Sebrina Martin lost custody of six children for use of excessive corporal punishment

Irina Baranova

The Alabama Democratic Party certified Sebrina Martin as its nominee last Tuesday for one of three family court judge positions in Montgomery’s 15th judicial circuit following her primary win over Fernando Morgan. With no Republican challenger, Martin stands to be elected to the position following the general election in November.

But according to a court document obtained by APR, Martin herself lost custody of six former children due to excessive corporal punishment in her Montgomery home in July 2013.

The court order, issued by Judge Robert A. Tomatta of the Vanderburgh Superior Court in Vanderburgh County, Indiana, found that the children’s “perception of the environment within the mother’s home was deeply concerning.”

Numerous efforts to reach Martin seeking comment for this story were unanswered.

According to the order, at least one child, Jonathan, suffered bruising related to corporal punishment by Martin’s then-boyfriend and now-husband Jesse Heifner, who also works alongside Martin as an attorney at her firm, Montgomery Divorce Law.

Three of Martin’s children, all minors at the time, spoke with the judge in chambers, and “although the Court does not itemize the entirety of the testimony, there is significant evidence of a substantial and continuing change in circumstance.” Much of the evidence in the case, provided by Indiana’s Department of Human Services, is sealed. The court further found that the excessive physical discipline of Jonathan is “evidence of a pattern of domestic violence.”

Of the six children referenced in the document, all but one were adopted by Martin and her then-husband, Michael Martin. Jasmine is the lone biological child of Michael and Sebrina.

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After reviewing the court order, APR reached out to Jasmine, Sydney and Michael Martin to talk about their experiences.

Jasmine, now 21, said seeing her mother succeeding in an election as a family judge makes her feel sick.

“It honestly makes me sick to think about how she can put on this mask each day and tell people that she loves kids and she’s a child advocate,” Jasmine said.

The document describes Jasmine and Sydney, Sebrina Martin’s oldest daughters, as being particularly adamant about leaving their mother and living with their father.

“The Court has heard hundreds of custody cases and Jasmine and Sydney were some of the most adamant about moving to live with their father,” the order states. “In fact, Sydney wanted the opportunity to talk with the court and wanted an immediate decision.”

Sydney told APR Wednesday that she felt like a mom to her five younger siblings and felt responsible to get her siblings out of the home.

“We weren’t blood, but we came together,” Sydney said. “When it is not just blood, it’s real true love. When you see someone you love in the other room screaming because they’re getting beat, it can give you nightmares. It makes you want to be an advocate for people in these situations.”

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The Home Life Of Sebrina Martin

Although the court did not record the testimony of the minor children in the court order, Jasmine and Sydney recounted their living situation that led to the custody change, some of which was told to the judge in the sealed testimony.

Jasmine said the two years prior to the court order, after Sebrina Martin had moved from Indiana to Montgomery to pursue a law degree at Faulkner’s Jones School of Law, were when the excessive punishments got out of control.

“Things were going downhill before, but they were really not good in Alabama,” Jasmine said.

Sebrina Martin had divorced Michael Martin and was granted primary custody of the six children, while sharing joint legal custody with their father. His parenting time was limited to the long breaks during the academic year and split custody in the summer.

Jasmine said that corporal punishment was a daily occurrence in the household, from her mother, Heifner and a nanny, Brenda Harvey, who is also named in the court order.

“Somebody was getting it daily,” Jasmine said. “There was no escape and our dad was like 13 hours away; when we finally did get to go to dad’s house, it was like heaven.”

Sydney told APR that the whippings could come for any number of reasons, or no reason at all.

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“(Sebrina) started doing it for punishment, but it could be ‘If I’m pissed off and you’re the person who is here, you’re going to get it today.’ There didn’t have to be a reason,” Sydney said. “They could just be in a bad mood.”

According to Sydney, it went beyond just the whippings, she said the children were underfed and neglected in their time in the home.

“Sometimes we would have a loaf of bread for dinner,” Sydney recalled. “They didn’t feed us or take care of us. The money she got (from the state to aid in the care of the adopted children) went to what she needed for school. We were just there to be there. We were income for her, basically. Income she used for herself. There was never ever enough food for all of us kids continuously. She never did anything to make the situation better.”

Sydney said the only time Sebrina Martin would buy them things is right before and after a visit with their father, which she perceived as an attempt to manipulate the children while fighting out custody with Michael Martin.

Jasmine singled out one particular memory of her mother punishing her youngest sibling, who would have been between 5 and 6 years old at the time of the incident. Because this child is still a minor, she will be referred to as “Sarah” for the purposes of this article.

“(Sebrina) sat on top of Sarah’s head with a pillow trying to get her to stop crying,” Jasmine said. “Her outrageous solution was to sit on top of her until she stopped screaming with a pillow over Sarah’s face.”

Sydney also described ice-cold showers as a continuous form of punishment for Sarah.

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“Sarah would be asleep, she was around 5 years old at the time, and if she didn’t do something she was supposed to do, they pulled here out of bed and threw her in a cold ass shower,” Sydney said. “Not one time or two times— this was Sarah’s form of punishment. They knew she hated it.”

Michael Martin told APR he has struggled for years since gaining custody to get Sarah in the shower and only found out why about a year ago, when Sarah told a counselor about her experiences with the punishment.

Sarah is one of the two Martin children born addicted to meth, causing a number of special needs. Her biological brother, who will be referred to as “Tommy,” was so addicted to meth at birth that doctors did not expect him to live past the age of 1, and if he did, said he would probably never walk or run, but Tommy defied these odds and even runs track now and loves basketball.

Enter Jesse Heifner

“Jesse absolutely terrified me,” Jasmine said. “I did not want to be in the room with him. His presence terrified me.”

Sydney said Sebrina Martin changed when Heifner entered the picture.

“Sebrina completely changed who she was,” Sydney said. “He showed her ‘the way they do it in the South,’ how they discipline. Belts, kitchen utensils, whatever they could grab. They wouldn’t use their hands, they always had to have something.

Jasmine said Heifner especially hated Jon (Jonathan); the court found Heifner had committed the excessive punishment leading to Jon’s bruising.

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The court order prohibits Heifner from being in the presence of the children unless accompanied by Sebrina Martin, from disciplining them in any way and from being present when the children are being exchanged from Michael Martin to Sebrina Martin.

This last point has been moot since the court order, as the family said that is the last time the children have seen her and have barely heard from her.

Sebrina Martin gave testimony during the hearing that conflicted with that of the children and even Heifner. She told the court that Heifner had only punished one of the children once or twice, at her direction. Heifner himself testified that he had disciplined three or four of the children a number of times.

On one occasion, Jasmine took the extra step of taking an audio recording of Jesse beating Jonathan, which she turned over to her father.

Michael Martin said the audio recording was a key piece of evidence.

“It was not until Jasmine got that recording that the judge said ‘We’ve got to do something now,’” Michael Martin told APR. “She was in sixth grade I think. It was extremely brave.”

Michael recalled the audio being played while Heifner was on the stand, and was asked whether he did this. Michael said Heifner responded “Yes.” Michael said he remembers Heifner then remarking “How do you think Alabama builds championship football teams?”

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The Martin girls also said Heifner liked to pick on Tommy.

Tommy had an eating disorder that caused him to eat almost obsessively, the girls said.

“Tommy was skin and bones when we got him, but he ate a lot; whenever there was food he was eating and eating and eating,” Sydney said. “Jesse loved to pick on Tommy for it.”

Jasmine said Heifner would hide honeybuns and other treats outside in the middle of the night and have Tommy seek them out while Heifner laughed at him and called him “Fattie.”

“He would sit there and laugh at him and think it was a joke,” Sydney said. “Tommy had the mindset of a 4-year-old treating and (Heifner) was treating him like not even a human. That’s what you do with a dog.”

The Nanny

Jasmine said she was Sebrina Martin’s favorite as the biological child, as well as being the “mature, responsible one” and that her mother did not physically discipline her as much as the other kids. But she said the nanny, Harvey, filled that role, describing an environment in which each of the three adults compensated in delivering physical discipline where the other two fell short.

According to Jasmine, Sebrina Martin viewed Harvey as a motherly figure that she would run to in her own childhood, making Harvey out to be a grandmotherly figure in the household.

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However, Jasmine said the children didn’t see her that way.

“She was very, very gross,” Jasmine said. “I know that’s not illegal but… She really liked to send us out to pick switches from those willow trees, whatever those trees are that grow in the South. She got real creative with what she was using to hit us with. To us, she was really like a stranger that just showed up one day.”

A Father Fights For His Children

While these incidents were occurring in Sebrina Martin’s Montgomery home, Michael Martin could only sit helplessly in Indiana, bound by the prior custody order to only see his children on those rare three-day weekends and school breaks.

When he did pick them up, he had to make the long drive from Indiana to Decatur.

But every time he got the children, he was working to document what he considers abuse.

“Clearly it was child abuse,” Michael Martin said. “They clearly had markings on their bodies, on their backs or their legs or arms. Most states have laws that parents are allowed to spank children, but you cross the line when you have left evidence that you’ve done that. When the kids still have a mark from discipline three days ago, it clearly means it was excessive at the time. 

“There was never an instance of a fresh wound. This was not one of those red handprints that goes away after an hour. That was never the case, these were bruises and wounds. One of the doctors’ noted that you could clearly see a belt had come across the kid’s back and see the edge of the band marks. That was days later after an eight-hour hour trip to the emergency room.”

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So Michael Martin began taking his children to the Emergency Room to video and document their injuries.

But he said he could not take them to the local emergency room due to the custody situation, so he instead had to immediately drive them the eight hours back to Indiana and admit them to the ER there, to show that the harm to the children was urgent and that he had picked them up in that condition.

Michael was facing an uphill legal battle, he told APR, with the relevant jurisdictions spanning five different counties in three states.

“It was horrible,” he said. “Nobody wanted to mess with this. Each person was like ‘That’s this county’s problem. I had to document all this stuff and go to these great lengths.”

As he understands it,  Sebrina Martin only escaped criminal charges due to being in another state.

“Since it happened in another state, nobody had jurisdiction,” Michael said. “Indiana could not press child abuse charges in Alabama, and since she wasn’t an Indiana resident, she couldn’t be charged here in Indiana.”

He also recalled the judge telling Sebrina, “Ma’am, had this happened in Indiana, all of y’all would be in jail.”

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APR has not yet obtained the transcripts of the two-day trial.

At the time of the 2013 court order, Sebrina Martin was still a student at Jones School of Law and the court therefore ordered no child support from her at the time, while terminating the child support payments from Michael Martin. The court ordered that her child support obligation be “immediately recalculated upon employment” but Michael Martin said he has never received a dime of child support from his ex-wife.

“Not a dime,” Michael said. He explained that he decided not to pursue the matter. “I wasn’t going to get it anyway. I hadn’t talked to her or seen her. It’s one of those things, do you really want to mess with it or not?”

The court also noted that Sebrina Martin was receiving subsidies and other benefits for the minor children and ordered her to “immediately transfer all such funds should she continue to receive them.” Michael confirmed he does get those benefits now.

Erasing The Past

Michael and the girls told APR that the trial was the last time they ever saw Sebrina, at least in person. Since 2013, Sebrina Martin attained her juris doctorate degree and began practicing as a family attorney in Montgomery. 

“After law school I opened my firm with the intentions of serving families,” Sebrina Martin states on her campaign page. “My practice of law has centered on adoptions, custody, juvenile issues, and yes, divorce. I believe that divorce does not have to be messy, every family has a unique story and I understand that. I am passionate about fair and timely access to the justice system. With my combined experience as a parent, foster parent, and attorney I have and will continue to advocate for families.”

On her Montgomery Divorce Law website, her bio touts her “personal experience with family law matters” and her involvement with numerous organizations including the domestic violence task force and the Montgomery County Department of Human Resources, where she serves as a quality assurance board member.

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Neither site details any information about her family or children, although her campaign’s about page does feature a prominent photo of Sebrina Martin with her two current children.

But Sebrina Martin responded on her Statement of Economic Interest form that she has no adult children despite Sydney, Jasmine and Jonathan all being over the age of majority in both Indiana and Alabama. Michael Martin said there have been no changes to custody since the 2013 order and that Sebrina Martin is still legally the children’s mother, in addition to being Jasmine’s biological mother. She also has a biological son with her first husband, who is also well above the age of majority.

According to ethics statutes, a candidate would be given the opportunity to “cure” the statement of economic interest to rectify the error. Intentionally misrepresenting information on the filing is a Class A misdemeanor.

“Honestly, I’m not surprised,” Jasmine said when informed of the filing. “It goes to show even more that she wants to erase this chapter of her life like it didn’t exist. To abandon all those kids and sit there and say ‘I’m an advocate for children and want the best for them and I love them…’”

Michael Martin said the denial follows a pattern of her abandoning her firstborn son.

“During court, she denied his existence,” Michael said. “So we asked, ‘What about him, who is this?’ She said that it was her son and that she sees him all the time. But she had just said she didn’t have another son … She just washed her hands completely of everybody.”

Michael said that is what once again happened when he attempted to follow the custody order and give her parental time.

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“I never blocked Sebrina or said she couldn’t see her kids,” Michael said. “Multiple times we showed up in Nashville for the exchange. She never showed up. We waited hours in the parking lot; we had to give her the benefit of the doubt. She never answered a call.”

Eventually, Michael and his attorney decided to stop attempting the custody exchanges until receiving a response from Sebrina or her attorney, a response they say never came.

“It kind of hurts that she is still acting like she doesn’t have kids,” Sydney said. “It’s going to hurt for a lifetime.”

Higher Office

Now, Sebrina Martin is all but assured under typical conditions to be the next family court judge for place three on the 15th Judicial Circuit in Montgomery.

Michael and the girls said they were sickened to see her not just working as a family attorney, but now possibly sitting in judgment on family law cases.

“Her ad for judge makes me sick,” Michael said. “She calls herself an award-winning foster parent. That was me too. We were in that together. We won foster parent of the year during that time period. Also, she’s ‘God this, God that’ and ‘all for the children.’ All for the children, huh? What about these seven you just crapped on because it didn’t fit your career? What does that say?”

The ad calls Sebrina Martin “a longtime advocate for victims of domestic violence.”

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“Sebrina knows how to help children at their most vulnerable, desperate for someone, anyone to show they care,” a female narrator says during the ad. 

“It’s so irritating seeing her being an advocate and judge for people in these situations,” Sydney said. “It’s ironic, the reason she knows firsthand is because she put her kids through it. She is (expletive) up. That’s the shit you did to your kids.

“We kind of hoped she would reach out and apologize, but it never happened. Over the years, we went through emotional phases, we had resentment. Now we just want this to be heard. It’s shitty. Nobody’s ever listened to us. She went about her life and has a happy life and career now. We want to raise awareness of this person being put in a position of power. She’s done a good job covering this up, she never did any time, never paid anything. She’s better off now somehow; it’s not supposed to be like that.”

Sebrina Martin won the Democratic nomination in a majority Black district, and she had posted on her campaign page about race relations.

“Will you choose hope for our children? Or will you choose the days of segregation where black people must only affiliate with other black people?” Sebrina posted the day prior to the primary race.

One Facebook user tagged her in a post, claiming that critics said “she was the wrong color” for the seat.

But the children recount Sebrina Martin, as well as Heifner and Harvey, exhibiting racism.

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“Where we were living in Montgomery was primarily Black,” Sydney said. “We were the only white kids in the school.”

Sydney said Sebrina sometimes referred to Black people as “porch monkeys” and the “N word.” Sydney and Jasmine also saw the targeted abuse of Sarah and Tommy, who are biracial, as an extension of the adults’ racism.

“She’s advocating for Black people but has this history,” Sydney said.

Picking Up The Pieces

Sydney and Jasmine still remember sitting in court awaiting the verdict.

“We were sitting in some holding room and they came in all quiet,” Sydney said. “We kept asking what was going on. We thought we had lost the court case. But they knew we were going to freak out, so they waited until we were outside to say we were going to Castle (Indiana).  We immediately burst into tears and cried and hugged each other. We knew we were finally safe, we didn’t have to fight for our next meal, nobody was going to chase us out of the room with a flyswatter — so many things other people didn’t have to worry about. It was  Heaven on Earth. Of course, life comes in, but for that moment it was a second of Heaven.”

Michael said it was both a relief and a tragedy when it became clear that Sebrina was not attempting to exert her right to parenting time with the children.

“You know they’re safe and you’re able to raise them according to your standards,” Michael said. “But that’s also where the damage is done. For the adopted kids, their biological mom did them wrong, the foster mothers did them wrong and then the adoptive mom did them wrong. So I’ve got five kids who have no idea what it genuinely means to be loved unconditionally by a mom. And that is horrible. Probably some of your best memories are how your mom used to make your special little meal or something like that. My kids don’t know that. They know what it’s like to have a dad that will go to war for them. I’ve been a damn good dad, but I’m a man. While I love my kids and I’ve done everything under the sun to make their life as normal as possible, and my sister did a great job loving on them when she was alive, and my mom does great job loving on them — they still don’t have that mom love.”

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It hasn’t been an easy road for the family since 2013. Michael said he works as a bus driver, making just $13,000 a year.

“I have five kids that need a dad and a mom, two are special needs — someone has to be home,” Michael said. “I have to have a schedule where I’m home to take care of these kids. Meanwhile they see their mom is a big shot making possibly six figures. It’s messing with them.”

Michael said he had open heart surgery shortly after gaining custody, which he attributed to the stress of the custody battle. He had also lost his lawnscaping business following the 2008 economic collapse and had “lost about everything.”

“It’s not been easy. It’s been a very hard road for our family, but we’re better people for it.”

Sydney said it has taken years for her to get out of that “mom mode” she had developed in her home situation when living with Sebrina Martin and Heifner.

“I almost didn’t want to let that role go,” Sydney said. “I felt like I needed to be there for them. It took me so long not have to be that for them anymore. This stuff is still coming back up, stuff I need to deal with.”

Sydney said she briefly felt like she did not want to speak to APR about her past, but decided she needed to go through with it.

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“This shit happened and you’ve got to address it and move forward,” Sydney said. “I’m not going to just push things to the side like she has.”

Lingering Questions

The family expressed some of the questions they still face seeing Sebrina Martin’s journey from abandoning them in 2013 to becoming the unopposed candidate to serve as a family court judge.

“My question is wouldn’t all of this information bring into question every case or anything she’s ever done?” Michael said. “She shouldn’t have even been a lawyer with this. Think about the number of families turned upside down because she was involved, but should have never been a lawyer in the first place. Now she’s going to be a judge of 225,000 people in Montgomery? I would have never believed it. I didn’t think she would get this far. I would have never imagined. I couldn’t have written this story, there’s no way.”

Sebrina Martin lost custody of six children for use of excessive corporal punishment

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