Woman denies locking children in room; Trial of Montvale couple turns to shouting matches

Date: 2004-01-16

Record, The (Hackensack, NJ)
Author: By KIBRET MARKOS, STAFF WRITER

A woman on trial with her husband for child neglect got into a shouting match Thursday with a prosecutor, denying that she locked the couple's adopted children alone in their bedroom.

"My kids were taken away from me, and you want jail time for me?" Maureen Culhane yelled from the witness stand at Bergen County Assistant Prosecutor Patricia Baglivi.

Several times during the hour-long cross-examination in Hackensack, Culhane and Baglivi shouted at each another, as defense attorneys jumped in with objections and Superior Court Judge Donald Venezia often had to break up the arguments to restore order.

Culhane, 51, and her husband, Michael, 54, are charged with leaving the two children alone in a filthy Montvale home for nearly four hours in October 2002. Their attorneys, in turn, say the couple did nothing wrong except to live in a messy house. If convicted, the Culhanes face up to 10 years in prison.

Maureen Culhane broke down several times Thursday as she recounted how she had to wait for five years to adopt the 3-year-old boy and the 5-year-old girl from Latvia after she couldn't become pregnant.

"I never left my kids alone in a room," she told jurors on the second day of the trial.

The day before, Montvale's building code official had testified that he found both youngsters soiled and disheveled in a bedroom reeking of urine during an inspection of the run-down house on West Grand Avenue.

The official, Raymond Dressler, told jurors he saw the Culhanes leaving without the children just before he arrived the morning of Oct. 18, 2003, and he waited there until the couple returned in the afternoon.

During her testimony Thursday, Maureen Culhane said she and her husband took the children with them that day and never left them alone in the house.

Answering questions from her attorney, Mark Musella, Culhane tearfully described herself and her husband as Irish immigrants who came to the United States in January 1990 through a diversity visa lottery. The couple had a suitcase and $800 between them, she told jurors.

She and her husband each worked two jobs, Culhane said - she as a registered nurse in Hackensack and he as a jack-of-all-trades in construction, cleaning, and any other field that offered opportunity. They saved enough money to buy the Montvale house in 1997, she said. They adopted the two children in 2001.

Culhane insisted that the youngsters were never malnourished or abused physically or sexually.

But Baglivi said during cross-examination that the children saw a doctor only once between July 2001 and October 2002, despite suffering from learning and cognitive disabilities.

She also said Maureen Culhane is still on probation for a felony conviction in New York state.

The Culhanes were convicted in September 2000 of neglecting an 87-year-old woman in a rooming house they operated in Pearl River, N.Y. Michael Culhane was sentenced to six months in the Rockland County Jail and his wife to 416 hours of community service on weekends. Both were placed on five years' probation as part of their plea agreement, records show.

The Montvale house was declared uninhabitable after the October 2002 inspection, Dressler said. The two children were placed in a foster home under the custody of the state Division of Youth and Family Services, Baglivi said.

Maureen Culhane was to continue testifying today.

Defense attorney Frank Lucianna, who represents Michael Culhane, said he had not decided whether his client would testify.

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