DENVER (AP) - Four undernourished Colorado boys who were living in squalor and unable to speak face a long and uncertain path to recovery, an expert said, but there is at least some hope for their future.
The brothers, ages 2 to 6, were removed from what police described as a filthy Denver apartment late last month and placed in state custody. Their parents, Wayne Sperling and Lorinda Bailey, appeared in court Tuesday on charges of felony child abuse.
"These kids have lived in such a bizarre environment that they probably haven't developed any level of trust," said Diane Baird, a licensed clinical social worker and a pediatrics instructor at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.
"These guys are going to have a really hard time through it. They need good therapists and good caregivers," said Baird, who isn't directly involved in the case.
Asked if they can recover, Baird said they could, to some extent. Then she added, "People change beyond my wildest imaginings sometimes."
Doctors found the boys were malnourished, were not toilet-trained and had poor and delayed verbal skills, according to an arrest warrant affidavit. They made "infant-like noises" to each other, one officer reported.
The apartment where they lived was littered with feces, cat urine and flies, police said. It had an unbearable odor like that of a decaying animal.
Bailey, 35, is free on bail. She declined to comment after Tuesday's court hearing. Sperling, 66, was still in custody Wednesday. The state Public Defender's Office refused to release his attorney's name.
Baird said the four boys will spend their entire lives recovering from their early years.
"The first thing they need is a healing attachment relationship," she said, one that teaches them to trust that caregivers will attend to their needs.
"These children have had very distorted kinds of early experience," Baird said. Future caregivers will have to help them "undo what they think about the world and human beings."
They will face problems learning to develop relationships and intimacy with other people and will probably always struggle with self-worth because "they weren't cherished," Baird said.
"Neglect is at least as harmful as abuse, and maybe more" she said.
Who will care for the boys over the long term is up to a judge. If the judge and child-welfare workers believe the parents can successfully care for the children, they could regain custody. If not, the parents would lose their rights and the boys could be adopted after they are stabilized in a therapeutic foster home, Baird said.
Sperling and Bailey had three other children who were removed from their home after a 2006 incident, according to court records. The current whereabouts and status of those children is not publicly known.
"That certainly ups the ante" in the decision about the four boys' future, Baird said.
Whether the brothers are placed in a single family or separated depends on whether child-welfare workers think they can best recover together or apart, Baird said.
Sometimes siblings can help each other build relationships with adults.
"Other times, siblings are so bound in their relationships which defend against adult relationships that they reinforce each other's mistrust," Baird said.
If they were separated, they would still have sibling visits and therapy together, she said.
Baird said she believes adoptive parents could be found for the boys, despite the difficulties they face.
"There are a lot of amazing people out there who really do this because they want to help children get better," she said.