Indiana Couple Formally Charged With Starving Granddaughter

Steve and Joetta Sells (courtesy Madison County jail, via WTHR)
Steve and Joetta Sells (courtesy Madison County jail, via WTHR)

Yesterday, I told you about a horrific case of child abuse in Anderson, Indiana. Steve and Joetta Sells are accused of keeping their 15-year-old special-needs granddaughter under lock and key in a cold and feces-laden room. According to police and prosecutors, they so severely neglected her that by the time she was finally rescued on Monday, she had been reduced to skin and bones. Well, on Friday, the couple was formally arraigned?and charged?with abusing and starving the girl over at least a three-year period.

Steve and Joetta Sells (courtesy Madison County jail, via WTHR)
Steve and Joetta Sells (courtesy Madison County jail, via WTHR)

The Sellses each face charges of neglect of a dependent, neglect of a dependent causing serious bodily injury, criminal confinement, and battery resulting in bodily injury. Steve Sells, the teen’s legal guardian, faces additional charges of battery against a disabled person. Joetta Sells is also charged with battery with bodily waste. At present, they could spend up to 27 years in prison if convicted on all charges, but it could be more than that. They received?$720 per month for the girl’s care, but it’s obvious none of it went toward food and medical expenses. I have to hope that prosecutors charge the Sellses with welfare fraud–if only to increase the likelihood that they spend the rest of their lives in prison. While the abuse charged in the information dates back to 2011, it’s very likely the abuse started sooner than that. The Sellses have had custody of the girl since 2009 and also had custody of a four year old who was removed from the home after the teen was rescued. She was taken out of public school in 2010–ostensibly to be homeschooled due to her special needs.

Several grisly details about the girl’s ordeal emerged at the hearing. When an ambulance rushed her to St. Vincent Regional Hospital in Anderson on Monday, she wasn’t breathing and required CPR. If I’m reading that right, she was near death at the time and was lucky to have made it to the hospital. When hospital staff found her covered in bed sores and dried feces, they called the police department’s child trauma team. Several people who knew the couple revealed how badly they treated the girl. Reportedly, Steve dragged the girl up and down the stairs by her hair. According to his biological daughter, Crystal, she could hear the victim’s head thumping against the steps. In light of this, if Steve’s claim that the girl came at him with a knife at least once didn’t seem laughable before, it definitely does now. Joetta frequently punished the girl by hitting her with a belt buckle and forcing her to eat feces and urine.

This adds to what we already know about this tragedy. When asked why the girl only weighed 35 pounds–roughly what a five-year-old should weigh–Steve Sells claimed it was due to a genetic condition. However, she hadn’t seen a doctor since 2012 and hasn’t had a nutritional supplement since her Medicaid ran out. Additionally, the Sellses got $720 per month for the girl’s care–but it’s now obvious none of it went toward food and medical expenses. It’s no wonder that the judge fixed Steve Sells’ bond at $100,000 cash and ordered him to stay away from the teen. Steve, who took part in the hearing via video conference, said that his parents could post the bond. We also got a revealing look at Joetta Sells’ character. She had bonded out yesterday but was arrested on the new charges while getting ready to leave the hearing for her husband. Like her husband, her bond was fixed at $100,000 cash. When a reporter for WTHR in Indianapolis asked her about the girl, Joetta replied, “It’s not my granddaughter. I am not related.” You have to be really cold to say that about a child after nearly starving her to death.

The Sellses might not be the only ones who need to be before a judge. At least two other adults knew what was happening in that house, but it doesn’t appear that they notified anyone. Whoever handled a previous case involving the girl may have some explaining to do as well. Back in 2010, the girl’s doctor was concerned that she seemed malnourished. The Madison County Department of Child Services filed a “child in need” petition, but it was dismissed for want of evidence. A DCS spokesman said that confidentiality laws limit how much information can be released but did confirm that the agency has opened a fresh investigation into the girl’s welfare. Frankly, I’d like to know how something like this could have been thrown out after only a month. After all, assuming that the doctor was aware of the girl’s medical history, it would seem that DCS should have at least had the basic curiosity to probe further.

The girl is currently at Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital in Indianapolis in critical condition. As a measure of how badly she was mistreated, she is still too weak to walk. Anderson police detective Joel Sandefur doesn’t think a lot of people have any idea of the ordeal this girl had to endure. “I don’t think people understand,” he said. “She was starved.” While Sandefur was referring to her being starved of food, she was also starved of a lot of love and attention. Chances are that she’s going to need counseling for a very long time–if not for the rest of her life. Here’s hoping she makes a full recovery–and that the Sellses pay for what they did to her by staying in prison for a long, long time.

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Darrell Lucus.jpg Darrell Lucus, also known as Christian Dem in NC on Daily Kos, is a radical-lefty Jesus-lover who has been blogging for change for a decade. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook.

edited by hl

Darrell is a 30-something graduate of the University of North Carolina who considers himself a journalist of the old school. An attempt to turn him into a member of the religious right in college only succeeded in turning him into the religious right's worst nightmare--a charismatic Christian who is an unapologetic liberal. His desire to stand up for those who have been scared into silence only increased when he survived an abusive three-year marriage. You may know him on Daily Kos as Christian Dem in NC. Follow him on Twitter @DarrellLucus or connect with him on Facebook. Click here to buy Darrell a Mello Yello.

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