Child abuse case ends in probation

Date: 2006-06-15

In five years, the parents' convictions could be cleared from public record.

Joe Lambe

Jun. 15--The law, judges will tell you, often plays out in shades of gray. Two years ago, things seemed black for Peter and Deedra Mitchell when prosecutors alleged that they starved their 6-year-old adopted son, handcuffed him, locked him in the basement and otherwise abused him. The state took away the Kansas City couple's seven young children in a case that one state worker recently said still haunted her. Pictures of the victim, taken in 2004, show a malnourished boy with ribs and stomach protruding. He looked like a famine victim, she said. But on Wednesday, a Jackson County judge sentenced the Mitchells to five years of probation each. Prosecutors did not seek prison time -- they just wanted the pair to have criminal records. Prosecutors lost even that. If the Mitchells complete probation, their convictions vanish from public record. Peter Mitchell, 36, previously pleaded guilty to two counts of child abuse and one of child endangerment for withholding food and hanging the boy upside down in a garage and spinning him around. Deedra Mitchell, 33, pleaded to child abuse and endangerment for withholding food. Both adults had entered no-contest pleas, acknowledging that prosecutors had enough evidence to convict them. Several other charges against each were dismissed. By then, black had turned gray.

How and why became clear Wednesday in a sentencing hearing before Judge Edith Messina. The state worker who investigated the abuse wanted the Mitchells sent to prison, but two other workers praised them for working hard to become better parents. Since their arrest, the Mitchells had attended every parent training and counseling session possible. Last year, another Family Court judge returned custody of their two biological and five adopted children. The boy they had starved, now 7, for now remains in a residential treatment home for emotional problems, which he had before the Mitchells adopted him, his younger sister and his baby brother. The boy and his sister had been abused and moved through six foster homes. The Mitchells' other adopted children had similar problems. Defense lawyer Dave Fry, who represents Deedra Mitchell, told the judge that extraordinary children "were taken in by extraordinarily compassionate parents without extraordinary skills as parents." Deedra Mitchell, 33, cried as she told the judge of their struggles to deal with their son. "He said he didn't want to follow the rules, he didn't want to live with us anymore," she said. They would go into the kitchen in the morning and find it demolished and him in bed with cake and frosting all over his face, she said. He stayed in the basement with a mat to sleep on because "we were trying to get him to see he needed us." When he was stealing food, she said, "we were trying to teach him cause and effect -- that if he took this, he wouldn't get that." As for handcuffing him, the Mitchells explained that as an attempt to show what police would do if he kept stealing. Peter Mitchell hung the boy from a punching bag in the garage, spun him around, and told him his life was out of control and he needed to jump into his dad's arms and let him take care of him, a state worker said. "As for our parenting skills, there was definitely room for improvement. I promise you this will never happen again," Peter Mitchell told the judge. Assistant Prosecutor Mary Beth Lundak argued, "There is no excuse for starving a child. ... The Mitchells should have a criminal record to remind them of what they did." Messina denied that request but warned the couple she could sentence them to five years on each count if they fail probation.

People talk of courts sending harsh messages, she said, but courts also can help people. To reach Joe Lambe, call (816) 234-4314 or send e-mail to jlambe@kcstar.com.

Copyright (c) 2006, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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