Two accused of withholding food and hanging their son from a hook surrender to police

Date: 2004-09-04

Donald Bradley and Joe Robertson

KANSAS CITY, Mo. Their south Kansas City neighbors knew Peter and Deedra Mitchell as parents who loved children, who adopted more than one child at a time to keep siblings together.

But Thursday the couple surrendered to police accused of withholding food from their six-year-old adopted son, locking him in the basement at night and forcing him to sleep on a rubber mat.

Peter Mitchell, 34, and Deedra Mitchell, 31, each face multiple counts of child abuse in a case that has baffled investigators, because the alleged cruelty was directed at only one of the couple's seven children, five of whom were adopted.

"Who knows why people do what they do?" Kansas City police Detective Thomas Dearing said. "But for some reason, this kid was singled out. When the other kids were upstairs celebrating Christmas, this boy was locked in the basement."

Dearing said the boy was severely malnourished when he was found. The other children appeared well cared for.

The alleged abuse was discovered in June when a caseworker with the Children's Division of the Missouri Department of Social Services, in response to a hot line call, went to the Mitchell home in the 8600 block of East 106th Street.

The caseworker removed all seven children from the home. The investigation indicated the boy had been handcuffed, often denied a bathroom and hung upside down in the garage and spun around until he vomited.

On Tuesday police took the Mitchells in for questioning but had to release them because charges had not been filed. Warrants were issued the next day.

On Thursday, amid a flood of media interest, the Mitchells turned themselves in.

Family friends and a relative who followed them inside police headquarters said they believed the Mitchells were innocent.

"They will be vindicated," said a man who identified himself as Peter Mitchell's brother. "They've (authorities) got this all wrong."

A male family friend who said he had known Peter Mitchell since childhood described Mitchell as "a sweet kid, the kind you would want your kids to hang out with."

Deb Hendricks, spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Social Services, said Thursday that a review of the couple's foster care license showed no earlier complaints.

Adoption records are sealed, so the agency could release no information about the adoptions.

Hendricks did say that the Mitchells received $1,600 a month in adoption maintenance and $1,800 in child-care subsidies.

There was no evidence, police and prosecutors said, that the Mitchells adopted children just for the money. A neighbor, Ray Robinson, also rejected that notion.

"He (Peter Mitchell) wasn't spending the money on himself," Robinson said. "All the money was being spent on the kids. Everything about them was centered on the kids."

Peter Mitchell worked in the bakery at a Johnson County Wal-Mart.

Hendricks said it was unusual for a couple to adopt five children, but happens when a "family group" is involved.

"We like to keep siblings together if possible and if parents are willing to take them all," Hendricks said.

When approving adoptions, investigators ensure that the home has sufficient space, each child has his own bed, genders are separated and that the parents have the financial ability to provide for a child's needs.

Adoptive parents also must pass a background check.

The Mitchells remained in police custody late Thursday. Bond for each was $50,000 bond. They were scheduled to appear in court at 1:30 p.m. Friday.

Peter Mitchell faces five counts of child abuse and one count of endangering the welfare of a child. Deedra Mitchell is charged with four counts of child abuse and one count of endangering the welfare of a child.

Peter Gromowsky, assistant Jackson County prosecutor, said he did not anticipate the filing of additional charges, because the evidence did not indicate that there were other victims.

Tamara Tucker, program and operations coordinator at the Child Abuse Prevention Association, said it was not uncommon for abusive parents to focus on a single child.

"Sometimes parents identify something in a child that is a trigger," Tucker said.

Sometimes the link is clear. For example, a mother may single out a child because that child's father was abusive or cheated on her.

Far more unusual, however, is for parents to team up in abuse.

The couple's neighbors have felt a hole in the community since authorities removed the children from the Mitchell home.

The Mitchells seemed to enjoy throwing birthday parties, neighbors said. And with seven children in the home, balloon-filled birthday celebrations were regular events that often spilled outdoors.

"My son would want to go to the party, and I'd say, `They look like they have too many kids already,' " Robinson said. "But Pete (Peter Mitchell) would say, `Come on over.' "

It seemed that some of the children were always outside playing, 76-year-old Elaine Hamilton said. And Peter Mitchell was always out watching over them, she said.

"And they knew they could only go a certain length down the sidewalk."

Sometimes Peter Mitchell would ride up and down the block on a bicycle, with one child strapped into a seat, and one or two more riding in bicycles hitched in a row behind, Robinson said.

John Mitchell, 54, who is not related to the family, said he had talked with Peter Mitchell about what was happening. He said Peter Mitchell told him that authorities had taken the children and that he suspected that someone in his family was mad at him and made an abuse complaint.

"This is hurting them," John Mitchell said.

Then came the news Wednesday that Peter and Deedra Mitchell had been charged with abusing one of the children.

The accusations were unbelievable, Hamilton said.

"I can't figure it out."

The oldest children, including the child allegedly abused, had been going to Johnson Elementary School in the Hickman Mills School District until early in the 2003-2004 school year, officials said.

The family informed the district that they were going to homeschool their children, said Stephanie Trugly, an associate superintendent at the district.

School staff members, who are trained to watch for signs of abuse, had seen nothing that concerned them before the children withdrew over a year ago.

"We're very surprised," Trugly said. "There was no indication of any neglect or abuse."

Knight Ridder staffer Benita Y. Williams contributed to this report.

(c) 2004, The Kansas City Star.

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