‘Emaciated’ girl taken from couple in Mukilteo

MUKILTEO — A Mukilteo couple is under investigation for allegedly withholding food from a 10-year-old girl described by police as “extremely emaciated.”

The girl was admitted to an Everett hospital Monday weighing 51 pounds — about two-thirds the weight of a healthy child her age. Doctors reported that she was suffering from “severe malnutrition.” She also had multiple bruises, abrasions and scars all over her body, according to court papers.

The girl denied being mistreated. Police on Monday immediately removed her from the home, however, after she lifted her shirt and showed them her ribs. They later fed her at the police station, and the child reportedly devoured four Pop Tarts, pretzels and popcorn. She then asked for a hot sandwich.

It wasn’t the first time that state Child Protective Services had been called to investigate the family. In 2009, a boy, 16, asked to remain locked up at the Denney Youth Center in Everett rather than return to live with the couple.

Court papers identify the couple as the teen’s adoptive brother, 42, and the man’s girlfriend, 34. The boy told authorities he was fed only oatmeal and was beaten with a wooden paddle wrapped in leather if he didn’t follow house rules, according to a search warrant filed earlier this week.

Court documents show that the couple denied the allegations raised in 2009. In a lengthy letter to a Snohomish County Superior Court judge, they admitted putting the boy on a “jail food diet” and making him sleep in a tent in the backyard to discipline him. They called the boy a “habitual liar and chronic runaway,” and detailed their efforts to provide him a stable home.

The couple asked the judge to order the boy’s return to their home. He was being held for hitting the woman during an attempt to leave the house.

A few months later, a court commissioner granted the couple custody of the teen.

In the 2009 letter, the couple explained that the man’s parents, who live in New York, had adopted the boy when he was a toddler. They wrote that the boy had been removed from his biological parents after he was found living in a closet with a dog. The man’s parents, now in their 70s, later sent the boy to live with the Mukilteo couple when he began to get into trouble.

The letter indicated that the man’s parents adopted other children, including the girl who was hospitalized this week.

The Mukilteo couple told the court that the girl had been born to a mother who used drugs and drank alcohol while she was pregnant.

The girl told investigators that she’d been living with the Mukilteo couple for about a year.

Her condition came to the attention of police Monday after a store owner raised concerns with CPS about a child who came into the business. CPS was told the girl had a gash on her arm and a sunken face and the outline of her bones was clearly visible. The caller said a woman with the girl was being “verbally abusive” toward the child.

Officers went to the home to check on the girl.

The woman told police that the girl is thin but insisted that she eats well. She denied that the girl was being abused. The officer noted that there was food in the house.

The girl told the officer that the man and woman are “really nice.” She said the woman gives her a lot of food. When the officer asked her about a gash on her wrist, the girl said she didn’t know how it happened. The officer noted several marks on the girl, including what appeared to be a healing bite wound, detectives wrote in the search warrant.

The couple fed the girl as the officer was talking on the phone to CPS workers. After being told about the girl’s condition, the social workers asked police to immediately take the girl into protective custody.

Detectives noted that the child’s ribs were visible and her cheeks were sunken.

Dr. Kenneth Feldman, a pediatrician from Seattle Children’s Hospital, said an average healthy 10-year-old girl weighs around 75 pounds.

Social workers took the girl to an Everett hospital, where she was examined by doctors. The doctor’s notes indicated that the girl repeatedly asked for more food, court papers said. In cases of severe malnourishment, medical staff need to be cautious and carefully watch for complications when the intake of food in increased, Feldman said.

Mukilteo Police Sgt. Steve Fanning said he could not discuss the active investigation.

No arrests have been made.

The couple is under investigation for criminal mistreatment. Second-degree criminal mistreatment is a felony under state law. People can be found guilty of the crime if a court finds they create a substantial risk of death or bodily harm or “cause substantial bodily harm by withholding any of the basic necessities of life.”

State social workers also are investigating, said Sherry Hill, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Social and Health Services.

The girl was expected to remain in the hospital Thursday night. Once she’s released, she’s expected to be placed with a foster family, Hill said.

There’s no record that there have been other referrals to state case workers regarding the girl, Hill said. Social workers will be contacting their counterparts in New York to look at the girl’s history there.

Hill said she couldn’t discuss the 2009 investigation involving the boy, since he is not at the center of the current investigation. He’s now 19.

Previous child starvation cases have led state social workers to receive enhanced training in spotting the signs of malnutrition, Hill said.

“There’s a lot more awareness,” she said.

One of those cases happened in Snohomish County.

In 2008, Danny Abegg, of Everett, and his live-in girlfriend, Marilea Mitchell, were sentenced to 8-1/2 years in prison for withholding food from the man’s 4-year-old son, Shayne. The couple didn’t feed the boy as a form of punishment. Shayne weighed just 25 pounds when he was rescued from his father’s south Everett apartment in 2007.

“He was starved for months and months and months until he almost died. I can’t imagine it being any worse than this without it being a homicide,” Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Roe said at the couple’s sentencing.

The state eventually agreed to pay the boy and his older brother nearly $9 million to settle civil lawsuits filed on behalf of the children. An internal investigation revealed that the state case workers missed a pattern of abuse and neglect and didn’t follow policies in place to protect children.

Eric Stevick, stevick@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3446.

What to do

If you suspect a child is being abused or neglected, you’re encouraged to call 866-363-4276.

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