It was a mix ’n’ match household of adults and children described as The Brady Bunch.
Maybe — if Bobby and Cindy had been kept locked in a squalid, rat-infested basement.
Yet that’s how the Stoney Creek menagerie had been characterized by “Dad’’ — biological father to some, not all, of the six youngsters seized by child welfare authorities in April 2009.
One of the first police officers on the scene portrayed it differently: “A house of horrors.’’
From the outside looking in at the rural residence, owned by a married Italian couple in their 60s — the “grandparents’’ — there had been little to raise alarm. Both cops and social workers noted the “pristine’’ condition of the upstairs, all tidy, with sparkling clean bathrooms, cheerful bedrooms for the children and well-stocked refrigerator.
Indeed, a Children’s Aid Society of Hamilton employee who’d just taken over the file again — she’d been attending worker for the family earlier — was in the house on April 2 and claimed to have seen nothing amiss, even after descending into the cellar. Yet just three hours later, police responding to an “unknown 911 call’’ at that address also went downstairs and recoiled from the stench, an odour so foul that one officer would testify he’d expected to find a decaying corpse.
The social worker, on the witness stand, said she’d had a bad cold that morning, too stuffed up to sniff anything. And the lighting was dim, she added, making it difficult to see into shadowy corners. That must have been why she missed the rat traps, the two dead rodents, the floor littered with garbage, the open sewer drain, even as she brought one of the children watching TV down there upstairs to answer questions. The other two kids in the basement and the mother sitting with them were not on her checklist.
Had the social worker investigated the scene further — and surely this was part of her job, responsible as she was for some of the children in that house, those who fell within the jacket of her file — she would have found a basement bedroom akin to a dungeon.
Two of the six children who called that dreadful house home lived essentially in that feces-smeared bedroom, locked behind that door, sleeping on homemade bunk beds with torn bedding and bloodied, urine-soaked mattresses, electrical wires dangling just above their heads, no window, pitch black.
When the older boy took the stand in this courtroom last fall, he testified: “I didn’t like that room. Every time when I stand up on my bed, I bonked my head.’’
On a police interview videotape that was played in court, this child told the investigator that he and his baby brother were always kept in that room.
“Who does that?’’ the investigator asks.
“All the grown-ups.’’
And were they locked in?
“Yeah, ’cause (my baby brother) always wants to come out to eat everything and drink everything.’’
The boy then recounted finding a rat in the laundry room. “And me and (my stepbrother) threw it outside. I say it was cute and (he) say it was ugly.’’
On Thursday, the “nonna’’, the “dad’’ and “mom’’ were each sentenced to two years less a day — the maximum incarceration allowed for a provincial jail facility — on concurrent and consecutive sentences. Justice Bernd Zabel described the conditions in which the little boys had lived as “unthinkable squalor, filth and putrefaction.
“They were treated horribly different from the children residing in relatively pristine conditions upstairs.’’
Of the offenders, Zabel said: “They lack any significant insight into the consequences of their actions and the dangers they placed their children in . . . a drastic departure from the conduct of any reasonable parent or caregiver.’’
A week ago, Zabel found them guilty on counts of forcible confinement, abandonment and failing to provide the necessaries of life. The 63-year-old “nonna’’ was also convicted on a charge of assault, for grabbing one of the boys and sending him airborne, right in the presence of a police officer back on that April 2 day.
It’s a domestically complicated story and hard to relate because a publication ban prevents identifying any of the family members involved. The children are not all biologically related. There are different moms and different dads, different sets of supposedly blended families. The biological father of the two children who lived in the basement has never attended at court. The convicted dad is fiancé to the convicted mom. He is son to the older couple who own the house but they aren’t grandparents to all the children. Yet they were custodial guardians, blood grandparents, to some of the children, the “upstairs kids.’’
Their biological grandchildren — offspring of their son and another woman — lived in comfort upstairs, along with an older daughter of the convicted “mom’’. Two of the son’s kids had been living on the main floor of the house where they’d been placed by the CAS, in the custody of their grandparents, along with a third child — a 13-year-old deaf boy — who wasn’t under CAS supervision.
Their father was not supposed to be living in the house but was allowed visits supervised by the grandmother. He’d told a CAS worker that he was residing in a townhouse with his fiancée and her children. In fact, police say he’d been living in the Stoney Creek house for a year before all the kids were seized in the spring of 2009.
He and his fiancée had a bedroom in the basement. Her two young boys — one of them suffering from an attention deficit disorder — had the dungeon bedroom. It was to protect this difficult child from doing himself harm, the mother would later claim, that she bolted the boys behind that basement door.
And throughout all the CAS visits, no social worker ever noticed anything odd about the household or that two youngsters were living in horrendous conditions down below.
It was only child ingenuity that brought it all to light.
On that April 2, after the CAS worker had left, the little boys downstairs somehow managed to tear a hole in the wall, the toddler wriggling through, getting to a phone and dialling 911. The 2-year-old called 911.
When police arrived, the grandmother answered the door, her eyes widening at the presence of the law. From the top of the stairs, she yelled down: “Who called 911? Look what you’ve done!’’
Descending to investigate, officers reeled and gagged from the stench.
None of the defendants testified at trial. But they each submitted presentencing statements.
Mom wrote: “I am very sorry for putting the latch on the door. I never ever mean to hurt my children. I was trying to protect my son from hurting him self. But throw all this court proceedings I know and learned to never put anything on their door’s ever again. If I could take it back I would.’’
Nonna wrote: “I had my hands full with the upstairs part of the residence and my three grandchildren. . . . I tried to do the best I could, now I’m going through this ordeal. . . . I am a loving person. I’m confused about this whole situation.’’
Dad spoke: “I didn’t mean for none of this to happen. I understand what I did was wrong.’’
All claimed ignorance; that they’d never intended to do harm.
At trial, the 5-year-old explained why he and baby brother had torn open the hole in the wall that day, why baby brother had called 911.
“We wanted bread.’’
Rosie DiManno usually appears Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.