WATERLOO - A family's plan to help needy children from overseas started with the best of intentions but went horribly awry.
Jim and Jody Swarbrick of Cedar Falls adopted some 27 children from Asia, South America and the United States beginning in the 1970s. At least a dozen children lived at the house at any one time.
Family friends knew the immensity of the task facing the parents. But none of them fathomed the hidden pattern of sex abuse three of the older children - adopted from Korea - perpetrated on some siblings, allegedly over a period of years.
The trio - Kyle, 22, Channon, 25, and Zachary, 23 - were arrested in February 2005.
They pleaded guilty to multiple counts of third-degree sexual abuse and were sentenced Monday to probation with lengthy prison sentences held over their heads if they stray.
Two of their victims faced them in court to tell how they will continue to carry the life-long emotional scars from the abuse.
Assistant Black Hawk County Attorney Linda Fangman said when one girl thought she was pregnant, she was punched in the stomach.
"I just wish they would have said something way back then. We could have cut this off years ago," Douglas Melcher, an engineer and friend of the Swarbricks who also adopted children from Korea, told the court Monday.
Many who knew the defendants described them as polite and smart people, hard workers with bright futures and no hint they might be a threat to others.
Melcher and his wife had told the Swarbrick parents that a dozen children was enough.
"They just couldn't say no," Melcher said. "They kept finding children that needed help."
The situation apparently became dire when the parents divorced, and the father moved to Florida.
The mother began doing computer work out of her home to pay the bills. There were no subsidies for overseas children, Melcher said.
The children did most of the cooking, cleaning and other chores, said Carol Brenden, another family friend. She said there were too many people living in one place.
"They were left unsupervised," said Melcher's wife, Charlene. "They had no guidance."
Public Defender Dean Olson, who represented Channon, said the parents' noble attempt to help people was doomed because there were too many children, many of whom came into the family with other problems, including prior physical and sexual abuse.
Finally, the family spun out of control with the children making up their own society with their own rules, Olson said.
The abuse began when the perpetrators were as young as 12. Fangman said Channon and Zachary continued even after they turned 18.
Fangman cited warning signs.
One girl had complained of sex abuse to the parents but had a washcloth placed in her mouth as punishment for saying such things, Fangman said.
The father allegedly walked in on Channon naked on top of another child, she said. Channon merely said he was looking for something, and the father left and closed the door, she said.
After one complaint of abuse, the Department of Human Services worked out a plan where the girls were to have locks on their rooms, Fangman said.
The DHS investigation prompted authorities to remove seven children from the home in April 2004.
The defense attorneys asked for deferred judgments, which would have left the three with clean records if they completed probation.
The prosecution sought 10-year prison concurrent sentences for each.
In handing down the punishment, Judge Thomas Bower sentenced them to 10 years in prison for each count and stacked them consecutively. The time behind bars was suspended, and they were placed on five years of probation and ordered to pay fines.
For Kyle and Zachary Swarbrick, who now live in Arizona, that means 30 years in prison apiece if they violate probation. Channon, who was charged with five counts, faces up to 50 years.
All were ordered to undergo sex offender treatment and must register as sex offenders. Zachary Swarbrick is allowed to serve his probation in Arizona.
Contact Jeff Reinitz at (319) 291-1578 or firstname.lastname@example.org.