A California couple charged with child abuse after authorities discovered that they, along with their three children, were living in a makeshift box without electricity and running water were very poor, not abusive, friends claim.
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 on Friday after deputies found the children – ages 11, 13 and 14 – were living in an “unsuitable and unsafe environment.”
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.”
The area around the shelter had holes stuffed with trash and human feces, police said.
The couple pleaded not guilty during their arraignment Friday afternoon. Children and Family Services have taken the three children into custody. The couple also was ordered not to communicate with their children.
“Children should not have to live like that,” Cindy Bachman, a San Bernardino County District Attorney’s Office spokeswoman said. "As parents they have a responsibility to provide the basic necessities for their children to grow up and be healthy and safe."
However, the couple’s friends and family defended them saying the two parents were being punished for being homeless.
"The Sheriff's Department is punishing those kids for being homeless," Leanna Munroe, a friend, told the Los Angeles Times.
Friends described the three children as “highly intelligent,” and said they took part in soccer and scouts. Friends asserted the couple did their best to care for their children despite their financial struggles.
The Los Angeles Times reported the couple owned the property where the makeshift home was found, according to records. On the land, a trailer was discovered but it seemed to be vacant. A lot of cat food also was found around the property and “approximately 30-40 cats” were inside and outside the abandoned trailer.
Jackie Klear, a friend, told the Los Angeles Times Kirk and Panico “were not criminals” but needed some help. She said the three children “were very much loved.”
Klear, a leader of a local scouting group, said the children “were very well taken care of” despite the shelter “looking like crap.”
Klear said the children were home-schooled but were constantly at the local library and at the Hi-Desert Nature Museum in Yucca Valley. She said the oldest son was a genius like his father.
"I've never seen a kid this smart," Klear said. "He reads and reads and reads."
Klear said the family was able to rent a home for a $1 a month but when it ended they were able to live in their trailer behind her home for about a year.
The friend said the family then moved to the desert just outside Joshua Tree National Park where they built the shelter. The shelter, made of plywood, is also equipped with a kiddie pool and tin roof. There was also a trampoline and a number of children’s toys littered outside the shelter.
Klear said the family did not want any help.
"They don't want handouts," she said. "I'm hoping this woke them up."
Munroe told the Los Angeles Times Kirk would do anything for anybody. She claimed Kirk gave her $500 a few years ago when she was about to be evicted. She also believed the couple had access to a vacation home nearby. She said the family would stay with her at times, and they they would be at the shelter only during the daytime.
"Their crime is being homeless and they kept it from people," Marsha Custodio, a family friend said.
Fox News' Nicole Darrah and Paulina Dedaj contributed to this report.