MILWAUKEE – When the malnourished 15-year-old awoke each morning, she could hear her family eating and getting ready for the day. If she felt especially brave or desperate she would call to her stepmother and beg for food, but usually she just went back to bed and hoped her hunger pangs went away.
The girl was 70 pounds when she was rescued. She told investigators during lengthy interviews at the hospital that most of the food she ate was scraps she found on the floor or in the garbage. She had spent most of five years in the basement of her family's Madison home, where she was beaten and sexually assaulted.
The girl's statements, contained in court documents, paint a troubling picture of physical, mental and sexual abuse. The girl describes running away, only to be found, brought home and threatened. Confined to the basement, she had no one to ask for help. She wasn't allowed to go to school or church, have visitors or talk on the phone.
Dane County officials say the girl is getting help now. She gained 17 pounds after about a week under doctors' care, a criminal complaint said. She has been placed in foster care, and child welfare officials say there's been an outpouring of support from people across the nation, who sent cards and letters.
Her father and stepmother have been charged with child abuse, child neglect and reckless endangerment. The charges carry a maximum combined prison sentence of 11 years, 3 months. The girl's 18-year-old stepbrother is charged with child abuse and child sexual assault and faces 68 years behind bars if convicted.
The three have preliminary hearings set for Thursday morning, and prosecutors say more charges are likely. The Associated Press isn't naming them to avoid identifying the girl. The AP does not usually name victims of sexual assault.
The defendants and their relatives have declined to comment on the charges. The stepbrother's attorney did not immediately return a phone message Monday, and the father and stepmother are still applying for public defenders.
The girl told investigators the abuse started the month she turned 10. Her stepmother beat her, and her stepbrother repeatedly forced her to perform oral sex on him. That's also when the family began keeping her in the basement.
Because it had no bathroom, she said she often bathed in a basement sink that had no hot water and relieved herself in boxes or containers. If she made a mess while doing so, "they will make me eat it. Or drink it or rub it on my face," she said.
She said she was forced to do chores naked and had to call upstairs for permission to eat. She was often told her stepmother was too busy to feed her.
"I know it's a lie," the teen told police. "She's playing with my brother upstairs. I can hear her upstairs watching TV."
She wasted away to 70 pounds. In contrast, police records say her father weighs 240 pounds and her stepmother 370 pounds.
The girl implied she could unlock the basement door but said there were motion sensors and an alarm that would draw her stepmother's wrath. Still, she said she fled a couple times, but her parents always found her and threatened to report her to police as a runaway.
Neighbors expressed concern. One called authorities after watching the parents scream at the girl as she was forced to push cement blocks from one side of the yard to the other for no apparent reason. However, the parents blocked county workers from speaking with the girl.
While there might have been more chances to seek help, the girl said she didn't until Feb. 6, when her stepmother threatened to throw her down the stairs. Terrified, barefoot and lightly dressed, the girl bolted through the door and into the cold, wandering aimlessly until a motorist stopped to check on her and eventually contacted police.
"The human brain can only tolerate so much trauma, so much fear," said Ernie Allen, the president of the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children. "What children in captivity tend to do is figure out whatever they have to do to survive. So we should never be surprised when children don't do heroic things, when they don't try to escape. It's pretty clear that this girl was in a situation in which she had no power, in which every aspect of her life was controlled."
Dinesh Ramde can be reached at dramde(at)ap.org.