May 24, 2002 -- They are five brothers and their sister who stuck together in the face of what is described as almost perverse cruelty, without an adult in sight to save them.
"I used to think in my mind, 'I wish I was dead so I didn't have to be in this stupid place,'" says Joey, now 14.
He describes life in the home of Jacqueline Lynch, who collected $150,000 as a foster mother, even though one of her own children had previously been taken away from her by the state of Florida because of allegations of physical and sexual abuse in her home.
"They hit us with their hands," says Jordan, 14. "Or with a belt," adds Suzanna.
Now safe and adopted into a loving home, the six kids — 15-year-old Jesse, twin brothers Jordan and Joey, freckle-faced Toby and another set of twins, Suzanna and Robbie — are for the first time telling their story. Their words are a damning indictment of the state officials who took them away from their biological mother, an alcoholic, and left them unchecked for months at a time in the hands of strangers.
"These children were tortured. These children were neglected. These children were abused," says Howard Talenfeld, a family-rights attorney. "What happened to these children was inhumane."
‘No Teddy Bears’
Talenfeld says officials of Florida's Department of Children and Families simply ignored Lynch's background when placing the children in her care.
"Time after time the bells went off that this was a dangerous home," he says. "One of her children was taken and two were under protective supervision."
At one point, Talenfeld says, Lynch actually fled the state's jurisdiction in order to avoid the department. "There had been a statewide alert put out," he says; and yet, "when she came back, they licensed her and her husband as foster parents."
For almost two years, no state caseworker ever came to inspect the Lynch home — about a 20-minute drive from the state offices — even though there are supposed to be visits once a month.
What a caseworker would have found by simply walking in the house was the small, barren room where the six children say they spent most of their time locked up.
"Most of the time we slept on the floor," says Toby. "You'd wake up in the middle of the night shivering. It was really cold."
For Suzanna, it was not the climate that was most appalling: "Cockroaches came out of the ground of the wall and out of the vents, and it scared me a lot."
According to Talenfeld, the kids were fed out of one bowl, while they sat on their knees. "Sometimes they were forced to eat their own vomit," he says.
And the children say that once were locked in, they had no access to a bathroom.
"We'd have to wait until the morning," says Jordan — unless they couldn't wait. "Then, you'd just go."
Almost every day after school this was their world, like a jail cell with no furniture, no place to do homework, nothing to play with.
"No teddy bears at all," says Suzanna.
Police Respond After Five Years
Even after the state received reports from a school and a court-appointed guardian about possible abuse, the caseworkers continued to file reports with "nothing but high praise" for the Lynches, saying they were "excellent foster parents" who provided "a secure, loving home."
If they had asked the children, they might have heard a different story, tales of frequent, painful beatings.
"When they hit us, they said, 'It's your fault because you're retarded,'" says Jordan.
In addition to the beatings, the children describe sadistic punishment. Toby says he was once forced to eat a jar of hot peppers.
"My mouth was watering a lot and my mouth was burning up. It was hot and like a few days later I started getting little blisters in my mouth," he says.
Even worse, several of the children describe being taped into large plastic crates by the Lynch's teenage son, and then dumped into the swimming pool.
"It was scary because you couldn't get out," says Jordan, "trying to hold your breath in, but you can't."
The other children watched helplessly.
"I just wanted to stop it, but I couldn't," says Jesse.
Still, Lynch remained in the good graces of the state of Florida, which did not remove the children even after her teenage son, who was living at home, was charged with sex crimes against a minor.
Not only were Lynch and her husband, Frank, allowed not only to remain foster parents, but they were approved for permanent adoption of the six children. This allowed them to continue collecting thousands of dollars from the state.
"You know what they say, if it doesn't kill you it makes you stronger," says Jesse, who kept the family going, comforting the little ones, and keeping the others in line so they wouldn't anger the Lynches.
Finally, more than five years after they were placed in the Lynch home, someone called a child abuse hotline and police responded.
A $5-Million Out-of-Court Settlement
The emotionally battered and malnourished children were discovered.
Susanna, who was 4 years old, weighed only 19 pounds, says Kathy Rodrigues, her new adoptive mother. "She came in a size 2T dress that swallowed her up," she says.
Though police recognized the inhumane and dangerous conditions in the household, the law did little to Lynch.
She now runs a restaurant in Alabama, where she and her husband moved after prosecutors permitted her to plead no contest to just one misdemeanor count of child neglect. She was put on one-year probation and ordered to pay court costs of $140.
The Lynches told 20/20 they had "nothing to say" about the six children that were once theirs.
As for the state of Florida, it agreed last month to an out-of-court settlement of $5 million to be paid into a trust fund for the children.
In a statement to ABCNEWS, Kathleen Kearney, the secretary of Florida's Department of Children and Families, says she "directed the legal staff to settle the lawsuit brought on behalf of the children because I concurred that they had been subjected to harm while in the custody of the department in the early 1990s. This was a tragic case that occurred prior to my tenure, and I feel that the recent settlement is fair considering what these children went through."
While that's true, Talenfeld says, it did not occur until after the case. In fact, he says the case was "vigorously litigated by the department under the leadership of Secretary Kearney for nearly three years before any discussion of a settlement began, with the department spending in excess of $1 million in attorney's fees and costs to fight our case."
Legal counsel for the DCF, he says, "on behalf of Kearney, not only challenged the material facts of the case, but even filed a counter-claim against the children's representative."
Not a single one of the employees who failed the children for so long has been disciplined or dismissed. At least three of them are still handling foster children.
Now Kathy and Rod Rodriguez have adopted the six children, whom they say have shown incredible strength to overcome what happened.
There's plenty of food, love — and even teddy bears.
"When I was in foster care," says Toby, "I wanted a family that I can have fun with. And I got that family that I wanted."