PEOPLE Explains: Calif. Parents Allegedly Kept Children in 'Box' For Four Years

Both Joshua Tree parents were charged with three counts of child abuse

The parents of three teens were charged with three felony counts of child abuse Friday after police found the family living in a makeshift plywood shack, or box, without electricity or running water for four years.

Daniel Panico, 73, and 51-year-old Mona Kirk, were taken into custody Thursday after police discovered the family on the litter-strewn property in Joshua Tree, California, after a routine check.

The property has no electricity or water and the couple’s children, ages 14, 13, and 11, were living in a plywood shelter with a tin roof that was 20 feet long, 4 feet high and about 10 feet wide.

Authorities described the family as homeless; the children were not being held captive but the conditions were “unsuitable and unsafe,” according to authorities.

Morongo Basin Sheriff

“This time of year, it’s very cold at night,” Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department told the Los Angeles Times. “When that wind blows, it is freezing.… These kids are living in a shelter made of wood and tarp and it’s 20 to 30 degrees at night.”

The couple is scheduled to be arraigned Friday at 1:30 p.m.

Here are four things to know about the case:

1. The Rectangular Box Was Only 4 Feet High

Deputies were patrolling a remote area along the 7000 block of Sun Fair Road in Joshua Tree around 11 a.m. Thursday when they came across a trailer they thought was abandoned, as well as a large rectangular “box” made of plywood on the property, according to a San Bernardino County sheriff’s press release.

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While there, deputies discovered that the litter-strewn property was occupied by Kirk and Panico and their children.

The family had no electricity or running water and they went to the bathroom in large holes around the property.

The deputies also learned that Kirk and the teens lived in a makeshift shack that was approximately 20 feet long by 4 feet high by 10 feet wide. Panico reportedly lived in a nearby trailer.

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Also found on the property were approximately 30 or 40 cats.

2. The Children Didn’t Have Enough Food: Authorities

According the the sheriff’s office the teens had been living in the makeshift shack for four years and didn’t have adequate food.

It was, according to the press release, an “unsuitable, unsafe environment due to the conditions located on the property.”

On Thursday, the parents were arrested and booked into the Morongo Basin Jail for willful cruelty to a child and were held on $100,000 bail. They have since been charged with three counts of felony child abuse.

Children and Family Services took custody of the teens.

3. The Box Was Divided Into Separate Rooms

According to the Los Angeles Times, the makeshift shelter where Kirk and the children lived was made of plywood and divided into separate rooms. One of the rooms was filled with mattresses. Another room contained a green sofa and a pile of dining room chairs.

The roof was made of tin sheets that were weighed down with rocks, and a mattress on the roof was used for insulation.

Authorities said the family was homeless and the children were not being held against their will.

“They’re homeless,” Captain Trevis Newport told the Times. “It’s a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like when it came out.”

4. Neighbor Says the Couple Shouldn’t Have Been Arrested

A neighbor, Mike Reynolds, told CBS that the couple had lost their previous house and had bought the property in the 7000 block of Sun Fair Road with a goal of building a “dream house.”

“His family, they lived not too far from here and they lost their house,” Reynolds said. “So he bought that lot and bought that trailers and moved up.”

Reynolds said the family was poor and not criminals.

“There’s people out there in the gutters raising their kids in less environment, in cardboard boxes and having to go to the bathroom in the gutters and they don’t get arrested,” he said. “They need help but they’re not getting arrested. My goodness, he’s living on his own property.”

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