The Free Press, Mankato, MN

November 20, 2012

Update: Judge considers parental rights in child starvation case

By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer

ST PETER — A Nicollet County judge has agreed to consider a third request to have three children removed from a North Mankato house where a fourth child was allegedly being deprived of food.

District Court Judge Todd Westphal heard motion Tuesday by Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer to have three children removed from the home of Russell and Mona Hauer, both age 44. The Hauers were charged earlier this month with felony neglect, child endangerment and malicious punishment of a child for allegedly abusing an 8-year-old boy who has already been removed from their house just north of North Mankato on Highway 169.

The boy has been gaining weight and growing rapidly since he was removed from the house and placed on a regular diet, Fischer said.

Fischer has also started the civil court process to have the Hauers’ parental rights terminated permanently.

The boy weighed less than 35 pounds when Mona Hauer brought him to a doctor in Mankato on Oct. 9. She told a doctor she was concerned because he was ruminating his food and she thought he had spit up blood. Investigators later learned the Hauers had not been allowing the malnourished boy to eat beyond a liquid diet, reaching a point where they would sleep outside of his bedroom to make sure he didn’t get up at night to eat, according to the criminal complaint. Other allegations are that the boy was required to sleep in a plastic sled in the basement, cleaned outside with a garden hose and hit with a broom handle.

After Tuesday’s hearing Jason Kohlmeyer, the Hauers’ attorney, denied that the boy was ever physically abused and said the malnourishment was a result of mental illness and trauma due, in part, to fetal alcohol syndrome.

Fischer said she wants the Hauers’ remaining three children, a girl and two boys between the ages 7 and 10, removed from the house now because she is concerned they have been emotionally abused by watching and participating in the alleged abuse of the fourth child. The oldest child is the Hauers’ biological child and the other three children, including the boy who has been removed as a result of the charges, are adopted siblings.

Westphal said he would consider the motion along with new medical and witness information before issuing a ruling. He twice denied similar motions. One of those motions was made when a child in protective services case was filed for the boy taken out of the home. Another was in the form of an emergency motion Fischer made during a conference call.

The new information includes medical records that show there was no medical reason for the boy to be malnourished. He was treated in a hospital for more than a month and has since gained about 15 pounds and grown more than an inch. When he was taken out of the house he had the average weight and height of a four year old boy. He has also stopped ruminating and hiding food because he is no longer concerned that he won’t be fed the next day, Fischer told Westphal.

In some ways what was done to the child is worse than severe physical abuse that results from anger and a momentary lapse in judgment, Fischer said. And, if the child had been severely physically abused, the other children would have been removed from the house quickly.

“This is intentional behavior and not a loss of temper,” Fischer said. “This is deliberate and systematic behavior by these parents.”

After the hearing Kohlmeyer said the Hauers admit they made mistakes, which started with a decision to not get psychological care for the boy that was recommended by a doctor when he was adopted about five years ago. They didn’t understand until know how severe the boy’s problems were.

“I think if we could take this child and put him back in the house with the counseling and change in diet, he would thrive,” Kohlmeyer said.

Fischer also said she was concerned about telephone conversations the Hauers have had with the boy while he has been living with another foster family. Even though Westphal has ordered them to not talk about the case with him, their foster mother reported the boy’s parents asked him to pray for the judge, pray for the trial and pray to end the nightmare.

Kohlmeyer said the Hauers are a religious family that attends Bethel Baptist Church in Mankato. It isn’t uncommon for them to pray, so they weren’t attempting to influence the child.

Fischer also gave Westphal emails Nicollet County social services employees received from a former foster parent who voiced concerns for the children.

More than 40 people, many of them from Bethel Baptist Church, packed into the courtroom Tuesday. A few had to stand during the hearing, which lasted more than an hour.

Many had written letters to Westphal supporting the Hauers. Some had reported that they didn’t realize there were any problems with the malnourished boy until the charges were filed.

Fischer also made several other motions Tuesday, including a request for a court order to allow the 8-year-old boy to attend a public school in the city where he is living now. The Hauers’ children are home schooled, so Kohlmeyer argued against the motion. He said Mona Hauer would be willing to travel to the boy’s new foster home three days per week to teach him.

“They would prefer to have all the kids together,” Kohlmeyer said. “The other children haven’t seen their brother in awhile.”

Kohlmeyer did not object to Fischer’s motions to have all of the children receive counseling or to have medical records for the boy released. So Westphal granted those motions during the hearing.

There was some disagreement about whether the criminal trial or the termination of parental rights trial should start first. State law allows Fischer to decide and she said she wanted to move forward with the parental rights trial first. Westphal set a Jan. 7 start date for that trial.

However, Kohlmeyer said a motion has been filed to have a speedy trial in the criminal case. The Hauers are not scheduled to make their first appearance for that case until Dec. 11, but Kohlmeyer said they have asked the judge handling that case, Alison Krehbiel, to move that date forward.

Even if the criminal case starts sooner, there will likely be motion hearings that will move a trial date out to February or later even if a speedy trial is requested, Fischer said.