A Union County woman starved and struck a child living in her home, withholding food as punishment and forcing the child to sleep naked inside a square taped to a bedroom floor under the watch of a surveillance camera, according to arrest papers filed Monday by state police.
The child, whose age was not included in court documents, told Trooper Adam Depauw of the Milton station that as much as one week passed between meals at the New Columbia home of her former guardian, Melissa Lin Keister, according to arrest papers.
Extreme hunger once forced the child to eat a frozen pizza directly from a basement freezer, the child said, according to arrest papers.
On at least 50 occasions, Keister would force the child to drink vinegar until she vomited because she had been caught eating when not allowed, the child told Depauw, according to arrest papers. Other punishments included running laps around the house or having to perform wall squats — once for up to two hours, the child said, according to arrest papers.
The child would take food from the pantry, even from the garbage, and picked crumbs from the floor to eat and hide around the home, arrest papers state. Other children in the house would try to help, according to arrest papers.
“She said that they would sometimes slip food under the door of her bedroom, ensuring that there were not wrappers as evidence that she had eaten. She said that they would usually sneak her bread to eat,” Depauw wrote in arrest papers.
Police observed the room and found a bed frame but no mattress, a boarded window, lines of tape formed into a square on a floor and a baby monitor camera mounted on a shelf about 1 foot from the bedroom ceiling, according to arrest papers.
The child was removed from Keister's care in April 2018 and placed into the custody of Union County Children & Youth. Director Matt Ernst cited confidentiality in declining to comment on if other children had also been removed from the home.
Keister was interviewed voluntarily in April 2018 and according to arrest papers, told Depauw that only she and her husband could feed the child because mental health disorders prevented the child from bonding with anyone else. The child’s last name was changed at Keister’s direction, police said.
Keister is free on $15,000 unsecured bail set by Mifflinburg District Judge Jeffrey Mensch following an arraignment Monday. Depauw charged Keister with endangering the welfare of children, a felony, and misdemeanor counts of neglect of care and recklessly endangering another person.
Keister immediately waived her rights to a preliminary hearing, moving her criminal case to Union County Court. She’s scheduled to be arraigned by President Judge Michael T. Hudock on Oct. 28. Keister's attorney, Graham Showalter, declined comment on behalf of his client.
According to arrest papers, the child alleged she was only allowed to exit the room into other parts of the house when visitors like home health aides arrived. When they left, the child said she’d be forced to remove the large shirt she wore like a nightgown and return to her room nude and alone, according to arrest papers.
If the family visited restaurants, the child said she wasn’t permitted to eat, arrest papers state. Her bed was removed as punishment and she was forced to sleep on her back or side, never on her knees, inside the taped square, the child said, according to arrest papers.
“She said that when she was placed in her bedroom all of her clothing was taken away from her and she would be in her room nude” and without blankets, Depauw wrote in arrest papers.
The child initially denied a report of physical abuse but in a subsequent interview, Depauw said the child accused Keister of once striking her head up to 20 times against the corner of a desk, arrest papers state. The child didn’t know what she’d done to garner the reaction, police said. A paddle, backscratcher and Keister's hand were also alleged to be used to strike the child as punishment, according to arrest papers.
Dr. Pat Bruno concluded that the child suffered physical ills and behavioral health issues as a direct result of emotional and mental abuse, arrest papers state. The child gained 20 pounds in about one month after she was removed from the home in April 2018 and placed in protective custody, according to police.
State troopers investigated Keister beginning in April 2018 on the receipt of a ChildLine referral, the state’s mandated reporting system for suspected child abuse and neglect. They interviewed two home health aides and a mobile therapist providing care to the child along with the child herself.
Keister told one or all of the professionals that the child suffered from a mental disorder that caused behavioral problems like eating her mattress or being “unsafe” with her pajamas, which she wasn’t allowed to have, arrest papers state. Keister told the therapist the child couldn’t sleep because of her own behavior and noises resulting from the alleged disorder, according to arrest papers.
The aides worked with the child for three months and two months, respectively, arrest papers state. One worked overnight, watching a surveillance feed from an iPad as the child slept on the bedroom floor and noting that the door had an audible alarm toward preventing the child from leaving on her own.
The aide said she observed the child once standing still inside the square, arms by her side, staring directly into the monitoring camera, arrest papers state. When the investigation began, the aide confirmed the child’s bed was returned and after sleeping on a mattress, the aide said the child’s behavior improved, according to arrest papers.
One home health aide told police that Keister admitted to causing the child to overdose on cold medication when trying to get her to fall asleep. The same aide said Keister failed to give the child prescribed medication and despite rarely seeing her eat, occasionally forcing her to overeat in an effort to gain weight ahead of doctor appointments.
When the child was first interviewed in April 2018, police said in arrest papers that she was malnourished and motionless. At a second interview in June 2019, police said she gained weight and was almost unrecognizable. A third interview followed later in June. All were performed by a forensic interviewer at the Child Advocacy Center in Sunbury. Depauw spoke directly to the child following the third interview, according to arrest papers.