A Southern California couple charged with child abuse was extremely poor and too proud to accept charity, but they were attentive parents whose children didn't appear to be neglected, according to friends of the pair.
The Los Angeles Times reported Saturday that Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, were arrested after a sheriff's deputy patrolling the remote desert region just outside Joshua Tree National Park came across the family of five living in apparent squalor.
The property where they lived was littered with mounds of trash, old toys and broken furniture, the San Bernardino Sheriff's Department said. The sheriff's department said the family lived in a 4-foot high, 200-square-foot (1.2-meters high, 19-square-meter) shack without electricity, running water and a bathroom.
"Children should not have to live like that," said Cindy Bachman, a spokeswoman for the Sheriff's Department. "As parents they have a responsibility to provide the basic necessities for their children to grow up and be healthy and safe."
Deputies arrested Panico and Kirk on Wednesday and the children -- ages 11, 13 and 14 -- were placed in foster care.
Neighbors told the Times that the children seemed content, participated in scouts, soccer and frequently visited the library.
"The Sheriff's Department is punishing those kids for being homeless," said Leanna Munroe, who has known the family for nine years. Munroe said she believes the family had access to a vacation rental they watched and would sometimes spend nights with her.
Jackie Klear, the children's scout leader, said the couple loved the children, who she described as "highly intelligent."
Klear said the couple were evicted from their rental home four years ago and needed help, but refused assistance.
"They don't want handouts," Klear said. "I'm hoping this woke them up."
The couple appeared in court Friday to face three charges each of felony child abuse. They pleaded not guilty and both are being held on $300,000 bond.
"I'm wondering why all this is happening," Panico told the judge at the end of the hearing. "I want to say something. It's ridiculous."
But then he fell silent when his wife's public defender admonished him to let his lawyer do the talking in court.