Officials say children's supervision was primary concern

March 9, 2012 3:33:48 AM PST
Relatives and neighbors say they checked on the two young siblings who authorities found alone in the school bus where they live, but officials say, that's not enough supervision for such young children.

The children's parents have been in prison. They were convicted of embezzlement, involving a hurricane recovery loan. They say the school bus has been converted into an RV, with water, electricity, a computer and a flat screen TV. The bus was only supposed to be temporary housing while the Shorten family built a home on the property.

"There's a flat screen TV and computer and a telephone, if 911 needed to be called," Sherrie Shorten told Eyewitness News over the phone.

She didn't know the yard is littered with trash, nor that the children were left alone during the day. The bus was all clean and well kept, the mom says, but in the parents' absence, she accuses extended family of vandalizing it and making it look as it does. Now their two young children are in emergency foster care.

For close to a year, a five-year-old boy and his 11-year-old sister had spent their days on their own, while their aunt, who is their guardian while their parents are in prison, worked. On Wednesday that changed when a postal worker saw the kids and something didn't seem right.

"I started noticing that they were playing in the neighborhood and there's no adults anywhere," said postal worker Vanessa Vicazo.

She called a friend who called authorities. The children were removed from the converted school bus where they lived with their aunt, not because of the environment, but because they were left unattended.

"The kids were left here for about 12 hours during the day while the aunt went to work," explained Montgomery County Precinct 4 Constable Rowdy Hayden. "That happened on a daily basis."

The 60-year-old aunt commutes to Houston for her job. Neighbors say they would look in on the children during the day.

Neighbor Derick Foster said, "The little girl and the little boy, they would go to church with my kids and my wife. My wife always is asking about the kids. They're always happy kids."

Under the law, though, occasional visits do not constitute supervision of children. The brother and sister are now in foster care. CPS is investigating.

"We want to be clear -- it's not living on the bus, it's the condition in which they were living and the supervision," said CPS spokesperson Gwen Carter. "Who was responsible? Who was watching them? Who was making sure that their needs were being met?"

We spoke to the aunt and she showed us food in the freezer that she says she thaws each day and prepares for the children.

The children's father will be released from prison in July and their mother gets out next month. She doesn't know what she will return to.

She said, "I need to do something but I've got to get arrangements made so they can come back home."

Earlier report from Eyewitness News Reporter Samica Knight

Relatives of two children found living in a filthy old school bus near Splendora say things are not what they appear.

The siblings, an 11-year-old girl and her five-year-old brother, have been placed in temporary foster care by CPS after authorities found them alone in the old bus on Wednesday. But their relatives tell Eyewitness News things are not as bad as they may appear.

The aunt of the young siblings invited Eyewitness News exclusively onto the property where we spoke by phone with the children's parents, who are in prison. The parents, like many neighbors we spoke with, say this all a misunderstanding. They say aunt lived on the bus with the kids at night. They claim the neighbors took turns watching the children during the day.

The mother tells me she and her husband were planning to build a house on the lot where the bus sits, before they went to prison in December 2010. By that time, she says the family had already moved onto the abandoned bus. She says she left her children with her 60-year-old aunt, who was unemployed at the time.

Because the aunt did not have any income, she took the only job she could find, which required a daily commute to Houston. The parents say for the past year or so the aunt has been commuting to Houston and has asked neighbors to watch the children during the day. Some neighbors, according to the parents, come over to the bus, and others bring the children to their homes.

But Montgomery County authorities say they found the two young siblings alone in filthy conditions. Authorities say the kids, who are now in CPS custody, have been living alone for months. Neighbors we spoke to dispute that.

Neighbors and relatives say the children were not neglected. There is said to be an icebox and a deep freeze with food readily available to the children at all times. Parents say the bus has hot and cold running water and electricity. The mother says she is on the phone with the children from prison throughout the day.

At least one neighbor tells Eyewitness News the children seem happy and well-adjusted. Another neighbor says they bought a trampoline and put in their yard specifically for the boy and girl to play on when they come over. Another says the children visit church with their family. We are told the children are home schooled, but it is still unclear who is teaching the children.

The children's mother adds that she will be out of prison in 30 days and hopes to sort out the situation at that time and regain custody of her children.

CPS officials say the children are happy and doing well in temporary foster care.