A Wichita couple who were foster parents to and then later adopted a girl diagnosed by a physician as a victim of child torture pleaded guilty Wednesday to beating and abusing the girl for as many as five years.
If the court, as expected, determines the parents have little to no prior criminal history, each faces a maximum prison term of 68 months on multiple criminal counts – just over a year of incarceration for every year of abuse they admitted subjecting their daughter to.
Probation is also an option when the couple is sentenced Oct. 7, because neither has a substantial criminal history and because Kansas sentencing guidelines allow it.
Sedgwick County Assistant District Attorney Angela Wilson told District Judge Patrick Walters in court Wednesday she plans to ask that the heftier punishment be imposed.
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An attorney for the parents, Michael Cleary, told Walters that he thinks the court “will want” to give the parents probation.
If Walters imposes probation, Wilson said, she will ask that neither parent has contact with their adopted daughter nor be allowed to have a caretaking role with any minor child.
The couple adopted the girl when she was 4. Neglect from her biological mother, which included once leaving her in a crib for 16 hours, left the girl severely underweight and developmentally delayed.
She and her three siblings remain in foster care pending the outcome of their child-in-need-of-care case.
Authorities pulled the girl out of her adoptive parents’ home when she was 14 amid allegations of abuse and neglect that included beatings, locking her in the basement and forcing her to drink hydrogen peroxide. At that time, she weighed 66 pounds. She’s 15 now.
The Eagle started following the case, in which the victim became known as “the girl in the basement,” in April 2014 as part of its “In Need of Care” series, which looked at child abuse and neglect in the community.
Sedgwick County District Court Judge Tim Henderson gave The Eagle special access to child-in-need-of-care petitions early last year with the understanding that The Eagle would not identify any of the children involved in such proceedings.
The Eagle has not named the parents, because doing so would identify the child and her three adoptive siblings, all of whom were placed in police protective custody in March 2014.
Even though the parents were criminally charged with the girl’s abuse and it is a separate case, The Eagle is not naming them in a continued effort to protect the children’s privacy.
Prosecutors filed criminal charges against the couple in June 2014 after The Eagle published its first story about the girl and her home life.
The child-in-need-of-care petition filed on behalf of the girl and her siblings says the parents chained her to a bed at times in a windowless basement room rigged with a door alarm. It also says the parents punished her with hot showers, gave her a bucket to use as a toilet and often fed her only bread for dinner.
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The criminal case accuses the parents of abusing her from the time she was 9, including beating her with a hard-core foam bat on at least one occasion in October 2012 and with a broken curtain rod in March 2014. According to The Eagle’s reporting in the child-in-need-of-care case, another child in the home told social workers the parents beat his sister regularly.
The Kansas Department for Children and Families received at least 17 reports about her welfare in the five years prior to that.
The parents initially denied the allegations, saying the children had lied and that one boy was upset over a computer that had been taken away.
But on Wednesday, the mother changed her not-guilty plea to guilty and admitted to three counts of child abuse, two counts of aggravated battery, one count of aggravated endangerment of a child and one count of criminal restraint. Six of the offenses are felonies; the other is a misdemeanor.
In a separate hearing, the father followed suit, admitting to the same charges and to a misdemeanor count of criminal damage to property for breaking the window of a Sedgwick County sheriff’s patrol car.
He also pleaded guilty in a second criminal case to violating a protective order and witness intimidation, both misdemeanors. Prosecutors filed those accusations in June after the father contacted one of his adult daughters, asking her to recant or change her testimony in the child abuse case, according to court documents.
At the beginning of the father’s hearing, sheriff’s deputies escorted him into court from the Sedgwick County Jail, where he has been held since Walters revoked his bond June 26 over the witness intimidation case.
After receiving the father’s plea in both cases, Walters reinstated his bond and ordered he be released from jail, noting that one purpose of revoking the bond was to protect the witnesses in the criminal case.
Wilson, the prosecutor, opposed the father’s release.
“Your honor ... (the father) primarily follows the rules,” said Cleary, his attorney. “As a 20-year military veteran, he’s done that most of his life.
“We believe, your honor, that once we present information at sentencing, the court will want to allow that sentence to be served on probation,” Cleary said.
If the judge decides the couple deserves prison time in the abuse case when they are sentenced in October, neither will serve more than the five years and eight months behind bars. A provision in the state’s sentencing law caps the potential penalty a defendant can receive at twice the maximum sentence allowed for his or her most-severe offense.
Certain crimes, like first-degree and capital murder and the host of child sex offenses known as Jessica’s Law crimes, don’t count toward the cap.
A defendant’s prior criminal history plays a large role in how lengthy a sentence he or she ultimately receives, Sedgwick County District Attorney Marc Bennett said in an interview after Wednesday’s hearings.