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Neighbors of severely malnourished Wis. girl say they alerted authorities to potential abuse
MILWAUKEE (AP) ' Neighbors of a severely malnourished Wisconsin teenager say they rarely saw the girl leave home, and when she did emerge she would scavenge through the trash at times and hide and eat the discarded scraps.
At least two neighbors called social services to report potential abuse at the house, but it wasn't until the 15-year-old was found walking barefoot in pajamas out in the cold last week that details of what she allegedly endured were revealed. Authorities say she was forced to stay in an unfinished basement for years and eat her own feces. Her father and stepmother were arrested on suspicion of child abuse and neglect, and a hearing is set for Thursday.
Mark Stuntebeck, who lives next door to the family in Madison, said he called child protective services within the last two years after he saw the girl taking out the garbage and scavenging through it to find food. He doesn't know if anyone ever followed up with the girl's family.
"She seemed to be hiding and munching on crumbs or remnants of something," said Stuntebeck, 44.
State Department of Health Services spokesman Sara Buschman said Wednesday she couldn't immediately comment but planned to have more information Thursday.
The 40-year-old father and 42-year-old stepmother, whom The Associated Press is not naming to protect the girl's identity, were each being held on $20,000 bail after their arrest last week. Their hearing Thursday is expected to include a review of their bail and a discussion about the status of the potential charges, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said.
Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said Wednesday the teen was getting medical treatment and remained in protective custody.
The girl, who only weighed 70 pounds, told authorities she had been forced to stay in the unfinished basement of her father and stepmother's home since 2006 and that an alarm would sound if she went upstairs. She said she ate what she could find in the garbage and sometimes she was made to eat her own feces and drink her urine, according to a police affidavit.
She said if she was caught eating without permission, the couple would make her throw out the food or vomit it back up.
The allegations came to light after Mike Vega saw the girl walking in thin pajamas, barefoot and crying on a cold Feb. 6 afternoon. She was bleeding from a gash on her nose and other small scrapes and was so scrawny he mistook her for an 8-year-old. He called police.
"It was the most shocking thing I have ever seen," Vega, 31, said Wednesday, recalling the day he found her. "A little girl looking like that. I've never seen anybody look like that, to be honest."
A doctor quoted in police reports said what the girl went through before Vega found her amounted to "torture."
Vega, who lives about a mile from the girl and her family, said he was driving on a busy street not far from home when he spotted her. As he slowly passed her, he looked through his rearview mirror and saw her bare feet, which were purple from the cold. He backed up, and she told him she needed help.
Once she was inside Vega's car, she was scared at first, but Vega said she became more comfortable after he showed her photos of his three young sons and a Mary Poppins video on his cellphone.
According to police records, the girl told authorities she had been let out of the basement that day to "clean some papers" for her stepmother and that the woman became angry because she wasn't working fast enough.
The teen told Vega the stepmother threw her back downstairs but she managed to escape out a window. Vega said the girl told him she feared the woman would throw her down the stairs again. She said the woman even threatened to kill her.
Vega said the girl "wasn't crying, wasn't hysterical" when she spoke about her stepmother's alleged death threat. "But it wasn't nonchalant either," he said. "You could see fear in her eyes. It was very disturbing."
Barbara Knox, a physician at American Family Children's Hospital quoted in the police reports, told officers the malnutrition the girl suffered "poses a significant risk of death" and that chronic starvation had caused her puberty to be arrested. Knox also said the girl would be at high risk for other disorders and complications that can lead to death.
The teen said her stepmother homeschooled her using a third-grade workbook, according to the affidavit.
Melissa Clark, 38, who lives across the street, said the girl rarely came outside but she could hear her family berating her inside the house. Clark's mother, who was visiting from Florida last year, noticed the girl and called child protective services. Clark said she doesn't know if anything was done.
Her parents once yelled at her for showing too much skin when she was bent over and her blouse hung off her, Clark said.
"It was horrible," she said. "She was treated like Cinderella."
The girl's 18-year-old stepbrother also was arrested on a probation and parole hold. DeSpain said he couldn't comment on the arrest. Two other minors in the home were taken into protective custody, DeSpain said.
Police said they encountered the girl in 2007, when someone alleged she might have been molested by a family member. The girl did not corroborate the allegation and her family was not cooperative, police said.
She appeared healthy at the time, police said.
Associated Press writer Todd Richmond in Madison and AP News Researcher Julie Reed in Charlotte, N.C., contributed to this report.