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Trial ordered for parents in child torture case

By Mike Johnson, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel –

MADISON, Wis. — A pediatrician specializing in child abuse testified Friday afternoon that the 15-year-old girl allegedly locked in her family’s basement and deprived of food likely would have died if the pattern of abuse continued.

“She was the victim of serial child torture with prolonged exposure to chronic starvation,” said physician Barbara Knox, the medical director of the University of Wisconsin Child Protection Program. “She was profoundly malnourished.”

Knox said the girl weighed 68 pounds when she examined her last month, and the girl’s medical records showed she had weighed 82 pounds in the summer of 2006.

Knox testified Friday at the preliminary hearing for the girl’s father and stepmother, both charged with first-degree reckless endangerment, intentional child abuse and child neglect.

Based on the doctor’s testimony Friday and other evidence, including a videotaped interview of the teen by police that was presented as evidence Tuesday, Dane County Circuit Court Judge Amy R. Smith ordered the parents to stand trial.

Knox testified that the teen’s growth and development had been arrested by the starvation.

“If you lined up 100 children (the girl’s) same age, she would weigh less than the skinniest or the lowest weighing child in that entire group,” Knox said.

The teen had the average weight of a 91/2-year-old child and the height of an 111/2-year-old child, Knox testified.

The physician said she ruled out anorexia and bulimia as causes and found no indication of any eating disorder except starvation.

After being fed regularly since she fled the home, the girl gained 17 pounds, Knox said. Such a weight gain would be abnormal for a typical child over the course of a week or two, but “very consistent with what I typically see in these cases of intense starvation,” Knox said.

While being treated at a Madison hospital, the girl ordered as much food as she could, sometimes as many as 10 items, and then would hoard some of the food for later, typical in starvation cases, Knox testified.

According to the criminal complaint, the girl told investigators she had been held in virtual captivity in the couple’s basement starting sometime in 2006, scavenging for food and forced to eat her own feces.

She said she fled the home Feb. 6 after her stepmother threatened her twice because the teen wasn’t completing a chore fast enough.

The girl said she was not allowed to leave the basement without permission, and there was an alarm on the basement door that sounded if she opened it, records state.

Attorneys for the father, 40, and stepmother, 42, during cross-examination of Knox stated that the girl suffered from mental health issues, including fantasies, engaged in self-mutilation, was angry and was lying about being starved and tortured.

The father’s attorney, William J. Hayes, pointed out through questioning that the girl had received inpatient mental health treatment in 2006 and that she had threatened family members.

Hayes said some of the girl’s issues stemmed from her being upset because she had been abandoned by her biological mother.

Knox said she reviewed some of the girl’s mental health records, but those records would not change her diagnosis that the girl was a victim of child torture and starvation.

She also testified that she had a pediatric psychiatrist evaluate the girl, and there was nothing that would warrant inpatient treatment.

According to the criminal complaint, the father told authorities the girl had mental health problems. He said knives were found under her bed when she lived in the main part of the house and they believed she had a plan to hurt family members, the complaint states.

After that the teen was kept in the basement, the father said, because he feared for the family’s safety, the complaint states. He told investigators he had security cameras and motion detectors set up in the basement and the pantry to monitor the girl.

In response to defense attorneys’ questions about the girl’s possible mental health issues and truthfulness, prosecutors asked Knox, “Is starvation a treatment for any mental health disorder?”

“No,” Knox replied.

“Is locking a child in a basement any treatment for a mental health disorder?”

“No,” she said.

The girl’s 18-year-old stepbrother also was arrested and is accused of raping the girl. He is charged with first-degree sexual assault of a child under 13; sexual assault of a girl under 16; and child abuse.

The stepbrother last month waived his preliminary hearing.

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