News From Terre Haute, Indiana

Local & Bistate

December 2, 2012

Mom ‘outraged’ at kids’ living condition

Department of Child Services gives no answer as to how unfit home was missed

TERRE HAUTE — The biological mother of three children found living in “prison cell” conditions with their adoptive parents in Terre Haute says she only gave up her children in hopes that they would have a better life.

“My kids deserve a great life. They deserve a great future,” Christina Joiner told the Tribune-Star last week.

Joiner, who had moved out of state for a few years but now lives in Monroe County, called the Tribune-Star after reading an online news story about the arrests of her children’s adoptive parents.

Joiner said that when she gave up her parental rights, she did not suspect that Larry and Nikki Russell would ever mistreat her daughter and two sons. The Russells stand accused of child neglect and criminal confinement in charges filed this week in Vigo Superior Court 6. Joiner said she met the Russells during visitations with her children, and they seemed to be caring parents who had a child of their own.

“I’m pretty outraged about it, because it involves my children,” Joiner said of the couple’s arrest. “I thought I was doing the right thing, and come to find out it wasn’t.”

Joiner’s three children are among the five children removed from the Russells’ home on North 12th Street on the day after Thanksgiving.

A 17-year-old boy adopted by the couple reported to police that he and his two adopted brothers had been beaten, tied to their beds and denied food and sanitary facilities while living with the Russells.

A subsequent investigation by Terre Haute Police found rope and duct tape in the bedroom where three boys had been reportedly confined by the couple. The door to the bedroom had been padlocked from the outside and the windows had been blocked to prevent the children from exiting the room, police report.

“I would really want to know how this was missed,” Joiner said, blaming the Department of Child Services for not knowing about or ignoring the conditions her children were enduring. “They put my kids in a worse situation than ever.”

While the children have been with the Russells for years, it is unclear when the alleged abuse began, and if DCS was involved in oversight of the family during that times.

Joiner told the Tribune-Star that DCS became involved with her as a parent in 2006 or 2007 due to repeated reports of filth in the home where the children resided with her. She said the children always had food and clothes, but she was urged by DCS to sign papers to terminate her parental rights.

Over the years, she said she has often wondered about her children. “Are they being taken care of? Are they playing in sports? What are they doing?”

But since she signed away her parental rights, she said, she has not been allowed to have any contact with the children.

The Department of Child Services has told the Tribune-Star that the Russells were not considered foster parents when they were arrested Nov. 23, and the children living with them were not foster children.

Vigo County Prosecutor Terry Modesitt said an investigation has determined that four of the children removed from the Russell home on Nov. 23 had been placed with the couple as foster children, but those children had been adopted by the couple.

Stephanie McFarland, spokeswoman for the DCS, responded to questions from the Tribune-Star following the arrest of the Russells, who were initially represented by police as foster parents of the children in their home. She requested that the questions be submitted in writing.

In an email response, McFarland wrote that “federal and state laws strictly prohibit DCS from speaking about a case due to confidentiality of the children and other parties (siblings, etc.) involved.”

She said that the Russells did not have any foster children or wards of the state in their care when the couple was arrested.

She did offer “information regarding processes and procedures” of DCS.

“Once the court has granted adoption of a child to an individual or couple, the children are no longer wards of the state, and DCS no longer has legal authority to be involved with the family. The only time in which DCS could intervene is if it received a report of abuse or neglect — as in this case,” McFarland wrote.

When asked how a person with a criminal history can become a foster parent, she quoted foster care licensing guidelines and practices.

“Before anyone can become a foster parent, he/she/they must go through three background checks: an FBI background check; another with the state that checks for any history of substantiated reports of child abuse or neglect; and another against the sex-offender registry. In addition, prospective foster parents must go through a series of home inspections to assess the family and living conditions, and complete training. All of this can take six months or longer to complete. In addition, foster parents are reviewed annually to maintain their license. A foster-home license is good for four years.”

Larry Russell had been arrested in May on a charge of domestic battery. That arrest occurred after the adoption of Joiner’s three children in April. That case was deferred in September. He had also been arrested for domestic battery in June 1996. That case was deferred in December 1996, and the charges were dismissed in May 2000.

Nikki Russell had no prior criminal history, but she was the victim in a criminal recklessness case filed against her father in October 2002. In that case, Willie Nesbit Sr. was arrested for allegedly firing a shotgun in the direction of his adult daughter, Nikki. Nesbit pleaded guilty in 2003 and received an 18-month suspended sentence.

McFarland declined comment about the criminal history of Larry Russell, noting that the most recent domestic violence incident occurred after the adoption was finalized.

As to how DCS could overlook the children’s living conditions as they were found by police, no DCS comment was made.

However, McFarland did write: “When a child is in foster care, a DCS family case-manager is assigned to the case -- along with service providers, court liaisons (CASAs) and other community professionals who work with the family directly, often times in the home, and help to act as eyes and ears to what’s happening with the children. Case managers meet with the children directly at least once every 30 days, but DCS also gets reports and input from community professionals throughout the month regarding care and progress. That information is part of a case file that is also shared with the county court system. Part of every child’s foster care is a permanency plan, which is a plan to either safely reunite the children with their family of origin (where they were removed), to be placed in the care of a relative (who would act as a guardian), or to be adopted with court approval.”

Reporter Lisa Trigg can be reached at (812) 231-4254 or lisa.trigg@tribstar.com. Follow her on Twitter @TribStarLisa.

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