Two Child Protective Services employees testified Tuesday that five children — removed from their parents two years ago after authorities found them living in squalor and determined the kids were not in school — didn’t cry or ask for their parents in the hours after being taken into state custody.
And while those Department of Children’s Services workers were trying to locate a foster home for the children, their parents were also getting a new place to live — jail.
Robert Simons III, 55, and Mary Ella Tittle, 39, are charged with a total of eight counts of aggravated child neglect, five which are against a child age 8 or younger and three against a child under 18 years old.
State law makes those age distinctions and the couple’s children fall into the different categories. The children ranged from ages 7 to 13 at the time their parents were arrested.
Jurors began hearing testimony before lunch after attorneys in the case made opening statements.
Dr. Deborah Kees-Folts, a pediatric kidney doctor at the Hershey (Pa.) Medical Center, testified about the five years of somewhat sporadic treatment given to the couple’s daughter, who had serious kidney disease.
The girl was first diagnosed in early 2005 with focal sclerosis, which is scar tissue in the kidneys that leads to too much protein in the urine.
Kees-Folts testified Simons and Tittle often did not bring their daughter back for follow-up visits so doctors could make necessary changes to the girl’s medications.
Part of the problem was the family traveled often between Pennsylvania and Tennessee and Simons apparently gave conflicting information to authorities there and here.
The last contact Fees-Folts had with Simons was a phone conversation in late 2009 when she told him his family’s nomadic lifestyle could not only cost him custody of their daughter, who needed critical kidney treatment, but also her life if she didn’t receive those treatments.
By that time, Simons and Tittle were on Miller Drive in Jonesborough, living in a camper parked in the yard of Tittle’s mother’s home.
There was also a bus on that property where the children ultimately began sleeping, apparently after a rat bit the couple’s daughter.
State prosecutors also presented evidence from that injury through the Niswonger Children’s Hospital doctor who treated the girl and a nurse who assisted in that care.
Prosecutors are trying to pave a path for jurors to show the couple’s disregard for their daughter’s life-threatening kidney disease and the educational development of all the kids.
Several witnesses testified that Simons said the children were home-schooled. No one ever really questioned that claim or investigated it further until April 2010, when DCS case manager Jandie Cummings went to the residence in response to a referral about unsupervised children not going to school.
Cummings first went there by herself, and after speaking briefly to Simons and getting sidestepped when she asked him questions. Tittle finally gave Cummings the names of her children and their birthdays. She said Simons was forthcoming with information about his daughter receiving treatment in Pennsylvania for her kidney disease, but little else.
Cummings said she felt unsettled after making contact with the family and proceeded to pursue the investigation, which included obtaining a court order to forcibly conduct a walkthrough at the home and talk to the children, which Simons had previously not allowed.
When Cummings got that order, she and Washington County Sheriff’s Investigator Jared Taylor went to the residence and that visit ended with the couple’s arrest and children being placed in foster care.
That’s when Tittle admitted to the case worker that the children had never been to school, Cummings said. Other officers also came to the scene to assist checking the area. One of those officers found a bottle of medication meant for Simons and Tittle’s daughter that was filled in November 2010. The 90-count bottle still had 75 pills in it and the medication was one Kees-Folts had prescribed and said the girl needed to help control the kidney disease.
Assistant District Attorney Generals Dennis Brooks and Erin McArdle are prosecuting the case while Matt Bolton represents Simons and Jim Lonon represents Tittle.
The defense has tried to pick away at the state witnesses, pointing out the couple kept up with their daughter’s care “to the best of their ability,” according to Bolton, and that Simons was never evasive about the care his daughter was receiving.
During opening statements, Bolton said there really isn’t an explanation for the children not attending school.
Lonon also pointed out through the witnesses that his client rarely spoke to authorities, defaulting to her husband when authorities questioned them.
Prosecutors have only presented a small portion of their expected witnesses. Six took the stand Tuesday, but there are an additional 35 the jury will hear from.
After Judge Robert Cupp sent the jury home around 5 p.m., Lonon reminded him there are two motions that will need a ruling before the state gets to a witness with information directly linked to the couple being in custody.
Juries are not usually privy to the fact a defendant is in custody so as to not prejudice the defendant. Cupp asked Lonon to find case law that addresses the issue.
The other motion deals with a form of therapy the children have been undergoing during which they made comments about their parents. Those comments are documented in the written records from that therapy. That issue deals with a defendant’s right to confront their accuser.
Cupp will likely rule on those today or Thursday. Testimony is scheduled to resume this morning.