California couple charged with child abuse after reportedly living in a 'box made of plywood' for four years

A California couple was charged on Friday with child abuse after authorities discovered that they, along with their three children, had been living in a makeshift shelter with no electricity or running water, in an isolated part of the desert, for four years.

Mona Kirk, 51 and Daniel Panico, 73, were charged with three felony counts of child abuse by the San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office after deputies found the children – ages 11, 13 and 14 -- were living in an “unsuitable and unsafe environment.”

The couple pleaded not guilty during their arraignment Friday afternoon and were defended by family and friends who asserted that the pair was “being punished for being homeless,” KTLA reported.  

The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department was conducting an area check in Joshua Tree on Wednesday when deputies spotted an abandoned trailer and a large rectangular shelter made of plywood.

Authorities observed “mounds of trash and human feces” throughout the property and “approximately 30-40 cats” both inside and outside the trailer, according to a press release.

San Bernardino House

“Several large holes and mounds of trash and human feces were located throughout the property,” officials said, adding that roughly “30-40 cats were located inside the trailer and roaming freely.”  (San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department, Morongo Basin Station)

The makeshift shelter was roughly 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and four feet high.

Deputies determined that the children were living on the property for about four years, and that they were “found to have an inadequate amount of food” and were living in an “unsuitable and unsafe environment.”

Children and Family Services took custody of the children.

Fox News’ Nicole Darrah contributed to this report.