Published March 09, 2012
The imprisoned father of two Texas children found living in an abandoned school bus is claiming the home was only meant to be temporary.
Mark Shorten said he planned to build a house on a wooded lot near Houston before he and his wife were arrested for embezzlement in 2010. Child welfare officials took custody of his children earlier this week after the siblings -- a 5-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl -- were found living in the dilapidated bus at the end of a muddy, one-lane road in Splendora, home to one of the poorest school districts in the state.
Fox affiliate KRIV-TV reported Thursday that no charges have been filed yet in the case. The children's parents are in federal prison for stealing money from victims of Hurricane Ike, which struck in 2008, according to the station.
The postal carrier saw the kids Wednesday near Houston, and the two were swiftly placed in foster care while authorities investigate.
"The little girl's hair was just matted, like a stray dog's," Vanessa Picazo said.
The father of the pair said he never intended for the bus to be a permanent home. He said the family had planned to build a house at the site, which was now strewn with reeking trash.
"The house is normally clean. If me or my wife were there, it would not be in that shape, I assure you," Shorten said. "Our house would be completed or almost completed."
Randal McCann, a Louisiana attorney who represented the children's mother prior to her imprisonment, said an aunt had been taking care of the kids since the case against the parents was launched more than a year ago. The kids were not enrolled in school.
"It was believed by everybody involved in this case that (the aunt) was properly tending to those children. What I saw in the newspaper this morning was shocking," McCann said, referring to a report in the Houston Chronicle.
McCann said the aunt would often contact him but only to discuss the criminal case and not the children.
"But there was no indication that the living conditions were as bad as those photographs," McCann said.
It was not clear how long the children had been living in the bus and whether the aunt lived with them or simply made visits. KRIV reported that the woman lived on the bus but held a full-time job, often leaving the children alone for 12 hours a day.
A spokesman for Child Protective Services said authorities were less concerned about the bus itself than with children's overall well-being.
Shorten and his wife, Sherrie, were convicted of embezzling money from victims of Hurricane Ike. The mother was arrested in December 2010, the father in March 2011.
In a phone interview with The Associated Press from an Oklahoma City federal prison, Mark Shorten said he had not slept since his children were taken Wednesday.
Shorten said an aunt who was asked to watch the kids couldn't keep up, and he blamed the garbage blanketing his property on neighbors dumping their trash there.
Sherrie Shorten is scheduled to be released next month.
"I'm coming home in 30 days to be able to take care of my kids," she said from a separate federal prison in Lake Charles, La.
An Associated Press reporter visited the site Thursday. The bus appeared to have electricity, and outside there was a small propane tank and homemade grill.
A woman who was in the bus declined to identify herself and told the reporter to leave.
The Shortens said the bus also has hot and cold running water, including a shower and flush toilets, as well as heat and closets.
Picazo said her latest visit to the bus was not the first time she was worried about the children. Once when she needed a signature for a package, the 11-year-old girl volunteered. But when Picazo handed her the signature slip, the girl confessed she didn't know how to sign her name.
That was a "red flag that she wasn't being schooled. But she was a bright child," Picazo said.
Mark Shorten said his children were being home schooled through a Texas Tech University program. He said his daughter was highly intelligent and "can even do tax returns."
He said the family was originally from Louisiana but that the hurricane left their home under more than 8 feet of water. They brought the bus to Texas and only planned to live in it "maybe nine months" while he built a new home on the property.
Splendora is 35 miles northeast of Houston.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.