Bowie, Texas police officers received a shock when they were asked by teachers at a local elementary school to look into why an 8-year-old had not attended classes for several days, according to Misee Harris.
Eight-year-old, 17-month-old, and 3-month-old boys and two girls ages 4 and 2 were found alone and nearly starving, living in a house filled with garbage and human waste. The 3-month-old reportedly only weighed 7 pounds, about half the weight of what a typical 3-month-old might be expected to weigh, according to Baby Center.
The youngest were wearing diapers that had not been changed for "several days," which led to a serious diaper rash, so bad that the 3-month-old was reported to be bleeding.
"The baby was malnourished to the point it may not have survived a few more days without food," said Bowie police Lieutenant Rick Beckham who attended the scene. All five children were treated for undernourishment and placed in the custody of Bowie Child Protective Services, who placed each of the children in foster care.
"You could literally smell the house from the street," the Bowie Lieutenant stated with regard to the home's rank odor. Additionally, the police officer described the house as "completely filthy" and in a state of "total disarray."
The children's mother, Jessica Petroni, happened to come home while the officers were still investigating. She originally tried claiming that she had only been gone a short time at a doctor's appointment -- leaving an 8-year-old in charge of two babies and two young children. The police officers didn't buy her story and charged Petroni with "five counts of abandoning/endangering a child – criminal negligence." Petroni is held in custody at Montague County Jail. A bond was set at $50,000 and Petroni could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted.
The children were reported to have told the police that to them, being left to fend for themselves was a "normal thing," indicating to the officers that this wasn't the first time this had happened.
Neighbors were reportedly "shocked" to learn that five young children could be left to fend for themselves and that they were in such poor condition. The neighbors had been under the impression that Jessica Petroni had only lived in the home for about six months and that the kids were well-mannered.
"You hear about it when I used to live in the city," Bowie resident John Herrin stated, "But up here, I've never seen that."
A huge mound of garbage was piled outside Jessica Petroni's home, with apparently more to be removed still.
"The 2-year-old came running up to me, held her arms up and called me Papa," Lieutenant Beckham stated, "You know, I've got a bunch of grand-kids and that's what they call me. It was tough." The police officer spoke about other cases of child abuse and neglect he had seen in the past. He stated that nothing he has seen before could compare with the horror he was confronted with when he was called to Jessica Petroni's home.
The owner of the house, who rented to Petroni, Sarah Baumeister, was said to be "struggling" to reconcile how such a thing could transpire. Jessica Petroni was reported to have come with good references.
Baumeister reported that she and other Bowie community churchgoers had donated money to the family after the younger children's father lost his employment. Baumeister is having a difficult time understanding why Jessica Petroni didn't ask for help with the kids, if she was having difficulty. The landlord spoke about how the house would need to be renovated, but what she was really concerned with was the well-being of the children and Petroni herself.
"She doesn't need judgement right now," Baumeister stated, "She don't need hate right now... the nasty comments everyone is saying. She needs forgiveness... love... and she need compassion."
Petroni's ex-husband, 27-year-old Steven Lazek, the father of the 8-year-old boy, was reported to be "shocked" when he learned that the children had been put into foster care. He has now seen his son since the ordeal, reports the Wichita Falls Times Record News.
"He is concerned about his brothers and sisters," Lazek was quoted, "He blames himself. It is certainly not his fault, he should have never been put in that situation. He is a child not a babysitter."
Lazek had reportedly seen his child on a regular basis and noticed that he was losing weight and that he had taken him to the doctor earlier in the year. The doctor provided him with a report stating that the boy needed to gain weight, which Lazek then provided to Petroni. He noted that he saw an improvement for a time after that and that he had been "monitoring" his condition.
The father noted that he and Petroni really hadn't talked for years and that on some occasions he had been refused access to his son. In these instances he contacted the police, who ensured Lazek was able to see him. Lazek noted that when he went to this house to pick up his son he never went inside and that he had no idea what terrible shape it was in.
Shockingly, Petroni had attempted to open a daycare in the home as recently as August and had posted ads on Facebook reading "full-time, part-time or just for date night!"
Jessica Petroni was apparently welcoming children as young as six weeks and willing to work on an hourly, daily, or weekly basis.
Steven Lazek has reported that a court date is set and that he is going to make a motion to take custody of his son.
[Video Screenshots Courtesy Global News]