- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 1, 2014

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. (AP) - Judges on Missouri’s highest court appeared skeptical Wednesday about an appeal from a Springfield man convicted of abusing his teenage son by limiting his food and locking him in a small bathroom at a church where the family had been living.

An attorney for Peter Hansen is seeking to overturn a pair of child abuse convictions by arguing there was insufficient evidence to show he knowingly inflicted cruel and inhumane punishment. Hansen’s court filings said the child’s limited diet stemmed in part from the father’s religious beliefs as a Seventh-day Adventist.

During Supreme Court arguments, however, Hansen attorney Ellen Flottman downplayed the religious angle and instead highlighted the family’s economic conditions.

“There is an underlying social policy in this case, which is that we have criminalized for Mr. Hansen basically being poor and being homeless and living in a church,” she said.

Hansen was living with his wife, 13-year-old son and 10-year-old daughter at a Seventh-day Adventist church after being evicted from their Springfield home in April 2009. When child-abuse investigators responded to a hotline call that November, they found the boy being kept in a small, cold, dark bathroom as punishment.

The family maintained a low-calorie, largely vegetarian diet, and the children’s meals were sometimes limited even further or denied entirely as punishment, according to court documents. When the children were taken into state custody, they were significantly underweight for their ages.

Hansen was convicted in 2011 of two counts of abusing his son, but jurors acquitted him of other charges and couldn’t reach a verdict on a child-abuse charge involving his daughter. He was sentenced to three years in prison, but a judge suspended the imposition of that punishment and instead placed him on five years of probation and 100 days in jail.

Hansen already has served the jail time, though he is appealing the convictions.

During Wednesday’s hearing, Flottman described the Hansens as a “homeless vegetarian family.” But judges responded that the circumstances seemed to go beyond that.

Limiting a child to a cup of food twice a day or denying dinner “is very different than not allowing him to have chips and salsa and sweets,” Judge Patricia Breckenridge said at the beginning of the hearing.

“There are millions and millions - tens of millions - of vegetarians who do not have these kind of issues. Being vegetarian is not what this is about,” Judge Laura Denvir Stith said later.

The judges had no probing questions or comments for a state’s attorney who defended the child-abuse convictions with a relatively brief statement.

Assistant Attorney General Evan Buchheim said the case wasn’t about the Hansens’ living arrangements or dietary beliefs.

“It’s about (Hansen) essentially starving his son as punishment and putting him in solitary confinement for days at a time in a cold, hard bathroom that was even too small for him to lie down in,” Buchheim said.


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