Jeff Jardine

Nine-year-old sends loudest message in Ceres squalor case

Seven children were removed from Ceres home due to unsafe, unsanitary, and hazardous conditions in Ceres on Wednesday.
Seven children were removed from Ceres home due to unsafe, unsanitary, and hazardous conditions in Ceres on Wednesday.

One thing stood above all else in the case of the seven children found living in squalor in a Ceres apartment last week:

The 9-year-old girl among them told police she ate only when she went to school and was totally fine with going to a foster home where, presumably, she’ll get regular meals, daily baths and clean clothing.

Why is that so unusual? Because, as most social workers will tell you, children will endure pure hell to remain with a parent and siblings, even if it means living in a filthy, cockroach-infested cesspool of an apartment with no food, where animal feces soil the floor, where there’s barf on the sofa and dirty diapers stinking up the place.

This young girl had the courage to tell police she wanted out even though it could mean a lengthy or even permanent separation from her mother and siblings, and being pulled out of a school where she has friends and placed in another where she knows no one.

That is why her action stands out, said Colleen Brazil Garcia, executive director of the Children’s Crisis Center in Modesto, an agency that on a daily basis offers care and refuge to abused or neglected children.

“It’s extremely rare,” Garcia said. “Even in the most terrible of situations.”

Whether through fearing the parent or fear of the unknown, Garcia said, children invariably will plead to remain with the family no matter what. Not this time, though.

“Sometimes children just reach their limit,” said Judy Kindle, executive director of Sierra Vista Child and Family Services in Modesto. “Life is so hard that they just have to get out of a situation.”

The recent situation, Ceres police Lt. Chris Perry said, was so bad that authorities red-tagged the apartment to prevent anyone else from living there until the place is cleaned up, and the sinks and toilets work again. He said officers responded to a domestic violence call late Tuesday night and determined the adults had been drinking. City officials will be dealing with the property owner regarding the condition of the apartment as well, he said.

Suzanne Luna and her boyfriend, Jose Garcia – the parents of a 2-year-old girl and 1-year-old boy – were arrested, charged with two counts of child endangerment each, and remain in custody on $50,000 bail apiece. Luna’s sister, Amy Luna, is the mother of the other five and tenant of the apartment. She faces five counts of child endangerment and one count of resisting arrest, and bailed out of jail. The cases will wend their way through the courts, but there are certain elements to parenting that shouldn’t require criminal charges to understand.

Children never deserve to live in filth. Children must be fed. Children need to have clean clothes to wear to school, and to take regular baths in a bathtub that isn’t full of dirty clothes. Being poor isn’t a mandate to live like that or force children to.

Having food in the house to feed them is not that difficult, though it usually requires physical effort. There are numerous churches or agencies offering help, including food banks. The government provides food stamps for this very kind of circumstance for children up to 5 through the Women, Infants and Children program. Some volunteer groups will deliver food to your doorstep if necessary. But the kids need to eat, and parents are responsible for making that happen.

Garcia remembers one instance when her agency worked with a father with two children. She and others at the Children Crisis Center felt good about the dad taking care of the kids and decided to help out by dropping off food baskets. This went on for some time until ...

“One of the boys showed us food hidden under things,” Garcia said. “We asked why they were hiding it. The youngest said, ‘Dad gets mad at us for eating it.’ They weren’t getting the food. We thought we were helping the children, but the father never shared it.”

What did he do with it? He used it as an enticement to get women to come to the home for “companionship,” Garcia said.

“It all comes down to, ‘What are the values?’ ” she said. “In that case, the children were not a higher priority than someone else was.”

All that stated, Sierra Vista’s Kindle believes families – and the community – are better served by working with troubled parents to educate them, get them into rehab if necessary, and improve the situations rather than splitting families apart for good.

“Over a period of time, (the children) will want to reconnect with the parent(s),” she said. “We’re better off trying to get the family stabilized again, help get them straightened out, from getting the house cleaned up to food and clean clothes.”

A 9-year-old girl did what she had to do, and now she, her four siblings and two cousins are in county foster care.

If that isn’t a wake-up call for any parent, what would qualify?