Police: Malnourished Wisconsin girl abused for years

MILWAUKEE (AP) — A severely malnourished Wisconsin teenager found walking barefoot in pajamas outside in the cold last week had been forced to stay in an unfinished basement for years and an alarm would sound if she went upstairs, police records say.

The 15-year-old told authorities she ate what she could find in the garbage and on the floor of her father and stepmother’s Madison home. Sometimes she was made to eat her feces and drink her own urine, according to a police affidavit.

When Mike Vega found the teen Feb. 6, he says she was crying and walking barefoot in thin pajamas. She was bleeding from a gash on her nose and other small scrapes and was so scrawny he mistook her for an 8-year-old.

“It was the most shocking thing I have ever seen,” Vega, 31, said by phone Wednesday from his Madison home, recalling the afternoon when he found the teen. “A little girl looking like that. I’ve never seen anybody look like that to be honest.”

The girl’s 40-year-old father and 42-year-old stepmother, whom The Associated Press is not naming to protect the identity of the girl, were arrested Friday on suspicion of child abuse and neglect, and a judge set their bail Tuesday at $20,000 each.

A hearing was set for Thursday to review the bail and discuss the status of the charges, Dane County District Attorney Ismael Ozanne said. The prosecutor added that he was waiting to receive the evidence from police and couldn’t comment on when charges might be filed.

Madison police spokesman Joel DeSpain said the girl was getting follow-up medical treatment and remained in protective custody.

A doctor quoted in police reports said what the girl went through before Vega found her amounted to “torture.”

The girl said her father and stepmother had forced her to stay in the basement since 2006.

She told authorities she had to ask her stepmother for permission to eat, drink water or use the bathroom upstairs. She said if she was caught eating without permission, the couple would make her throw out the food or vomit it back up.

Vega, who lives about a mile from the girl and her family, said he was driving on a busy street not far from home when he spotted her. As he slowly passed her, he looked through his rearview mirror and saw her bare feet. He backed up and she told him she needed help.

Once she was inside Vega’s car, he noticed her bloody scrapes and a large bruise on her forehead. The girl’s feet were purple from the cold, he said.

She was scared at first, but Vega said she became more comfortable after he showed her photos of his three young sons and a Mary Poppins video on his cellphone.

According to police records, the girl told authorities she had been let out of the basement that day to “clean some papers” for her stepmother and that the woman became angry because she wasn’t doing the chore fast enough.

The teen told Vega the stepmother threw her back downstairs but she managed to escape out a window. Vega said the girl told him she feared the woman would throw her down the stairs again. She said the woman even threatened to kill her.

Vega said the girl “wasn’t crying, wasn’t hysterical” when she spoke about her stepmother’s alleged death threat. “But it wasn’t nonchalant either,” he said. “You could see fear in her eyes. It was very disturbing.”

The girl only weighed 70 pounds. Barbara Knox, a physician at American Family Children’s Hospital quoted in the police reports, told officers the malnutrition the girl suffered “poses a significant risk of death” and that chronic starvation had caused her puberty to be arrested. Knox also said the girl would be at high risk for other disorders and complications that can lead to death, according to the police affidavit.

Police said the father initially gave them medical explanations for his daughter’s condition, but that a hospital social worker told officers there was likely more to the case.

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