By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — After spending nearly four days listening to witnesses describe why they suspect she abused and neglected one of her four children to the point of near starvation, Mona Hauer had a chance to tell District Court Judge Todd Westphal her side of the story.
For more than an hour, Hauer described in court late last week why she became a Nicollet County foster care provider, explaining the routines of her family and denying allegations she and her husband, Russell, abused their 8-year-old adopted son.
She also told the judge she would be willing to alter her long-held beliefs about mental health counseling, home schooling and holistic medicine if it meant she could get her son back and keep her other three children.
The Hauers spent the week going through a trial that will provide Westphal with the information he will use to determine if they should keep their parental rights. The trial is expected to continue well into this week.
The rural North Mankato couple also is facing criminal charges for allegedly allowing their 8-year-old adopted son to become so malnourished he had to spend about a month in the hospital recovering. That boy has been placed in foster care, but the Hauers’ other three children — two who are biological siblings of the 8-year-old — are living with them until Westphal decides if they can maintain their parental rights.
During her testimony, Hauer answered questions from her attorney, Jason Kohlmeyer. She started by telling Westphal why she and her husband started taking in foster care children.
“I just love to help people,” she said. “I really love to be around kids. We were only able to have one child and I wanted (him) to have the experience of having other children around.”
Hauer said the family spent thousands of dollars making improvements to their house just north of North Mankato off Highway 169. Egress windows had to be added to their basement, a 12-passenger van was purchased and $5,000 was spent on a playground installed in their backyard. Any suggestion by investigators that the Hauers were doing foster care for the money was wrong, she said. The most the family was paid for services in one year was about $15,000.
It was September 2006 when the Hauers and their biological son decided to adopt three young children who had been taken away from their mother. Dakota County social workers asked if they could help and arranged a visit. Mona Hauer said she immediately knew she wanted to adopt the children, including the boy she is now accused of starving.
“For me, it was just right away,” she said. “It’s one of those things that hits you in the gut: ‘These are my kids.’”
Kohlmeyer then focused on allegations made by investigators with the Nicollet County Sheriff’s Department and the Le Sueur County Human Services Department. They were responding to reports from the hospital in Mankato saying the boy was severely malnourished when he was brought there by Mona Hauer.
Nicollet County social workers asked Le Sueur County to investigate. They were concerned about a conflict of interest because the Hauers had been licensed by Nicollet County to provide foster care.
The investigators reported the Hauers’ son hadn’t received special counseling he needed, had been ostracized by the rest of the family, was kept from eating regular meals, faced beatings with boards, and reached a point of malnourishment that forced him to eat bird seed and look for food in the family’s compost pile.
Addressing those allegations, Hauer said she
doesn’t ever remember being given specific recommendations for the 8-year-old boy’s counseling needs. She said the boy had never been left out of family activities and joined the family for regular meals three times a day, where he was encouraged to eat what everyone else was eating. Aside from a short period a couple of years ago where the family tried unsuccessfully to use spanking as a punishment, the boy and his siblings had never been beaten, Hauer said.
The boy did have an eating disorder where he would regurgitate food, she said. The disorder happened for short periods of time that coincided with “low points” such as Mother’s Day and birthdays, then went away.
“To some degree, there always was a food issue,” Hauer said. “It just changed over the years.”
At one point the disorder became so bad the boy
wasn’t eating normally but was getting up at odd hours of the night to find food in the house, she said. He was eating peanuts out of bird food, taking food from the compost pile and attempted to eat raw hamburger out of the refrigerator.
Hauer said she and her husband were concerned the behavior was becoming dangerous at that point, which resulted in the couple taking turns sleeping in a hallway outside the boy’s bedroom. That lasted four months before Russell Hauer bought an alarm at a home improvement store and installed it on the boy’s bedroom.
He was in an especially long low period, possibly caused by a couple of fires in the neighborhood that were traumatic for all four children, before Mona Hauer took him to the hospital Oct. 9, she said. He had eaten a popsicle without his mother knowing and she thought the red stain on his shirt was blood that had been regurgitated.
The incident was almost a relief, Hauer said. She had been trying to describe the boy’s eating problems to others, including a chiropractor who suggested feeding the boy nutrition drinks to help the eating disorder. The family used a chiropractor as its first stop for medical treatment, Hauer said, because she believes in using the “least invasive” options first.
“The fires really brought (him) down lower than before and we just did everything we could to bring him out of the dip,” she said.
“Now there was something physical I could show them. Before it was just behaviors I would try to explain to them.”
Hauer said she was surprised when she found out her son was way underweight and needed to be taken to St. Marys Hospital in Rochester by ambulance. The boy was intelligent and independent. She said she hadn’t seen him without a shirt for several weeks because he showered and dressed on his own.
Hauer also said allegations the boy was mistreated because he had a bed wetting problem are false. The boy was sleeping in a plastic sled, but that’s because plastic coverings on his bed hadn’t worked and her husband decided they needed something with edges. They shopped for plastic beds, such as the ones shaped like a race car, but decided to use the sled because they believed the situation would be temporary. The boy had a pillow and blankets in the sled, she said.
Witnesses from the Hauers’ church and a woman who camps near them at Kiesler’s Campground in Waseca also were called to testify. That woman, Susan Bartel Smith of Stewartville, told Westphal she has spent many summer weekends with the Hauer family during the past four years. They shared meals together, went to the pool together and she joined them for pontoon rides on Clear Lake.
The boy was never left out and never kept from eating, Smith said.
Kohlmeyer said he is planning to call about 40 witnesses to testify on the Hauers’ behalf before the trial is over.
At the end of Mona Hauer’s testimony, Kohlmeyer asked her if she would be willing to send her children to public schools, bring them to a family doctor and provide them with counseling if it meant she could get her son back and keep her other three children.
“I would do whatever I need to keep my kids,” she said.