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The Joshua Tree couple accused of letting their three children live in squalid conditions inside a large plywood box were allowed to reunite with them after protective orders were quashed in Superior Court.
“Thank you to everyone praying,” posted friend Jackie Klear, who has acted as a family spokeswoman, on Facebook Thursday afternoon shortly after the ruling. “I truly believe the prayers were answered. The kids got to go home. Thank you to everyone.”
Mona Lisa Kirk, 51, and husband Daniel Panico, 73, still face three counts of willful cruelty to a child and three counts of failure to address truancy, all misdemeanors. The couple pleaded not guilty to those charges on May 2. They were originally looking at a felony case stemming from their Feb. 28 arrest. The children were ages 11, 13 and 14.
The couple is expected back in court June 29, court records indicate.
“The juvenile dependency judge in San Bernardino, upon my getting the criminal protective orders quashed in an emergency hearing in Joshua Tree, returned the children to their parents under a program overseeing various social-service concerns,” defense attorney Michael Kennedy said in an email to the Southern California News Group.
“This was too long coming, and I hope there has not been permanent psychic damage to these children from their terror at seeing gun-wielding police invade their peaceful lives, arresting their doting parents, and transporting them 100 miles away,” the lawyer said. “This was government at its worst now attempting to make amends.”
San Bernardino County Sheriff’s officials have described the family’s dirt-and-brush property, which has no heat or running water, as unsafe and lacking for food. There were various toys, trash, feces, stuffed animals and dozens of cats on the property that is less than a mile from the courthouse.
The box — which Kirk and Klear have described as a fort — is approximately 20 feet long by 4 feet high and 10 feet wide. Inside were blankets, plastic bags filled with trash, and toys.
The couple’s dilapidated trailer sat on the property. The children and Kirk began sleeping in the fort after Panico allowed their 30 cats to stay inside the trailer to avoid being eaten by coyotes.
The couple’s friends describe the parents as loving and the children as educated and well fed. The children were home-schooled. Klear said she believes the truancy charges were filed because the parents didn’t register their homeschool until after their arrest.
The couple received support from around the world through a GoFundMe account that enabled the couple to get a fixer-upper house only a few miles from their property. A contractor converted a covered patio into a third bedroom, new flooring was installed, the house repainted, the cupboards stocked with food and the bedrooms furnished, Klear said.
The children had stayed with family members, 100 miles away, while the parents had moved into the family’s new place.
“It’s spotless,” Klear said. “It’s ready for the kids to come home.”
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After news of Kirk and Panico’s arrest began to circulated, it sparked debate surrounding homelessness and abuse. Many people took to news sites about the couple and said it appeared they were being targeted for being poor in the small-but-growing desert community with few resources.
Authorities said there are programs available for families, including those through the county’s Transitional Assistance Department. They also point out that the San Bernardino County Housing Authority can assist. Officials encourage people to call 211 to access such resources. Other organizations include the Aligning Resources Challenging Homelessness Group , Unity Home and the Morongo Basin Haven .
However, the couple’s supporters have insisted that help is not enough.