The Free Press, Mankato, MN

Local News

April 18, 2013

Nicollet County judge terminates parental rights of couple accused of starving their son

ST PETER — An 8-year-old boy taken from his parents' rural North Mankato home last year after they were charged with felony neglect and abuse will not be returned, according to a judge's order.

The criminal charges filed against Russell Hauer, 45, and Mona Hauer, 44, have been on hold while Nicollet County District Court Judge Todd Westphal decided whether their parental rights should be terminated. Westphal's order also said the Hauers' other three children can continue to live with them. However, they will remain supervised by the county through child protective services at a level that will be determined later.

All four of the Hauers' children were victims of child abuse and emotional maltreatment, Westphal's order said. He also said the Hauers were not providing the three children who will remain in their care with the mental health and moral guidance they need.

The harm against the 8-year-old was serious enough that he can't be returned to the home under county supervision, Westphal said. He said he doesn't believe the Hauers deliberately harmed their son, but found there was a "perfect storm" of preventable circumstances that resulted in the boy becoming severely malnourished.

The other children were not as harmed by the actions that resulted in the criminal charges against their parents, Westphal said.

The boy who has been taken from the Hauers' home weighed 35 pounds when Mona Hauer brought him to a doctor in Mankato on Oct. 9. She told the doctor she was concerned because the boy was ruminating food and she thought he had spit up blood. He spent nearly a month at St. Marys hospital in Rochester being treated for starvation. He has grown and gained weight since he has been with his foster parents.

Investigators learned the Hauers' were not giving the boy the medical care that was recommended after he was adopted from an abusive home. They also were told the boy had been living on a liquid diet, forced to sleep in a sled in the basement due to bed wetting problems and punished with a broom handle.

The Hauers have pleaded not guilty to the felony charges of child neglect, child endangerment and malicious punishment of a child. A trial has been set to start June 17 before District Court Judge Allison Krehbiel.

Their attorney, Jason Kohlmeyer, told the Associated Press they haven't decided whether to appeal Westphal's ruling.

"They'll do some praying on it, we'll do some talking on it and we'll see what happens," he said.

Westphal's ruling was critical of some of the evidence presented by Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer during a court trial in January. Fischer and Kohlmeyer called dozens of witnesses during the trial before Westphal.

One witness called by Fischer, Dr. Sylvia Ashley-Cameron, is a Mankato doctor who had only seen the 8-year-old boy once in 2007. She had also seen the entire Hauer family when they were in for appointments with foster children in their care.

Another witness for Fischer was Deena McMahon, a St. Paul social worker who completed a parental review of the Hauers. She also completed interviews with the Hauers' three children at home and an interview with the 8-year-old boy after he was placed in foster care.

Both witnesses were critical of the Hauers and their treatment of the boy.

Kohlmeyer called several friends and neighbors of the Hauers to testify on their behalf.

"In general, their testimony suggested a close loving relationship between the Hauers and the children," Westphal said in his order. "The picture painted by these witnesses is in sharp contrast with the picture arrived at by Dr. Cameron and Deena McMahon based on their somewhat limited observations.

"This discrepancy, in the Court's eyes, raises some questions as to the accuracy or reliability of some of Cameron's and McMahon's opinions and prognostications."

Westphal noted that the friends and neighbors didn't have the expertise of Fischer's witnesses, but most of them had parental experience that should have prompted them to find at least some flaws with the Hauers if it was bad as Ashley-Cameron and McMahon had described.

"From this the Court concludes that things were not as perfect as the lay witnesses perceived, but that things were likewise not as dire as the experts have opined," Westphal said.

Westphal also said Fischer was being "hypercritical" for pointing out the Hauers home was messy during a child protection investigation. He said the mess could be explained by the fact that the Hauers had just winterized a summer trailer in Waseca and had been spending time in Rochester at the hospital with their son.

Westphal was also critical of the Hauers' approach to parenting. He said they were "strict and inflexible" and their aversion to traditional health care was a key reason the boy became so malnourished. One example he provided was the Hauers' decision to fight the recommendations by doctors to feed their son dairy products to build up dangerously low phosphorus levels.

"The court finds the Hauers" unwavering opposition to the administration of dairy products under these circumstances to be troubling at best," Westphal said. "Given (the boy's) dire condition, the Court believes that most parents facing this scenario would opt for following the course of treatment recommended by the doctor, rather than suggesting that the hospital look for other sources of phosphorus."

A May 7 hearing has been scheduled for Westphal to impose child in protective services requirements for the three children who are staying with the Hauers.

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