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Ankeny couple gets probation for physically, verbally abusing adopted children


STEPHEN GRUBER-MILLER   | The Des Moines Register

An Ankeny couple will spend two years on probation after pleading guilty to abusing two of their nine adopted children last year.

John, 56, and Joyce, 58, Bell each pleaded guilty in May to two counts of child endangerment. The couple was sentenced Thursday afternoon by Polk County District Court Judge Heather Lauber.

The crime is an aggravated misdemeanor and the Bells could have faced up to two years in prison for each count. But Lauber said the two demonstrated that they took the crimes seriously and accepted responsibility for their actions. Felony charges of child endangerment causing bodily injury were dropped as part of the plea.

"I do feel terribly bad about what happened a year ago," Joyce Bell said in court Thursday, adding that she's been through counseling.

"We love those kids. We love all our kids and I can't express how bad I feel."

The Bells were arrested last July after Ankeny police turned over 68 police reports in response to a Des Moines Register Reader's Watchdog probe into years of reported child abuse in the couple’s home.

One video turned over to Ankeny police showed John Bell and his 16-year-old mildly autistic son screaming and hitting each other in their living room. The teen wailed in a high pitch as his father restrained his flailing hands and then repeatedly hit the boy with the back of a hand and a fist.

"I will hit you in the f---ing mouth," Bell threatened, rocking back and forth on the couch, clutching a knee and crying.

"I’ll kill you!" the boy screamed back.

"The situation got out of control and I regret it," John Bell said in court Thursday. "I wish I could turn it back, take it back so they didn’t feel any pain."

In a statement read in court by Assistant Polk County Attorney Nan Horvat, the teenager said he had forgiven his parents.

"I would like to go home because I miss my mom and dad," he said in the statement.

The other victim said in a statement read by Horvat that he felt "horribly upset and physically mad" about the abuse.

"I believe they deserve jail time for what they have done to us," he said in the statement.

A court order allows the Bells limited contact with their children under the supervision of Department of Human Services officials. The Bells' remaining children are out of the home, said Wes Dunbar, a lawyer for John Bell.

In his guilty plea in May, John Bell admitted to disciplining two of his children "in an inappropriate and harsh manner, both physically and verbally, which created a substantial risk of harm to their safety and emotional well-being."

Joyce Bell admitted in her guilty plea that she "used verbally harsh language and was verbally aggressive," with the two children.

In arguing for probation, lawyers for the Bells described their conduct as an aberration and pointed to a lack of prior criminal history.

"This truly is an anomaly in my client's life," Dunbar said, saying that he believed the outcome of the case was just.

Horvat also recommended the Bells receive probation.

Krystal Bell, one of the couple's adopted daughters, provided authorities with four videos depicting the abuse. She also posted the videos on Facebook. Ankeny police reports show police were told about videos depicting child abuse at least as far back as March 2016.

Allegations, against Joyce Bell, of physical abuse caused the children to be temporarily removed in 2010, but no criminal charges were filed.

The videos shot by Krystal prompted DHS to remove two remaining teenage brothers, both adopted, after a July 12, 2017, child abuse call, according to the sisters and police reports.

Reporter Lee Rood contributed to this story.

2018 Jun 21