Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Oshkosh foster abuse details emerge in court records

Photo by Miles Maguire
This house on West 11th Avenue is owned by a company that shares an address with Macht Village Programs.
By Miles Maguire

On Dec. 17, the police officer assigned to Oshkosh West High School was called to the assistant principal’s office to talk to a couple of ninth-graders. The boys, both 15, had gotten into a fight while being driven to school by their foster mother. One of them had a mark, which looked like a rash, on his face.

As school officials spoke to the boys, the conversation took a “disturbing” turn, according to a criminal complaint. In this and subsequent talks, the students provided a series of harrowing details: The adults where they lived kept the boys confined to their rooms, forced them to take up stress positions as punishment and made them urinate and defecate into buckets that were kept near their beds, according to the complaint.

Based on this information and additional investigation, the two adults who took care of the boys, 60-year-old Barbara R. Peterson and her 35-year-old son, Alan D. Small, were each charged Feb. 27 with three counts of felony child neglect. They are due in court March 25 for an initial appearance. A conviction on all charges could mean $30,000 in fines and 18 years in prison for each defendant.

The high school boys were removed from the home Dec. 19, but in the intervening two days they were subjected to additional abuse, according to court files. One boy had his toilet bucket removed and ended up wetting his pants when he could not get permission to leave his room.

After the initial meeting with the boys, the Oshkosh West school resource officer went to the students’ home, on West 11th Avenue, to look around. He was accompanied by a police sergeant and a child welfare worker from Winnebago County.

According to court papers, they found that the thermostat in the house was set to 57 degrees, that one boy’s bedroom had an alarm on the door and “smelled of urine and feces” and that the other boy’s room had a “locking clasp on the exterior of the door” and, like the other bedroom, “had a toilet bucket.”

The house has been owned for over a decade by individuals or entities affiliated with a De Pere company called Macht Village Programs. Macht Village is listed in state records as a for profit child placing agency, meaning that it is licensed to put children into foster homes and then monitor their care.

Macht Village specializes in dealing with children with major behavioral issues. Its foster placement operation has been hit with a large number of licensing violations and compares poorly to other foster agencies on state performance measures.

During the visit to the 11th Avenue house, police spoke with Small and Peterson, according to court documents. “Peterson admitted to dumping the buckets of urine and feces outside in the yard behind the garage,” the documents say. The West resource officer said he “located several piles of toilet paper and feces in the backyard.”

The following day the officer was given a note that one of the 15-year-olds had written to a teacher. The boy wrote that Peterson had told him that she knew “how to fight fire for fire” and warned him about a journal he kept. The police visit “made it worse,” the boy wrote, according to the court file.

Sometime that day, according to the court files, the boy’s toilet bucket was removed from his room. On the following day he spoke again with the school resource officer and reported he had “an accident” the previous night.

The boy “said that he was pounding on the door [of his bedroom] and that he could hear footsteps upstairs, but nobody came and therefore he peed in this clothes.”

The boy’s bedroom door was fitted with an alarm so that he couldn’t leave without permission. As described in court papers, the boy “knows that he can’t open the door because the alarm will go off and if the door opens he will have to go to Macht Village and get consequences.”

Macht Village operates a residential program in De Pere. On its website Macht Village says it serves “children whose aggressive behavior presents safety concerns to child, family, school and community.”

The company is one of the smallest of the two dozen foster placement agencies in the state. According to the Department of Children and Families, in 2017 Macht Village placed children who had the fourth highest level of care needs among all the foster agencies in the state.

One of the ways that the state measures the performance of these foster agencies is the outcomes for the children in their care. For 2017, Macht Village recorded one unfavorable and one poor outcome, according to DCF reports for the year, the most recent available.

Macht Village had no optimal, favorable or very favorable outcomes. By contrast two foster agencies, Bethany Christian Services and Rawhide Catch Program, reported 100 percent rates of optimal placements, the best score available.

Despite its small size, Macht Village has had a large number of licensure violations, which are typically paperwork problems related to not maintaining school, medical or court records.

According to the Legislative Audit Bureau, Macht Village had 44 violations from 2010 to 2012, second only to to Harmony Social Services in that period. Harmony, a Milwaukee agency that had 89 violations, is more than 10 times larger than Macht Village.

Mary Macht, a licensed clinical social worker who is listed as president of Macht Village in a federal database, did not respond to a request for comment.

The recent residents of the Oshkosh home, who included one other boy who had been removed in November, detailed to police the harsh conditions under which they said they lived. According to the court file, these included no breakfast, even on weekends; a requirement to empty their toilet buckets in the yard; and the threat of a range of punishments, such as “the plank position, the chicken wing, weighted blanket [and] running stairs.”

Other punishments included standing in a corner or holding a chair overhead. In the chicken position, the boys were told to lift “their hands … behind their back and up high,” according to court papers.

In another punishment, the 15-year-old told police, he was ordered to put a blanket on a table and then take it off the table and to continue the cycle “until he cries or they tell him to stop,” the criminal complaint says.

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