The short, troubled life of Sabrina Ray

Sabrina Ray of Perry was unable to walk, talk or eat after her adoptive brother "drop-kicked" her down their basement stairs, according to law enforcement officials.

PERRY, Iowa -- In a family filled with misfortune, Sabrina Ray pulled the shortest straw.

Shy and small, the girl with dimples and dark brown hair was separated from an older half-sister and four brothers before the age of 10.

Her oldest sister, now 27, grew up in group homes. Sabrina’s oldest brother went to live with a grandfather and step-grandmother in Earlham.

Three younger brothers — one just a year younger than Sabrina, the two other babies — ultimately were adopted from foster care, according to Sabrina’s birth father, Joseph Busch of Perry.

But at least they lived.

The husband and wife who took in Sabrina as a foster child in 2011 and adopted her in 2013 face multiple felonies after the malnourished 16-year-old was found unresponsive May 12 at home in Perry, according to Perry police. When officers arrived, Sabrina had died.

Misty Ray, 40, and her husband, Marc Ray, 41, are now charged in her death, with Misty Ray entering a not guilty plea last month.

Sabrina’s death has ignited a flurry of outrage across the state, particularly in Perry, the site of vigils involving hundreds.

RELATED | Police: Brother 'drop-kicked' starved Iowa girl, grandmother helped in torture

The abuse allegations surrounding the homeschooled girl and her siblings come on the heels of similarly alarming abuse allegations involving Natalie Finn, who starved to death in West Des Moines, and Malayia Knapp, who fled an abusive home in Urbandale in late 2015.

RELATED | Teen who starved to death found in diaper on linoleum floor, records show

The cases are raising questions about whether Iowa is doing enough to monitor the roughly 4,260 children in foster care in Iowa and the people paid to take care of them.

Sabrina's biological family, the Busches, say they want change as well.

Sabrina had a rough childhood, they acknowledge. But they say she was a good girl — loving, responsible, not prone to acting out — and she certainly didn't deserve to die.

“There’s got to be something good that comes out of this,” Joe Busch said.

Photos: Vigil for Sabrina Ray in Perry (story continues below photos)

'I didn't want DHS in my life'

About 57 percent of children in foster care in Iowa are reunified with their parents or caretakers, but others are considered to be at too great a risk to go home.

Joseph Busch said he never wanted to give up Sabrina when she was 10, but he felt he had no choice after he was accused of abuse in 2011.

Six years before, Joe and his wife, Karena, pleaded guilty to child endangerment in a case involving Sabrina. Busch said he had a five-year no-contact order related to the case.

If he had one consoling thought about losing Sabrina, he said, it was that Department of Human Services workers thought Marc and Misty Ray would offer her a good home.

“I didn’t want DHS in my life anymore,” said Busch, who works at a Perry foundry about a 20-minute walk from where his daughter died. “I loved her dearly. But my back was against the wall.”

Maybe about a month before Sabrina died, Busch said Karena saw the teen at the Kum & Go where Karena works in Perry.

“She looked like hell,” he said. “My wife wanted to do something, but they would have thought she was a disgruntled stepmother."

Tangled with child protection

You have to go back 27 years to when Joe and Karena Busch were teenagers to understand their long history with child-protective workers.

The young couple split not long after their daughter Jessica was born. Joe said he developed a problem with hard liquor and methamphetamine.

After Karena crashed a vehicle while under the influence, child-protective workers got involved, he said.

In 1992, Karena was convicted of public intoxication and open container, court records show. When drug possession and domestic assault charges were filed against Joe Busch in 1997 and 1998, they ruined his chances for custody.

Joe Busch left the state for several years, but eventually returned and met Vicki Hollander. Sabrina was the second of their five kids, born in their Winterset home on a couch in 2001.

Busch said he and Vicki both have learning disabilities, and their oldest three children did, too. But he said he successfully quit drugs after completing treatment.

Busch and Hollander separated in 2004, and for a time Busch lived with his mother and all his children in a two-bedroom apartment in Des Moines.

“Being a single father, I was trying to do the best I could — get my life back,” he said.

Splitting up the family

Around that time, Sabrina’s 8-month-old brother was put up for adoption, Busch said.

“Sabrina took it the hardest. She loved him,” he said. ‘But I wanted him to have a great home.”

A baby boy was placed in foster care shortly after Hollander gave birth, he said.

Hollander eventually moved in with a registered sex offender, which Joe Busch reported to authorities.

The result was a founded child-abuse investigation against Hollander in 2007, child-abuse reports show.

Hollander had another founded report for denial of critical care and failure to provide proper supervision in 2008. Busch said he had left his second-oldest son with Hollander for a week, and she placed the boy in foster care.

During this time, Busch said, his oldest son went to live with Busch's parents in Earlham. A second son, who needed more than his grandparents could give, was placed in foster care and eventually adopted, Busch said.

Eventually, Busch was reunited with Karena. From 2009-11, Sabrina was the only child in the house, he said.

The girl’s aunt, Nicole Bond, said grandparents Eugene and Jane Busch continued to make reports to Human Services about Joe and Karena because they were concerned about her supervision and wanted custody of the girl themselves.

But both grandparents said the girl was always fed while in Joe and Karena's care, and their pictures at the time reflect that.

Human Services gets involved

In 2009, a Human Services worker made an unannounced visit to the Busches’ home and asked to speak with Sabrina. Joe and Karena admitted putting tape on the girl’s door to see if she was sneaking out of her room in the middle of the night, according to a child-protective report.

After talking to Sabrina, the worker said she saw no evidence of abuse or inadequate food in the house. An initial child abuse report came back unfounded.

Then, in April 2011, someone reported to a child-protection worker that Sabrina had unexplained redness around her mouth. When questioned, Sabrina said her parents put duct tape on her mouth to keep her from licking her lips, according to an incident report from the Perry Police Department.

An affidavit submitted to Dallas County District Court alleged that her parents would leave the tape on after dinner until she woke in the morning. It also stated that Sabrina’s bedroom windows were nailed shut and the curtains were stapled so she could not look out.

Joe Busch contends he doesn’t know why his daughter said what she did, but he insists she wasn’t telling the truth.

He said the marks were caused by Sabrina licking her lips all the time. He and his sister said no one ever took Sabrina took a doctor.

“Probably she was embarrassed,” he said. “She was telling them what they wanted to hear. Probably any child would do the same.”

The same day, Sabrina moved in with Marc and Misty Ray. Facing possible prison time, Joe and Karena took plea agreements and were convicted of child endangerment.

Hollander, Sabrina’s birth mother, later died of cancer, they said.

Another girl, another near-miss

The Rays now face their own charges of child abuse, including two counts of child endangerment causing serious injury, one count of neglect or abandonment of a dependent person and one count of child endangerment resulting in death.

The couple reportedly was on a trip to Disney World with one of their sons when Sabrina died, authorities have said.

Two other adopted daughters in the home were hospitalized and another son was removed after authorities responded to their Perry house and daycare on May 12.

The Rays also face child endangerment and abandonment charges related to the two other girls removed from the home.

One of the girls hospitalized was 4 years old when she was placed with the Rays in 2009.

The girl's birth mother, Kari Easter, 37, said she had to give the girl up after years of drug addiction and domestic abuse. The girl was one of three daughters removed from Easter’s care.

Easter said the Rays told her they wanted to adopt her daughter, and she felt she could trust them.

In 2011, they were granted full custodial rights of the girl.

"(She) just made it feel so right,” Easter said. “We always gave each other hugs.”

Both the Busches and Easter said they initially were allowed to contact the children, but that eventually stopped.

Easter said she would love to see her daughter and is relieved to know she survived.

“I am so sad for Sabrina,” she said.

UPDATE: Police: Brother 'drop-kicked' starved Iowa girl, grandmother helped in torture

The Register's Linh Ta contributed to this report.

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