Police in Texas have arrested a 27-year-old mother for extreme neglect, alleging that she routinely left her children malnourished and alone in a home riddled with garbage, rotting food and human waste.
“It was a nightmare,” Lt. Rick Beckham, a spokesman for the Bowie, Texas, police department, tells PEOPLE. “Being in that house was like standing in the middle of a garbage dump. It was bad.”
Jessica Petroni was arrested last week on five criminal negligence charges, one for each of her five children – an 8-year-old boy, two girls aged 4 and 2, and a pair of baby boys who are 17 and 3 months old, respectively.
“According to doctors, one of the babies was within 48 hours of his demise,” Beckham says. “They were just being totally neglected.”
Beckham says that police received a call last Friday from the eldest child’s teacher, who told officers she’d phoned Petroni’s home to inquire about the boy’s recent absences.
“One of the little girls answered and said her mother wasn’t there,” Beckham explains. “Then the [8-year-old] boy got on the phone, and told the instructor he was watching his siblings.”
Police arrived to find the two smallest children wearing soiled, days-old diapers, Beckham says, adding one of the kids was bleeding from severe diaper rash and that the 3-month-old weighed a mere 7 pounds.
“The children told us it was a pretty common occurrence for them to be left alone for hours at a time,” says Beckham, noting Petroni returned to her home while police were still there. “All the little ones are being nourished back to health and they are safe.”
All five children have been placed in foster care, Beckham says.
Beckham claims Petroni allegedly told investigators “she felt overwhelmed by raising five kids, but I know plenty of mothers that have that many kids that hold down jobs and take care of their children.”
Petroni told police during questioning she was one week away from moving her kids some 100 miles east, where she planned to reunite with her husband, according to Beckham. Beckham adds that the man – who fathered all but one of Petroni’s children – had recently moved for a new job.
The 8-year-old’s father no longer maintains contact with Petroni, Beckham says.
“These kids are pretty resilient and I would say they are pretty happy about where they’re at right now,” says Beckham. “When we were speaking to the 8-year-old, he told us, ‘I am so embarrassed about the way our house looks.’ An 8-year-old shouldn’t be saying that.”
Petroni is being held on $50,000 bail and has yet to hire a defense attorney. If convicted, she could be sentenced to 10 years behind bars.
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