Mike Martindale / The Detroit News
Waterford Township— She tried to make her children cold, police say, so they would seek warmth in a deathtrap.
Sometime Sunday night, Shanda Lou Yenglin turned the thermostat in her home down to a chilly 53 degrees, treated her four adopted children to drug-laced milkshakes and led them out to sleep in a minivan running inside a closed garage.
The 37-year-old woman's unthinkable plot was to kill not only herself, but the children — ages 10 to 14 — with deadly exhaust fumes, Waterford Township Police Chief Daniel T. McCaw said.
"I am going to give you a sad story, a tragic story," McCaw told reporters Tuesday.
While Yenglin succeeded in her own suicide, the children all survived because one girl woke up and went back into the house on Barker Drive for a blanket, McCaw said. When the 13-year-old returned to the vehicle, she found her mother dead on the garage floor and sought help, possibly saving all their lives.
It was the final and perhaps most gruesome of Yenglin's acts of abuse toward the children, according to Oakland Circuit Court records that show she assaulted one with a wrench, beat others with clothes hangers and shoved one boy onto the floor so hard it cracked his front teeth.
Yenglin died from acute carbon monoxide poisoning, an autopsy by the Oakland County Medical Examiner's Office determined. She was found in the garage, her Chevrolet Venture van engine running, about 8:18 a.m. Monday by the daughter who woke up her 14-year-old sister and made a 911 call.
Yenglin was pronounced dead at the scene. A 10-year-old boy was inside the van, unresponsive. An 11-year-old boy, in a bedroom, also was unresponsive. And the two girls, wandering inside the house, were confused. The children were rushed to an area hospital for treatment of fumes and drug ingestion.
McCaw said both girls have been released from the hospital, and the boys "were doing well and are expected to be released" Tuesday night or today.
He said Yenglin left a suicide note on the dashboard of the van and a bowl of food overflowing inside the home to feed her cat when they were all gone.
"She was setting in place a plan to kill herself and all her children," McCaw said.
Mom lost custody
Oakland Circuit Court records show Yenglin — a single mother with a history of substantiated abuse and neglect of her children dating to 2002 — lost temporary custody of all the children in May amid an investigation by the state Department of Human Services.
She did not contest the allegations of abuse and neglect and met with counselors arranged by DHS workers.
In the past year, she had been granted supervised visits and in January, unsupervised visits.
The children were with Yenglin for a visit — their third — which was supposed to be from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.
Saturday, McCaw said. But she called the foster home where the girls lived and the state facility where the boys stayed and used the bad weather as an excuse for not returning them.
A court order examined by The News permits unsupervised visits at the discretion of the DHS but states, in bold print, "No overnight visits."
But the children remained with her into Sunday night, McCaw said. On Monday morning, the foster parents of the girls called police to report a parental kidnapping — about an hour after Waterford police had received the 911 call and made the grim find at the house, McCaw said.
Court records indicate Yenglin was working with the DHS in an effort to regain custody.
McCaw did not release details of the suicide note, but stressed it is believed to have been written by Yenglin and the wording indicated "she seemed depressed."
Abuse, neglect probed
Oakland Circuit Court records provide some insight into what had been going on in the home for nine years.
Yenglin, who adopted all four of the children, was married briefly but had the marriage annulled in December 2005. That husband had adopted one of the boys, but the fathers of the other three children are unknown.
Yenglin has been the focus of DHS investigations several times since 2002. Abuse and neglect cases were substantiated twice.
In 2009, she hit one boy, then 8, in the head with a wrench, according to Children's Protective Services investigators, who found "additional instances of children having their hair pulled, being hit with hangers, and being pushed against the walls by mother were substantiated at that time."
In February 2009, Yenglin assured Children's Protective Services workers she "would no longer use physical discipline as a form of punishment." She was offered "intensive in-home services," but workers reported she "has not benefitted from these services and continues to place her children at the continued risk of harm."
In May 2010, Yenglin pushed the head of one boy, then 9 years old, onto the bathroom floor with enough force to crack his three front teeth, according to records. She did not seek dental repair until the following day, when she instructed the boy to tell the dentist he slipped and fell.
The boy's 11-year-old brother was reportedly slammed onto the floor by Yenglin with enough force to knock the wind out of him.
A report filed in May 2010 said that boy "remains afraid of mother hurting him."
She did not contest the recent allegations, and in May, all four children were removed from the home and placed in foster and state care.
Records show Yenglin was reported to have been making progress, including taking anger management counseling, but state workers and the court still felt it was not safe for the children to be reunited with their mother.
"… Returning these children would present a substantial risk of harm at this time," Oakland Referee Twila Leigh wrote in a January report.
"Reasonable efforts are being made to return these children. Family counseling has happened with mother and all of the children; individual counseling has happened with mother and she is making progress. Progress has been made. The children continue to be in need of placement. Reasonable efforts have to continue. The children are placed with DHS for care and planning.
"At this time, DHS has discretion to start unsupervised parenting time."
The next court date, for review and permanency planning, was scheduled for March 23.