MADISON, Wis. (AP) — Wisconsin prosecutors are expected to play a video in court Tuesday that shows an emaciated 15-year-old girl telling police her father and stepmother kept her in a basement for years and starved her, leaving her to fend for herself off scraps she found on the floor or in the garbage.
It will be the first public glimpse of the Madison teen, who has been in Dane County’s custody since a passing motorist spotted her last month weighing only 70 pounds, crying and walking barefoot in pajamas outside in the cold. She was so small the man mistook her for an 8-year-old.
The parents have a preliminary hearing scheduled, and the video is likely to be a part of it. A judge will use the hearing Tuesday to decide whether there’s enough evidence to order a trial. The 40-year-old father and 42-year-old stepmother are charged with child abuse, child neglect and reckless endangerment.
The girl’s 18-year-old stepbrother is charged with child abuse and sexual assault for allegedly forcing her to perform oral sex on him repeatedly. His arraignment is set for March 19.
State officials are investigating how Dane County child welfare officials handled complaints about the family.
The Associated Press isn’t naming any of the defendants to avoid identifying the girl. The AP does not usually name victims of sexual assault.
The county Department of Human Services has declined to provide updates on her condition. Director Lynn Green has said only that the girl is “safe and loved and being very well cared for.”
Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne declined comment. A doctor who examined the girl described her as malnourished and “chronically starved” and said the teen remains at risk of metabolic disorders or complications that could be fatal.
Videotaped testimony by a child can be admissible in court under limited circumstances, including cases of certain types of abuse. However, while the recording might be allowed for the preliminary hearing, the girl most likely will have to take the stand if the case advances to trial, said Stephen Meyer, a criminal defense lawyer who’s not involved in this case.
“The right for the accused to face the accusers is a very guarded principle in American justice,” he said.
The girl has told investigators she was forced to survive by eating scraps from the floor or garbage can. She said that she wasn’t allowed to go to school or have friends and that she was kept in a locked basement that was monitored with cameras and outfitted with an alarm and motion detector.
However, investigators said she also told them “there was plenty of food in her house and she chose not to eat,” according to the criminal complaint. She added that she was allowed to eat oatmeal and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but that she ate out of the trash or off the floor so she wouldn’t set off the alarm.
The stepmother’s attorney, Thomas J. McClure, said he’ll emphasize whether there was actual and intentional harm or neglect and address the girl’s medical and psychological history.
“The state’s version is both contradictory and untested,” he told the AP. “There is evidently much more to be learned.”
William J. Hayes, the father’s attorney, declined comment. The father has requested that he not have to attend any of his court hearings. Judge Amy Smith didn’t rule on his request during a March 2 hearing, when she declined to lower the man’s bail from $22,500 and his wife’s from $30,000.
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