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Caregivers charged with holding 5 children, 2 adults in basement


Caregivers charged with holding 5 children, 2 adults in basement

Thursday, September 20, 2007 12:12 AM EDT

HARRISBURG, Pa. — One of the adopted boys languished for most of his days inside a locked and unlit 4-foot-by-5-foot cinderblock cell, sleeping on a concrete floor with only a blanket, police said.

But authorities say conditions were not much better for his four brothers and the two disabled women also confined to the locked basement of a Lancaster home.

Showers, for the two boys who got them, occurred only once a week or so, and the seven shared a portable toilet that one of the brothers emptied by hauling a bucket upstairs daily, police said.

On Tuesday, nearly a year after a phone tip led police to the squalid living conditions, charges were filed against the Lancaster couple that had been paid about $9,000 a month to care for the seven.

Newly filed court documents allege that the children and two women were generally not allowed to go upstairs or outside, their radio or television could only be tuned to Christian programming and making noise could result in a spanking with a spatula or wooden paddle.

James Gordon Dickinson, 61, and Stephanie Lutz Dickinson, 57, were charged with false imprisonment, recklessly endangering others and endangering children’s welfare. Stephanie Dickinson was also charged with witness intimidation.

Being sent to the cinder block “toy room” where the 14-year-old boy was kept was a form of punishment for the others as well, police said. Three of the children and both women were described as having “mental/physical” disabilities.

The five boys had been adopted by the couple starting in 1998. Two are now 14 years old, while the others are 6, 12 and 15. The women, 54 and 57, were placed with the couple in 1992 and 1995.

A Lancaster city detective learned of the conditions Oct. 31 from a woman whose ex-boyfriend rented an apartment in the same building. Officers immediately went to the home and rescued the victims, police said.

Breakfast for the seven usually consisted of peanut butter sandwiches, and dinner was often a crock pot meal prepared by Stephanie Dickinson — including a dish known as “doggie dew stew,” police said. The Dickinsons were never present for the meals.

Two of the older boys took care of everyone when they were not in school, according to police. During the day, one of the women was in charge.

The seven had unsupervised access to prescription medications and rat poison, police said. No one was allowed inside the basement refrigerator without permission and they were required to drink water from the sink.

During one of the supervised visits the Dickinsons were granted after the five boys were placed in foster care, Stephanie Dickinson allegedly told the 15-year-old boy that “he needed to make things right, that if the family got broken, it would be his fault and he would have to deal with the weight of that on his shoulders,” police said.

The Dickinsons remained in the Lancaster County Prison on Wednesday after bail for each was set at $500,000. A district court spokeswoman said they were not represented by lawyers.

Stephanie Dickinson said she was innocent while being led away by police on Tuesday.

“I love my children very, very much,” she told WGAL-TV. “I did not do the things they said I did.”

Child welfare agencies have limited authority to monitor the care of adopted children, even if their parents receive public money to care for them. The Dickinsons were given an adoption subsidy consisting of federal, state and county dollars, said Stacey Witalec with the Pennsylvania Public Welfare Department.

Families adopting children who are disabled or are at least five years old are eligible for the subsidies, regardless of income, but under federal mandates do not have to disclose how they spend the money, Witalec said.

Witalec said home studies and background checks conducted for the adoptions did not indicate any problems.

Crystal Gingrich, director of the Lancaster County Children and Youth Services department, said the boys did not come to her agency’s attention before the police were tipped off. Since their removal, “their needs are being appropriately met and they’re doing well,” she said Wednesday.

Last year, the chief of human services for Lancaster County said social workers involved with the two women had been “a little bit thwarted” in efforts to check on them because the family had moved into the home a few months before the conditions were discovered.

2007 Sep 20