The victim in one of the Big Island’s most extreme child abuse cases posted a YouTube video Monday and spoke of her abuse at the hands of her caregiver’s family in 2005.
Alexis Lehman-Cabanting, now in her mid-20s and living on Oahu, hashtagged her 24-minute selfie video #RaiseAbuseAwareness. She said she posted the video because others are experiencing torture similar to what she went through when she was only 9, and she wants to be an advocate for the abused.
“My hopes and prayers are to keep people aware of all of these abuses,” Lehman-Cabanting said. “I’m just trying to help others in need.” Lehman-Cabanting’s injuries include permanent facial disfigurement, severe vision loss and deafness. Her hearing was partially restored with a cochlear implant.
Hyacinth Poouahi, now 52, was originally charged with attempted second-degree murder for the torture of the child. In a deal with prosecutors, that charge was dropped, and she pleaded guilty to first-degree assault, first-degree terroristic threatening, unlawful imprisonment and endangering the welfare of a minor. Poouahi was sentenced in 2009 to 20 years in prison.
Rick Damerville, a retired Hawaii County deputy prosecutor who prosecuted Poouahi, said Lehman-Cabanting’s treating physician at Kapiolani Medical Center for Women and Children in Honolulu told him “they had never seen such grievous injuries on a child who survived.” “And the responding paramedic, when he responded to the scene, he basically lost his lunch — because the smell of dying flesh was just overwhelming,” Damerville added.
According to Damerville, Lehman-Cabanting’s mother, who was just 16 when her daughter was born, said she was having trouble keeping the bright, spirited girl reined in, so she took the child to live with Poouahi and her family in Puna’s Ainaloa Estates subdivision. “One day after I moved in with her and her family, I was already getting lectured and tortured,” Lehman-Cabanting said. She added that after transferring from Keaau Elementary School to Keonepoko Elementary, she began to show up at school with “bruises and cuts … things that will include blood.”
“The principal and the counselors and the teachers would ask me why am I coming to school with bruises and cuts,” she said. “Then, when they called Hyacinth … things got worse. Because she stopped me from going to school. She stopped me from leaving the house. She stopped me from being social.” Poouahi removed the girl from school, ostensibly to be home-schooled, and the torture intensified, according to Lehman-Cabanting.
“I remember everything,” Lehman-Cabanting said. “I remember eating worms. I remember having to eat dog food. I remember when I had to eat cockroaches and dog doo-doo. “… Every time I would talk back and stuff like that, she would put a clothespin on my tongue and make me do push-ups on my knuckles. And when I started getting blisters and cuts on my knuckles, I would end up having to go slower. And if I ever stopped without her approval, I would get burned with cigarettes, lighters and anything that includes fire.”
When Lehman-Cabanting was found by paramedics on Feb. 7, 2005, she had a decomposing and maggot-infested cut, according to court documents. In addition, she suffered from malnutrition and severe dehydration, had broken bones in her left hand and left foot, and had a heart attack, leaving her comatose in the hospital after being revived.
According to Lehman-Cabanting, she “flat-lined” at least four times while hospitalized. Lehman-Cabanting said a son and daughter of Poouahi also took part in her torture. The son, who was 13 when the abuse occurred, was convicted as a juvenile. Following a lawsuit, the state paid a seven-figure settlement to Lehman-Cabanting because of her injuries and the inappropriate response by school officials.
“She was reporting (the abuse) to the school officials,” Damerville said. “And rather than report it to (Child Protective Services), they called the guardian-defendant. And the guardian-defendant pulled her out of school and made all kind of excuses as to why she wasn’t going to school, and that’s why she suffered those injuries.
“… Other children were visiting the home while this was happening, going to their parents and telling their parents what was happening. And it was so bizarre that the parents didn’t believe their kids.”
Damerville compared Lehman-Cabanting’s abuse to two fatal child abuse cases: Shaelynn Lehano-Stone, a 9-year-old developmentally disabled girl starved to death by her parents, who pleaded no contest to manslaughter — and allegedly by her maternal grandmother, who still facing a murder charge; and “Peter Boy” Kema, a 6-year-old whose parents both pleaded guilty to manslaughter.
“Those commonalities and the things we should be looking out for are, these parents, these defendants, all pulled the child out of the school and said they were homeschooling them when they had no business homeschooling anybody. And then, when the defendants submit their paperwork, nobody checks on them. No one. “And the other commonality … is all of these children were starved. Purposely starved.”
Damerville noted former County Prosecutor Mitch Roth, who’s now mayor, drafted legislation a few years ago to require state oversight of home-schooled children, but pushback by the home-school lobby ensured the bill was essentially dead-on-arrival at the Legislature. Damerville added legislation is still needed to reduce the likelihood of another Peter Boy, Shaelynn or Alexis in the future. He said without such a law, “It’s going to happen again.”
“(Lehman-Cabanting) was an extremely bright individual before she suffered those injuries,” Damerville said. “It’s devastating that any child has to go through this, and it makes it even worse when it’s somebody who was so bright and people were not even listening to her.”