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Man Says He Mistook Malnourished Teen For 8-Year-Old

No Charges Filed Yet In Madison Abuse Case

MADISON, Wis. - A man who found a severely malnourished 15-year-old girl walking barefoot outside in pajamas said she was bleeding from a gash on her nose and crying.

Mike Vega said Wednesday that the teen he found walking near her Madison home Feb. 6 also had scrapes and a big bruise on her forehead and was so scrawny he mistook her for an 8-year-old.

Vega said he saw the girl as he was driving on Siggelkow Road, near Valley Drive on Madison's southeast side.

"She had came up to the car, and I rolled the window down and I said, 'Do you need help?' And she said, 'Yes,' and reached out for my hand in the car door," Vega said.

Vega said while they waited in his car for an ambulance to arrive, she told him her stepmother had thrown her down the basement stairs and that she escaped through a window.

Seeing her without any socks and shoes prompted Vega to wonder how many steps she endured to get to get to where he found her.

"I mean, I don't know where I found her in relation to the house," Vega said. "But she was purple on her feet and she was getting frostbite."

Police said the girl told officers her father and stepmother had kept her confined to the basement for years and had starved her and even forced her to eat her feces.

The teen told police that she was forced to live in the unfinished basement of her family's house on Treichel Street since about 2006.

A doctor who specializes in child abuse examined the teen Friday and diagnosed her condition as "serial child torture with prolonged exposure to definite starvation," according to a police incident report.

Charges are still pending against the girl's father, Chad G. Chritton, and stepmother, Melinda J. Drabek-Chritton. They were arrested on Friday on suspicion of child abuse and neglect.

A Dane County judge on Tuesday set the couple's bail at $20,000 each. The judge told prosecutors that the suspects could be released if a criminal complaint is not filed by Thursday. The two younger stepchildren in the home are now also in protective custody.

Vega said he is thankful the girl is being cared for in a different environment.

"You could see right through this girl's eyes that she had no love," Vega said. "And the night that it happened, I told my wife that we should pray for her because no one in her house is."

A probable cause affidavit said the girl weighs 70 pounds and experienced prolonged starvation. But a close family friend said a medical condition is to blame.

"Chad and Melinda are just sweethearts," said family friend Sam Stenbroten.

Stenbroten said the Chrittons did everything they could to manage their daughter's serious dietary challenges.

"They always gave her three substantial meals of food, and she didn't enjoy eating those," Stenbroten said. "She would rather eat things that she would find. They believed that she had a medical condition that made her want to eat other things besides food."

Stenbroten said the girl said she preferred defecating in containers rather than using the restroom. He said the girl's family believed she had a medical syndrome.

"I heard it was pica, but I'm not sure what that is," Stenbroten said.

WISC-TV tried to confirm if the girl has pica and, if so, when it developed. Neither police nor the Dane County District Attorney's Office would confirm, citing the open investigation and protection under the HIPPA law.

Dr. Sumona Saha, of the University of Wisconsin Hospital's Gastroenterology Division, explained that those with pica will crave nonfood items.

"Pica is a really an unusual or unnatural appetite for substances that really aren't food," Saha said.

Those with pica will eat things like dirt, chalk and paper, the doctor said. It can affect pregnant women, children and those with Crohn's disease. It can also affect those who aren't getting enough iron, Saha said.

WISC-TV tried to confirm if the girl has pica and, if so, when it developed. Neither police nor the Dane County District Attorney's Office would confirm, citing the open investigation and protection under the HIPPA law.

If the girl was kept in the basement and denied food except for what she could find on the floor, Saha said pica could develop.

"Presumably she was not getting fed adequately and so, over time, her iron stores became depleted," Saha said. "She didn't have access to food, so she may have been eating out of potential hunger. But also, she may have been craving it second to her iron deficiency."

Saha said she hopes that parents will take note of any abnormal behavior, saying pica is possible to diagnose and treat it if it is addressed.

Neighbors Say They Reported Abuse Of Girl

Neighbors of the 15-year-old girl said they alerted social services authorities about potential abuse but don't know if anything was ever done.

Mark Stuntebeck said he's lived next door to the family since they both moved into houses built by Habitat for Humanity about six years ago. He said he'd see the girl taking out the trash, scavenging through it and then hiding to eat what she found.

"Several times, we'd see her bringing out the trash and looking for little food scraps or crumbs that she could find and eat, and I know at least on one occasion I did send out one of my kids with a piece of fruit or something," Stuntebeck said.

He said he saw it several times and even called social services officials but he doesn't know what happened.

Stuntebeck said he once saw the girl shoveling snow in nothing more than pajamas and a sweatshirt. He said he gave her gloves and a coat, which were later returned with a plate of cookies from the Chritton house.

Stuntebeck said years ago, his family used to take the girl on bike rides using a trail-along bike, but in recent years he'd seen less of her and she'd become much thinner.

Melissa Clark lives across the street. She said her mother called child protective services about a year ago because they heard the stepmother berating her.

State law prohibits county Human Services officials from confirming whether they investigated and also prohibits them from telling nonmandated reporters, such as neighbors, that they followed up.

The only group that would be able to comment is the Department of Children and Families at the state level. It has issued a 48-hour egregious incident report, and an official at the Department said more information will be released Thursday.

Safe Harbor Conducts Forensic Interview With Girl

Police said the Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center conducted a forensic interview with the girl on Friday.

Police said the Safe Harbor interview provided probable cause to arrest the father and stepmother.

The primary purpose of the nonprofit Safe Harbor Child Advocacy Center is to protect children in cases of abuse and to help them through the police questioning process so that charges can be filed.

"Our job is to help bring the systems together to work cooperatively. Then children are brought here into a kid-friendly environment to have a forensic interview," said Jennifer Ginsburg, the primary forensic interviewer for Safe Harbor.

While Ginsburg said she won't talk specifics about this case, she explained the process to help children talk about alleged abuse.

She said she interviews children, alone, in a room as a neutral party and that all agencies involved -- such as police and protective services -- listen in from another room via closed-circuit television and can feed questions through an ear-piece.

Ginsburg said it creates a safe place for the children to communicate.

"The goal of that is to reduce the number of times that the child has to talk about what happened, so they're only having to say it once. And then the team involved can get that information from that one interview," Ginsburg said.

Last year, Safe Harbor interviewed an average of 16 children each month, all involved in alleged abuse cases.

Since opening in 1999, Safe Harbor has interviewed more than 1,800 children, which resulted in a total of 2,200 years of prison time for the suspects involved.

Safe Harbor said that as an independent nonprofit, it relies on grants and private donations to stay open. For more information on Safe Harbor, go to www.safeharborhelpskids.org.

Stay tuned to WISC-TV and Channel 3000 for continuing coverage.


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