ACCOMACK COUNTY, Va. (Delmarva Now) -- A Mears, Virginia, woman is accused of keeping two children in makeshift cages.
Two of her five children were kept in cribs with lids screwed on to the top from which they could not escape, according to court records and testimony during a probable cause hearing. Malista Ness-Hopkins, 38, is charged with five counts of abuse and neglect of those children.
All were living in unwholesome and unsafe surroundings covered with filth, dirty diapers, lice and insect bites, according to social workers and investigators who testified in Accomack County court. The children were all removed from the home July 28, the day social workers visited.
A juvenile and domestic relations court judge found probable cause to certify the case against Ness-Hopkins to a grand jury.
At a preliminary hearing Friday, Sept. 8, Accomack County Social Services worker Kate Bonniwell testified she visited the woman’s home July 28 after a complaint was made to her agency.
Bonniwell described a horrific scene: In the bedroom where the three younger children slept, she found the 2- and 3-year children in separate cribs with tops that were affixed with multiple screws. She said the tops appeared to be made from the side rails of other cribs, making them into cages.
Bonniwell said it took her 23 minutes with an electric screwdriver to remove one of the lids. As she was working on it, she said the 2-year-old child was hissing at her and making noises she described as “animal sounds.”
When she finally released the lid, Bonniwell said, the child lay there and did not attempt to get out. The crib the 1-year-old was in had no top.
Next, Bonniwell said she began unscrewing the lid from the crib where the 3-year-old was confined.
“The children didn’t act like normal children,” she said on the witness stand.
Bonniwell described them as “filthy, with multiple bug bites." They were infested with lice, she told the court.
All three wore filthy diapers, Bonniwell said. In another bedroom, she found the 5- and 6-year-old children on mattresses on the floor. They were filthy, with no sheet and no pillow, just a bare mattress. One of the mattresses was made of foam was ripped apart.
She said the bedrooms and entire house smelled strongly of urine.
Bonniwell described the home’s only bathroom as having a destroyed toilet seat and the toilet filled with black water. She said both the sink and the bathtub were filled with trash including plates of rotting food.
The entire house was littered with debris, broken glass and rotting food, Bonniwell said. Fleas jumped on her and bit her when she entered the house, she told the court.
A second Social Service worker testified she went to the house with Bonniwell. There were no toys and no clothes, she said.
She said Ness-Hopkins told her she was having a hard time and planned to move across the Chesapeake Bay.
She told the social workers she confined the children to the crib/cages when she could not watch them because they had gotten out once and were playing with a can of Drano.
The third witness called to testify by Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney Elizabeth Wolfe was Investigator Meghann Patterson of the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office. She said her department obtained a search warrant and went into the house.
“Outside, there was trash and debris. Inside, the smell was overwhelming. The kitchen was littered with trash and cockroaches were all over the floor,” she said. “There was rotted food in containers."
She said there was a bed in the living room with trash piled up around it and broken glass on the floor. She described “dirty, urine-soaked clothing upstairs and dishes of rotting food on the floor of the bathroom."
When Patterson went into the room with the cribs, she said she saw bite and claw marks on the inside of the cribs.
Defense attorney Tucker Watson questioned each of the witnesses asking if the defendant told them she was planning to move. They said she did, but had no planned place to go.
Watson asked Patterson if the house had water and working plumbing. She said it did.
“There is no evidence that the conditions were directly harmful to the children,” Watson said. "She was overwhelmed.”
However, the judge did not agree with Watson.
“This did not happen overnight,” said Judge Croxton Gordon. “She said she only screwed them in when she couldn’t mind them. But she was there.”
There are terrible safety and health issues, he said.
“I certify all five cases to the grand jury,” the judge said.