California, Texas agencies all failed to rescue Lilly Manning

Lilly Manning, now 19, cuddles her dog, Baby, outside a south Sacramento home that she shares with a roommate.
Lilly Manning, now 19, cuddles her dog, Baby, outside a south Sacramento home that she shares with a roommate.

Lilly Manning was 15 when she escaped from a cramped closet in south Sacramento, after being stabbed and beaten and shoved into the darkness.

This time, she said, she knew she would have to save herself.

Government documents confirm she was right.

Four different agencies visited the family at least 11 times on reports of suspected abuse or neglect in a five-year period but did not move to protect her or her siblings, according to confidential records obtained by The Bee.

"They came, they looked, they left," said Lilly, now 19, reflecting on the parade of visitors from law enforcement, Child Protective Services and the schools, some of whom she had secretly called.

"We just gave up."

Today, Lilly Manning lives with more than 100 scars etching her 5-foot-3 body, physical reminders of the hammer attacks, beatings, burns and strikes to the head with a 2-by-4 and a padlock swinging from a cord.

Earlier this month, her adoptive mother and great-aunt, Lillian Manning-Horvath, was sentenced to up to six years in a mental health facility, followed by consecutive life terms in state prison. The woman's husband, Joseph Horvath, was convicted by a jury in 2009 and also sentenced to multiple life terms.

Documents and interviews with family members also reveal how a domineering matriarch terrified people who witnessed and endured years of her verbal tirades and physical abuse.

Young Lilly, whom the woman named after herself, was singled out for the most extreme and ruthless treatment, as reported in The Bee earlier this month. Yet even family members were loath to say anything, according to government documents.

By the time Lilly escaped from the 20-by-26-inch closet in October 2007, her body was so ravaged by torture and abuse that a seasoned sheriff's detective described it with a single word:


Clues to that horror, and how they were missed by authorities, are sprinkled throughout the files of multiple agencies interacting with the troubled family.

The records reveal:

Sacramento County CPS fielded seven emergency referrals regarding the family between 2002 and 2006. The agency determined all the allegations to be "unfounded" or "inconclusive" – until Lilly's escape, when doctors detailed the head-to-toe physical scars and injuries.

A Sacramento police officer observed scars on Lilly as far back as 2003, when she was 11, but CPS did not follow up on the officer's referral. The county Sheriff's Department responded to two 911 calls alleging abuse but – met with denials and discrepancies – closed the cases.

A teacher at Hiram Johnson High School, noting scratches on Lilly's face and arms, referred her to the school nurse in November 2006. The nurse and another school worker scheduled a home visit and were told by Manning-Horvath that her daughter, then 14, was scratched by the dog. Describing the home as "immaculate," the school's visitors did not file a formal report.

A CPS worker didn't believe the allegation of a "locked closet" because all the home's closets had sliding double doors except one, which had no lock. Detectives would later find that Lilly's dungeon was secured with a pole under the doorknob or a brace across the door.

The one agency that responded effectively to the distress signals was Diogenes Youth Services, a 24-hour crisis center for homeless and runaway teens. After Lilly's escape on Oct. 31, 2007, she said, she hid in a backyard shed but called CPS from a nearby pay phone five days later.

Lilly said a CPS worker told her "there's nothing we can do" and gave her the Diogenes number. A volunteer at Diogenes picked her up near Fruitridge Road and Stockton Boulevard and took the girl to a safe house.

The secrets came tumbling out.

"We did exactly what we were supposed to do, which pleased me to the highest," said Diogenes executive director Mike Martin.

"We've handled a lot of difficult situations, but by far, this girl was in the worst shape we've ever seen."

Authorities swept in, and the rest of the children were taken into protective custody in the early morning hours of Nov. 6, 2007.

The children would never go home again.

Help that didn't come

Lilly says she does not remember much about those chaotic first days and has "lots of blank spots" about her childhood. She knows that she and her four siblings were removed from their biological mother in the early 1990s and placed with their great-aunt Lillian, who later adopted them. In 2002, their adoptive mom married Horvath, a felon 18 years her junior.

Lilly wants to know more. She recently sought and received nearly 700 pages of documents from the Sacramento Juvenile Dependency Court, which detail the many missteps among government agencies. She shared those records with The Bee.

CPS also is preparing to give her her file.

"A lot of people knew about it (the abuse) – cops, CPS, principals, teachers – but they didn't do anything," Lilly told The Bee. "They didn't."

Lilly's recollections, paired with narratives from various agencies, show how close officials came – yet couldn't uncover the truth.

In December 2006, for instance, the Sheriff's Department responded to a 911 call at the family's home on Dewey Boulevard, according to sheriff's records. Home alone and shut in the closet, Lilly broke out and called 911, using the name of her older sister, Natasha. She reported that her mother was locking her 14-year-old sister in a closet and beating the kids with a hammer.

Before deputies arrived, several family members returned to the south Sacramento home. Lillian Manning-Horvath "made her hide from the deputies behind a dresser," according to sheriff's records. The real Natasha Manning denied making the call.

"The officers cleared the call after seeing nothing wrong," the document says. Lilly told The Bee she remembers hiding under the bed that day.

Sacramento police earlier had followed up on a mysterious 911 hang-up on June 27, 2003, which led them to Manning-Horvath's previous home on Casa Linda Court.

While investigating the child abuse report, the police officer noted that Lilly, then 11, had "scars on her back from old injuries," a CPS report states. Both Lilly and her adoptive mother told the officer that the incident occurred several years ago while the girl was "still in the care of her (biological) mother" and living in Texas.

"(Lilly) has since been permanently removed from her bio-mother's care," the CPS report stated, recounting the officer's findings.

Because the girl was not in imminent danger and had no fresh injuries, the officer referred the matter to CPS, recommending that the agency "make routine follow-up to this residence," said police spokesman Sgt. Norm Leong.

CPS did not open an investigation because "law enforcement has addressed the issue," according to a CPS document.

However, CPS' own records undermine the story about the injuries because they show that Lilly had not been in her biological mother's care for about 10 years. In fact, Lillian Horvath-Manning took the children for several years to live in Texas, where documents show the family had at least two more CPS cases.

Warnings missed

Voices noticeably absent from the reams of official paperwork: the neighbors. Despite the escalating violence, only one neighbor ever raised a flag about the household, the documents reveal.

In August 2002, a neighbor in North Highlands called CPS, saying that the family had moved out of their home on Juneau Way and left behind a "hideous bug infestation," the documents state. The caller told a CPS emergency worker that the "cockroaches were so bad that they clogged the gasket of the refrigerator." CPS declined to investigate.

The neighbor's warning was substantiated five years later at a different address, when sheriff's detectives rushed to the family's new address on Dewey Boulevard to rescue Lilly's siblings.

Inside – besides the implements of torture – they found the home crawling with cockroaches, according to a CPS court report. Neighbors along the short street in south Sacramento contributed nothing to the investigation, said Detective Brian Shortz of the sheriff's child abuse unit.

"Their home was a compound," said Shortz, describing the spiked iron gate that stretches out along the front of the small stucco home.

"It's not the kind of street that talks."

Schools, too, had their eye on the home, yet their inquiries faded away. Over the years, CPS social workers investigating abuse allegations interviewed all five of the Manning children at four different schools in two districts.

Concerns escalated in 2006. A teacher at Hiram Johnson High School noted Lilly's many visible scratches. Based on that, a school nurse and a Head Start worker scheduled an appointment to visit the home.

Greeted by Horvath-Manning and a "small girl child" (not Lilly), the school workers found the home to be "immaculate" with a "very nice" kitchen, according to a sheriff's report written by Shortz, who interviewed the women a year later.

"Horvath blamed (Lilly's) scratches on the pet Chihuahua," the report stated. "Horvath said that (Lilly) had a habit of holding the dog up and letting it scratch her arms and face."

The adoptive mother let the dogs in, and the school workers "saw that they were active and jumpy," according to the sheriff's report.

The school nurse told Shortz she made no formal report of the home visit but "had a detailed recollection." Gabe Ross, spokesman for the Sacramento City Unified School District, said in an email that the school "did whatever we could to assist in supporting Lilly" but didn't have details.

Numerous government reports also show that Lilly and her siblings frequently asserted they were fine and no one was being hurt.

In interviews with police, social workers and school personnel, Lilly, her two older sisters and two brothers described how they wanted to stay together and feared being split up in foster care – which ultimately happened. They said they loved their adoptive mother and didn't want to get her in trouble.

Even now, Lilly does not express bitterness and refers to Manning-Horvath as "the only mom I really knew."

Ann Edwards, director of Sacramento County's Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees CPS, said she could not legally comment on Lilly's case for confidentiality reasons. However, she agreed to talk in general terms about issues raised by the case.

"It's not uncommon for siblings to want to remain together," said Edwards. "And it's not uncommon for children to be afraid of the unknown.

"It's quite remarkable that even children who are horribly abused typically still love their parents, or the people who are abusing them."

Lilly says today that their adoptive mom often manipulated the kids into keeping quiet or lying, promising she would stop the abuse.

Twyla Wilkins, 36, Lilly's second cousin who now lives in Florida, said one adult family member observed Manning-Horvath strike Lilly so hard that a tooth flew out.

"I asked (the witness) why she didn't call police," Wilkins said. "She told me that Lillian would make her life a living hell. Everyone knew what (Manning-Horvath) was capable of."

Manning-Horvath's own attorney said he was appalled that his client was allowed to adopt the children in the first place. Ken Rosenfeld said his client had a "30-year history of acute mental illness."

Rosenfeld described his client as having a "laundry list" of mental illnesses, including auditory and visual hallucinations, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

"It's as if they placed these children in a tiger cage at the zoo," Rosenfeld said. "What did they expect would happen?"

Deputy District Attorney Thienvu Ho, however, said he is convinced that Manning-Horvath, now 72, was faking her mental impairments.

At Horvath's trial in 2009, Ho found one eyewitness willing to come forward: A 53-year-old Texas woman who had visited the family in August 2007 while dating Manning-Horvath's brother.

Brenda White testified that early one Saturday morning she was on the patio and heard banging noises in the mobile home behind the house and saw it shaking. When she ducked inside to ask Manning-Horvath about it, the woman replied: "Joe is out there whipping that bitch's ass," according to court documents.

White said she later saw Horvath emerge from behind the mobile home holding a two-by-four, the records state. White said the adoptive mother later took her inside the mobile home, where she saw a scared, frail girl, bloody, with patches of hair pulled out.

Yet even White admitted under oath she did not call police or CPS or the district attorney until after the arrests.

"We'll always wonder why she didn't come forward sooner, but at the end of the day, she did," said Ho, who prosecuted the case from the beginning. "These were scary people."

Lilly is leaving Sacramento this week to move to New York state to live with her 22-year-old sister, Natasha, who is in the Army. She plans to help care for Natasha's 2-year-old daughter, and possibly enroll in online classes.

She said she still wants an explanation for how she came to get her 100 scars.

Last week, as a parting gift to herself, Lilly had a Sacramento tattoo shop finish the poem "Invictus" on her back.

Prosecutor Ho had framed the poem by William Ernest Henley and had given it to Lilly. It begins:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

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