end.

It was the mother of her three grandchildren, Carmela Ortiz, screaming that the children were dead. Valentin thought it couldn’t possibly be true.

But after racing to the apartment on Hartford’s Ashley Street, Valentin was stunned by what she saw: The rooms where the boys usually slept were stained with blood. Ortiz – whom police arrested later that day on charges of stabbing the boys – was still screaming.

The boys, 7-month-old Isaiah Padilla and the twin 2-year-olds, Noah and Elijah, were already gone, on their way to the hospital.

Valentin and other sources familiar with the incident said the baby had been stabbed more than a dozen times in the chest and abdomen with a kitchen knife. The twins had each been stabbed about 10 times, sources said.

Miraculously, all three survived. The twins were released from the hospital Monday, Valentin said. Isaiah remains hospitalized at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, but she said he is conscious and out of danger.

But with their mother sitting in prison charged with three counts of attempted murder and first-degree assault – her bail set at $3 million – the children’s future is uncertain.

All three are in the custody of the state Department of Children and Families, the twins already in temporary foster care. But Valentin and her 21-year-old son, Manuel Padilla – the father of the three boys – are hoping to persuade DCF and a Hartford juvenile court judge to give them custody during a hearing today.

“I understand DCF has to do what it has to do, but why place my family members with strangers when I can care for them?” said Valentin, a tax accountant for St. Paul Travelers who is already a DCF-licensed foster parent.

To be licensed, foster parents must pass DCF’s background checks, and Valentin has been caring for a 2-year-old foster child in her Hartford home for the past year.

“I believe the children should be with me or my son and not in foster care,” she said.

Padilla lives with his father in Hartford. He is a 2003 graduate of the Hartford Sports Sciences Academy and he works as a counterman for a local food service business, said Ellington attorney Michael H. Agranoff, who is representing him. Padilla is looking for his own apartment.

“Our ultimate goal is for Manny to have the children and his mother to help him with that,” Agranoff said. “If he is not able to take care of the children, he would like to at least keep them with his family.”

Gary Kleeblatt, a DCF spokesman, said the agency continues to assess the situation, and no determination has been made as to where the children’s final placement will be. DCF social workers inspected Valentin’s home Wednesday to see if it was suitable.

But one factor Padilla will probably have to address is a domestic dispute with Ortiz in 2004 that led to his arrest. And there are simmering tensions between Ortiz’s family and Padilla’s family, which were made clear when Ortiz, 22, first appeared in court last week.

When a public defender assigned to represent Ortiz told the judge that she had been a victim of domestic violence, Valentin and others close to Padilla stood up and shouted objections in the courtroom, prompting marshals to escort them out.

“I hope you rot in jail,” one family member yelled at Ortiz.

Later, one of Ortiz’s family members who declined to be identified said Ortiz had asked about obtaining medication for depression, but insisted she was a good mother.

The root of the trouble between Padilla and Ortiz remains a matter of debate.

At Ortiz’s arraignment last week, defense lawyers painted a picture of a woman who had been a longtime victim of domestic abuse at the hands of an unnamed boyfriend. But Valentin said her son was not abusive and Ortiz was often jealous of Padilla’s friendships with other women.

In an interview, Padilla said he was arrested in February 2004 after the pair had an argument and Ortiz accused him of pushing and choking her. He said he went to court and was ordered to participate in anger management counseling, and that after he did so, the charges were dropped.

Ortiz took out a protective order, but the order has been officially sealed. When the order was obtained and whether it was effective is unclear.

Valentin said that despite the couple’s rocky relationship, she encouraged her son to remain close to Ortiz for the sake of the children. They dated on and off for four years, Valentin said, but lately the relationship appeared to be all but over, though Padilla continued to visit the children almost daily. She said Padilla had been to the apartment just hours before the children were stabbed.

Valentin said Ortiz had no history of being abusive toward the children. “Anytime I saw the children they were well-dressed, freshly bathed,” she said.

The domestic trouble in the home led to a DCF visit in 2004, though the details of what prompted that investigation were unclear Thursday. Kleeblatt said no charges of abuse or neglect were substantiated. Ortiz was referred for services, he said, but it was unclear whether she took advantage of those services.

Members of Ortiz’s family were unavailable for comment. Sarah Bernstein, the chief public defender at Superior Court in Hartford, who will represent Ortiz as the case proceeds to trial, declined to comment.

Sources familiar with the case said that Ortiz spent most of her teenage years in state foster care, bouncing around several foster homes before winding up in a Hartford emergency youth shelter at age 18. Within two years, she was pregnant with twins.

Ortiz has been placed on a suicide watch at the state women’s prison in Niantic pending her next court appearance Tuesday. At last week’s hearing, one of Ortiz’s family members said she had been under a lot of stress recently.

Valentin said the twins appear to have no understanding of what happened.

“They ask for their mama,” Valentin said, “and that breaks my heart.”

Contact Matt Burgard at mburgard@courant.com.