Friends say California couple charged with child abuse is extremely poor, not abusive

The plywood shelter is covered with tin and an aqua kiddie pool.

Twigs and mattress stuffing line the roof, apparently for insulation. Nearby, in this remote stretch of desert just outside Joshua Tree National Park, canned food sits on shelves beneath a camping stove. There is a trampoline and many children’s toys, bikes and storybooks on the ground.

A San Bernardino county sheriff’s deputy was patrolling here this week when he discovered a family with three children living in the shelter.

The children, 11, 13 and 14, slept for four years in the 4-foot-tall makeshift home of about 200 square feet, authorities said. The land had no electricity or water. There were holes filled with trash and human feces around the property.

Deputies arrested the parents, Mona Kirk, 51, and Daniel Panico, 73, on suspicion of willful cruelty to a child, and Children and Family Services took custody of the children. On Friday, Kirk and Panico were charged with three counts each of felony child abuse.

“Children should not have to live like that,” said Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff’s Department. “As parents they have a responsibility to provide the basic necessities for their children to grow up and be healthy and safe.”

Authorities initially reported that the children were living "in a box," and the situation drew comparisons to the Turpin case, in which 13 children were found living captive in their parents’ Perris home in January. Capt. Trevis Newport of the sheriff's Morongo Basin Station later clarified that the children were not being held captive.

"They're homeless," Newport said of the Joshua Tree family. "It's a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like when it came out."

Friends of the family say their situation is not at all one of criminal abuse, but of extreme poverty.

They describe highly intelligent children who were involved in soccer and scouts and who were cared for as best they could by struggling parents.

“The Sheriff’s Department is punishing those kids for being homeless,” said Leanna Munroe, who has known the family for nine years.

The family owned the property where they lived, records show. There is a trailer on the land, but it appeared to be empty. The shelter where deputies say the children slept was divided into two rooms — a larger one with mattresses, blankets, stuffed animals and food and a smaller one, with a green sofa and dining room chairs stacked on top of each other.

Cat food had been poured out around the property and a number of cats hid inside the trailer.

On Friday, Jackie Klear, of Yucca Valley, visited the property to collect some of the family’s things for safe keeping. She said Kirk and Panico were not criminals, but were in need of help.

The children, she said, “were very much loved.”

Klear is the leader of the Phoenix Scouts, a local scouting group. The three children were members, she said. They attended weekly meetings, went camping and made crafts together, she said. On Christmas, the children marched in an annual parade with matching red sweaters and Santa hats.

“I know this looks like crap,” Klear said, looking at the shelter. “But they were very well taken care of.”

Klear met Kirk years ago, when Kirk ran a Mommy and Me group for toddlers at a local community center, she said.

The children were home-schooled, and the mother and her children were constantly at the library and the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley, Klear said. The children were all well read and educated, she said. Klear described the father as a genius and said his oldest son was “just like him.”

“I’ve never seen a kid this smart,” she said. “He reads and reads and reads.”

The family lives on a fixed income that isn’t enough to get by, Klear said. Years ago, they rented a home for $1 a month. When that ended, the family parked a trailer behind Klear’s home and stayed for about a year, she said.

About four years ago, they took their trailer and moved to the desert property. Klear said she believed the shelter was a fort built by one of the children and that the family had been living in the trailer.

It was obvious the family was struggling, Klear said. She faulted the parents for resisting offers of help.

“They don’t want handouts,” she said. “I’m hoping this woke them up.”

Munroe, the family friend, said Kirk is the type of woman who would do anything to help other people, even if she was struggling. Several years ago, when Munroe faced eviction, Kirk gave her $500, she said.

Munroe said she believed the family had access to a vacation home in town, which they cared for and where they could sometimes stay. Sometimes the family also stayed at her home, she said.

The plywood shelter “looks horrendous, but they would only be there during the daytime,” Munroe said.

“Their crime is being homeless and they kept it from people,” said Marsha Custodio, of Yucca Valley, another friend of the family.

On Friday afternoon, Panico and Kirk appeared for arraignment at the Joshua Tree courthouse.

The couple wore street clothes — Panico was in a checkered shirt and jeans with black rimmed glasses; Kirk wore a purple blouse. Their wrists were handcuffed and they read through court papers as they waited for the hearing to begin. After awhile, Kirk covered her face with the papers to block it from numerous photographers in the courtroom.

They indicated that they could not afford to hire an attorney and asked the court to appoint one to represent them.

A public defender entered a not guilty plea on Kirk’s behalf, and San Bernardino Superior Court Judge Bert Swift entered a not guilty plea on Panico’s.

Swift also ordered the couple not to communicate with their children.

As the hearing was winding down, Panico spoke to the judge.

“I’m wondering why all this is happening,” he told Swift. “I want to say something. It’s ridiculous.”

He stopped talking after the public defender appointed to represent his wife recommended he wait to talk with his attorney.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

Alene Tchekmedyian and Richard Winton contributed to this report.

paloma.esquivel@latimes.com

@palomaesquivel

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