By Dan Nienaber
Free Press Staff Writer
ST PETER — Investigators say a malnourished North Mankato child was starved to the point that he foraged for food in a compost pile, was regularly beaten with boards in front of his three siblings and was rebuked so often he was viewed as “the Antichrist” of the family.
An attorney representing the 8-year-old boy’s parents accused those investigators of jumping to conclusions about his 44-year-old clients, Russell and Mona Hauer. Jason Kohlmeyer said the couple had been considered “fantastic” foster care parents before Mona Hauer brought her adopted son to the hospital to be treated for problems resulting from what she believed was an eating disorder.
As a trial to decide whether the Hauers will be allowed to keep their parental rights started Monday before Nicollet County District Court Judge Todd Westphal, Kohlmeyer said he would provide evidence that allegations of child abuse are unfounded. The family went to church every Sunday and spent summer weekends camping a Kiesler’s Campground in Waseca.
“Their neighbors at the campground will say the abuse is not possible,” Kohlmeyer said during his opening statement before Westphal, who will decide whether to terminate the Hauers’ parental rights. “Investigators didn’t interview them. Once their mind was made up, they didn’t want to go back and change it.”
The boy spent about a month in the hospital to be treated for starvation and was brought to a foster home in another city after he was released. The Hauers’ other three children also were taken from the home just north of Mankato on Highway 169 after the child abuse investigation started. Westphal issued an order saying those children should be returned to the home after the Hauers challenged their removal.
Victor Atherton, a Le Sueur County child abuse investigator, was the first witness called by Nicollet County Attorney Michelle Zehnder Fischer. She told Westphal she wants all of the Hauers’ children removed because they were abused by being forced to participate in their brother’s alleged abuse.
The boy was about 3-foot-5 and 34 pounds when he was first brought to the hospital, she said. He has since grown more than 2 inches and has gained more than 22 pounds.
Nicollet County Social Services authorities asked Atherton to investigate after the boy’s situation was reported by Mayo Clinic Health System in Mankato. Nicollet County officials were concerned about a conflict of interest because the county had licensed the Hauers to provide foster care, Atherton said.
The hospital report was made Oct. 9 and Atherton called Mona Hauer on Oct. 10. They arranged to meet at the boy’s hospital room in Mankato for an interview the following day. After that first interview, Atherton said he was led to believe the boy had an eating disorder and he was going to keep his initial plan to suggest counseling options for the family.
That plan changed Oct. 17, however, after Atherton received another report from doctors at St. Marys Hospital in Rochester, where the Hauers’ son had been transferred to be treated. That report said there was no medical reason for the boy’s malnourishment. The boy was starving because his parents had been punishing him by not allowing him to eat, Atherton said.
The Hauers rarely brought the children to medical doctors and said they had been treating the boy’s eating problems through advice from a chiropractor. If the boy hadn’t found a red popsicle to eat, which melted on his shirt and made Mona Hauer think he was spitting up blood, he wouldn’t have been taken to the hospital, Atherton said.
He decided to call law enforcement and start an in-depth investigation, which resulted in Atherton and Nicollet County sheriff’s investigator Marc Chadderdon going to the Hauers’ house on Oct. 23. Mona Hauer was interviewed again and the three other children were taken to a social services office in North Mankato to be interviewed. Russell Hauer was out of town on business, Atherton said.
It was during those interviews that the other children told investigators their brother wasn’t allowed to eat with them and they were told to keep him from eating. A brother said he knew the boy was eating from the compost pile, and that he would ask him to leave the best leftover food on top. That boy also said his brother was so hungry he was eating bird food.
The children also told Atherton their 8-year-old brother was frequently called a liar and a thief because he would leave his room at night and take food. They said he was spanked with a board in front of them except when the family had visitors. When others were around, the boy would be brought to a shed and spanked.
A problem with bed wetting also resulted in the boy being forced to sleep in a plastic sled. A brother said it was his job to wash his brother with a garden hose outside when he urinated in the sled.
“In my 21 years of doing this, I’ve never seen children participate in abuse like this,” Atherton said. “The children were told that (the boy) was the cause of all the problems in the house. When they were told they were going to foster care, they blamed (their brother). They called him a liar. He was the Antichrist of the family.
“Everything was very methodical.”
During cross examination, Kohlmeyer asked Atherton if he had interviewed any of the Hauers’ neighbors or acquaintances about the allegations coming from children between the ages of 7 and 10. Atherton said he hadn’t.
Donald High, a neighbor of the Hauers, was allowed to testify early because he won’t be available later. Answering questions from Kohlmeyer, he told Westphal that he saw the family frequently and doesn’t believe any of the allegations. He said he couldn’t see the Hauers’ backyard from his house, but he never saw the boy being hosed down or beaten.
“They’re very loving and caring parents,” High said.