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November 1, 2009 permalink
Another low-bidder adoption has failed, thrusting the hapless adoptive parents into the spotlight in the role of scapegoat. The state of Pennsylvania paid James and Stephanie Dickinson $7200 per month to care for five of its most difficult handicapped children. Two retarded adults also lived in the home, the press does not mention their subsidy. According to her family and friends the adoptive mother did her best to care for the children, but it was beyond the means of one person to handle seven handicapped people. The police saw the conditions only as squalor. As usual in this kind of case, the real wrongdoers, the staff of the state agencies who arranged for the sham care, are not even identified by the press.
Couple kept adopted kids in cellar, given jail time
Woman gets 10 to 23 months in county prison; husband sentenced to time served to one year in prison
Intelligencer Journal, Lancaster New Era, Oct 31, 2009 00:09 EST
By JANET KELLEY, Staff Writer
Three years ago today, a veteran city policeman walked into the basement of a St. Joseph Street home.
What he saw, city police Detective Chris DePatto told a Lancaster County judge on Friday, "was something I've never seen before — and that says a lot."
Seven people — including two 50-year-old mentally retarded women and five boys between the age of 7 and 17, some with special needs — were living in the basement.
It smelled of urine and feces. There was no toilet, just a potty chair.
One teenage boy, he was told, was at times kept locked in an empty cement-block room without light or ventilation. Some of the others slept on mattresses or blankets on the concrete floor.
After the matter had been investigated for nearly a year, the parents — Stephanie and James Dickinson — were arrested.
And on Friday, they were sentenced by Judge Margaret Miller.
Each of the Dickinsons had been charged with two counts of recklessly endangering another person and five counts of endangering the welfare of children.
- Stephanie Dickinson, 59, of 406 St. Joseph St., who pleaded guilty to the charges, was sentenced to 10 to 23 months in prison, plus 7 years probation.
- Her estranged 63-year-old husband, who lived in the adjacent 408 St. Joseph St., had pleaded no contest to the charges (meaning he denies guilt, but admits the facts on which the charges were based).
James Dickinson was sentenced to time served (53 days) to one year in county prison, plus 5 years probation.
The couple had separated but bought the duplex with a shared basement so the children and parents could have access to one another.
DePatto told the judge that as a 16-year veteran of the police department he had seen a lot of bad situations in his career.
"Something went awry," DePatto told the judge. "Sometimes good people do bad things and when they do, punishment is in order."
Stephanie Dickinson's attorney, Robert Beyer, described his client as having a large loving heart to take in so many special-needs people.
But one was severely physical disabled, and another, who was often kept in the cement-block room, had extreme emotional problems.
Stephanie Dickinson was "taking on more than she can chew," Beyer said. "She overwhelmed herself."
The couple received about $7,200 a month for the care of the children, which Beyer said would not be enough of a motive to accept all their problems.
"She's not a danger to children," Beyer said, but she needs to learn to "set reasonable limits."
Beyer told the judge that the boys and women chose to spend time in the basement so they could watch television and be near one another.
"When they were seen in public" at school or church, Beyer added, "they were clean, well-dressed and well-taken-care-of."
James Dickinson was working a great deal and told the judge he simply assumed things were as they should have been.
The father's defense attorney, Karl Rominger, said his client saw the children but was unaware of the problems.
Miller, who listened to hours of testimony on Friday, noted that she had read reports from police and children's services, as well as letters from the defendants and their supporters.
"This was not a brief, momentary lapse in judgment," Miller said.
The family lived in the home for at least two months before police were tipped off about the situation.
When the children were questioned, police said they told them that they rarely saw their father and that their mother regularly left them alone for prolonged periods of time.
Miller said she was especially disturbed by the "vulnerability of the victims" and "an alarming level of willful neglect."
As for Stephanie Dickinson, Miller said she believed any remorse the woman had "is the remorse for the consequences you now face."
The judge concluded that she was the more culpable of the two parents.
"I love my family more than I can say. They are my world," Stephanie Dickinson told the judge, "and they still need me."
To James Dickinson, Miller said his was a "role of neglect."
"Choosing noninvolvement does not relieve you of culpability," the judge said.
"I've always loved my children, guided them, directed them," James Dickinson told the judge.
"That this has happened and I'm a part of that is very disheartening to me," he said. "I want nothing more than to have my family back together."
Stephanie Dickinson was told to report to Lancaster County Prison on Monday morning. James Dickinson need not return to jail, Miller said.
The Dickinsons' parental rights to three of their adopted sons were terminated after the parents' arrest, and the older women were placed in different care.
Two of the older boys, now 16 and 17, were in court on Friday, along with their biological daughters and about a dozen other supporters.
One of the girls, Tobyn Dickinson, described their relationship as "close and loving" and her mother as "the rock of our family."
The elder son, Jacob Dickinson, said his parents taught them love and faith as well as the difference between right and wrong.
"I never doubted that my parents loved me," he told the judge.
The fact that the two boys spoke on the Dickinsons' behalf, Assistant District Attorney Rebecca Franz told the judge, "is a testament to them and their character."
"They love their parents dearly and have forgiven them for the things that happened at St. Joseph Street. It's incomprehensible to me, but I respect them for being such big people," Franz said.
"But the three other children and two adults were not here to speak today," Franz said, noting that "their lives were changed forever."
After the proceeding, as the couple hugged their children and supporters, James Dickinson arranged that they should all go to church together "as a family," one more time on Saturday night.
Source: Lancaster Intelligencer Journal