Teachers say children in neglect case good learners

Becky Campbell • Mar 1, 2012 at 10:31 PM

Three Hamblen County schoolteachers testified Thursday they were excited to watch as five children experienced learning in an educational setting for the first time in their lives.

The educators were talking about the children of Robert Simons III, 55, and Mary Ella Tittle, 39. The couple is on trial this week charged with eight counts of aggravated child neglect because investigators and prosecutors say they failed to send their children to school.

The children now live in a foster home in Hamblen County and attend school there.

Stephanie Mongold, a special education teacher, said the oldest Simons child had a lot of difficulty with communication and wouldn’t speak when she first began working with him in 2010. As he was more exposed to learning, he opened up.

“(He) was very good at rhyming words ... he was like a little preschooler the way he blossomed. It was really exciting,” she said. Mongold testified that by the end of that first school year, the oldest child could write his name and learned the numbers one through 10.

“He was very meticulous in his writing,” Mongold said.

Assistant District Attorney General Dennis Brooks asked Mongold if earlier intervention would have helped the kids.

She said it would have and called the situation “a double atrocity,” because the children did not attend school nor did they receive the special services available to help them learn.

Mongold, as well as the other teachers, testified the children will likely always need special help during their educational path.

Jurors heard the teachers explain how far behind the children were in their communications, but later in the day the panel saw it for themselves through a video taken in April 2010.

Child forensic examiner Stephanie Furchess testified she interviewed all five children at the Children’s Advocacy Center about a week after they were put in state’s custody.

Near the end of the day Thursday, jurors saw clips from three of those interviews and will see the other two today.

The video gave a clear view of the children’s communications skills, which were obviously undeveloped.

Ultimately, all the children received services from a speech therapist after they started attending school.

At one point in the day, defense attorneys Matt Bolton and Jim Lonon asked Judge Robert Cupp for a mistrial.

He denied the motion, but told the jury to disregard the testimony and exhibit that led to the mistrial motion.

That testimony came from Phil Poston, owner of a website called Charity Check. It is a database of people who receive help from various charity organizations.

Poston testified he searched for the Simonses in the database at the request of prosecutors. What he found appeared to be a pattern of deception in order to obtain money, food, lodging and fuel for the Simons family.

One purpose of the evidence was to establish the family was in Tennessee when the child neglect occurred, but some of the entries in the database predated the child neglect charges.

Cupp ruled the evidence was too prejudicial and was more about theft than child neglect.

When he made that ruling, the defense asked for a mistrial, but Cupp ruled the case would continue and he would give the jury a strict instruction to totally disregard the testimony and evidence.

Simons and Tittle were arrested in April 2010 after authorities went to their home to investigate a complaint about unsupervised children not attending school.

DCS and a sheriff’s investigator found filthy living conditions and determined the children were not receiving an education. There were also medical concerns for the couple’s daughter, who suffered from a life-threatening kidney disease.

The girl has since had a kidney transplant that doctors testified earlier this week saved her life.

Prosecutors will likely wrap up their case today and depending on the approach the defense takes, the case could even go to the jury today.

From opening statements, the defense seems to be trying to show their clients also had intellectual disabilities themselves, but never did anything to put their children in danger.

To deflect the idea that Simons and Tittle had deficiencies themselves, prosecutors put Washington County Detention Center Maj. Brenda Downes on the stand to testify about what books the two have checked out of the jail library since their arrests.

Downes said Simons has checked out 36 books, mostly westerns and action books, while Tittle has obtained 32 books, mostly thrillers.

On cross examination, Downes confirmed she could not say if the defendants read the books or not.

Testimony will resume this morning. Simons and Tittle remain jailed on a $50,000 bond each.

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