Los Angeles

‘Never Missed a Meal': Kids Found Living in Desert Shack Were Not Abused, Couple Says

"We had limited resources, but I think we did very well with what we had," the mother said. "The children never missed a meal."

A Southern California couple arrested after deputies found them and their three children on a desert property without electricity or running water told a newspaper that their living situation was unconventional but not abusive.

Daniel Panico and Mona Kirk pleaded not guilty this month to misdemeanor child endangerment and charges related to truancy.

In an interview last week with the Desert Sun , Panico said the family had limited resources but never went hungry.

At the time of their February arrest, the couple's income was about $578 a month — the sum of Panico's Social Security benefits and money they made by watching over a local vacation home. Panico, 73, also picked up odd jobs or sold items at a swap meet.

"We had limited resources, but I think we did very well with what we had," said Kirk, 51. "The children never missed a meal."

The family also relied on the kindness of friends and members of their Japanese Buddhist religion, who would pass on excess food, clothing and hand-me-down furniture.

Their 5-acre plot had a travel trailer and a makeshift fort constructed by the kids out of plywood and tarps.

"It was, quite honestly, really fun to be in there," said Kirk.

Panico called it a "cozy place," adding that they're avid campers who enjoy sleeping outdoors.

There was a water tank and a generator. For restrooms, they would use the commode in the trailer and then bury the waste in deep holes, Kirk said.

They split time between the desert property and the vacation home they cared for, about 8 miles away. The six of them would often start their week at the house, for example, spending the night there on Sundays after the kids' scouts meetings. There they would take care of domestic necessities, like showering and cooking.

Their children — between 11 and 14 — remain in the custody of child welfare officials.

Authorities took the kids when the parents were arrested in February near Joshua Tree National Park, about 125 miles (201 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.

Investigators said the children had been living without running water or electricity for several years. Since the arrest, Panico and Kirk repeatedly have insisted they're not abusive, just poor.

One of the arresting deputies wrote in a report that the children were home-schooled. He observed one of the kids wore dirty clothes, had tangled hair and didn't wear shoes as they wandered the property along with a dog and 40 cats. Two of the kids were dirty and smelled like cat feces, he wrote.

Dozens of people rallied in support of the couple outside a court hearing in March, holding signs that read, "Being homeless is not a crime" and "Poverty is not a choice."

An online fundraising site started by a friend raised enough money to buy Panico and Kirk a new home near Joshua Tree.

The couple's next court appearance is set for June 29th.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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