MILWAUKEE (AP) - Growing up in an abusive home, Angelica Belen found comfort and safety behind the locked door of a bedroom or bathroom. So when her baby sitter fell through last spring, she locked her three young children in a bedroom and went to the new job she needed to support her family.
While she was gone, a fire sparked by faulty wiring in the kitchen killed her 5-year-old daughter, Nayeli Colon, and 4-year-old twin sons, Adrian and Alexis Colon. Their bodies were found huddled under a dresser in her home in the Milwaukee suburb of West Allis.
Belen, 25, was sentenced Friday to 18 years in prison and 18 years of extended supervision for the children's deaths. Judge Jeffrey Wagner said he sympathized with Belen, who had been struggling to raise four children, three of them with special needs. But he also said she had failed in her duty to take care of them. Her fourth child was visiting his father at the time of the fire.
"I understand your terrible, terrible upbringing," Wagner said. "I know you were victimized yourself growing up, and I understand that and I take that into consideration. But there shouldn't be this cycle."
A tearful Belen apologized profusely for leaving the children alone and the hurt that she caused her family. At one point, she spoke directly to her dead children.
"I'm sorry that you'll never grow up. I am sorry that I will never see you grow up, graduate high school and have children of your own," said Belen, who pleaded guilty in July to three counts of felony child neglect.
She was 3 in 1992 when her 17-month-old sister was found beaten and starved in her crib. Belen's mother was sentenced to eight years in prison for child neglect, and her boyfriend was convicted of beating the child. The surviving siblings were placed in foster homes, where court records show Belen was abused.
Prosecutor Mark Williams, who recalled attending Belen's mother's sentencing, said that while her upbringing was "horrific," it was no excuse.
"She certainly started out behind the eight ball in life, but her sisters did well and this defendant had the chance to do well," Williams said.
The children's deaths divided Belen's family, with one sister asking Wagner to sentence her to life in prison while other relatives pleaded for understanding. Belen faced a maximum 15 years in prison and 10 years of extended supervision for each death.
"It is beyond my comprehension how a mother could do this to her children, her own flesh and blood," said Belen's sister, Leah Sillix, who helped identify the children's bodies and still has nightmares.
Another sister, Maria Sosa, and Belen's aunt, Sharon Fredericks, said Belen had done the best she could and needed more help than she received.
"Her intention was to protect the children, your honor, it wasn't to hurt them," Fredericks said. "She would never hurt them."
Williams reviewed multiple child welfare reports that described the children living in filthy conditions with dirty diapers, garbage and feces littering the home. Other reports described exposed wires, and once, the children eating out of a garbage can.
But the prosecutor and others said child welfare workers shared responsibility for the children's deaths. Belen received multiple warnings from the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare for repeatedly leaving her children alone and was eventually charged with child neglect.
Nonetheless, the children were never removed from her care. A Wisconsin Department of Children and Families investigation later determined the Bureau of Milwaukee Child Welfare hadn't handled her case properly and overhauled the bureau's in-home services program. Changes to the child welfare system in the wake of the case include more staff training, increased home visits and longer program stints for families.