Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, September 14, 1998

Sentence for parents of caged girl decried

Citizens, expert think Brillion couple deserved more than a year A judge's decision to sentence a Brillion couple to one year in jail after they were convicted of stuffing their 7-year-old daughter into a dog cage drew criticism and surprise over the weekend from residents of the small community and some child welfare advocates.

The sentence drew criticism particularly because the parents each faced a maximum penalty of 40 years in prison, and the Calumet County district attorney asked the judge to sentence each to 20 years.

"A year?" asked a frowning Patricia McCain, 30, a deli worker at the T & C Market in Brill ion. "I don't think that's enough. They should be treated the way they treated her," said McCain, who has three children.

Michael and Angeline Rogers, both 28, are scheduled to begin their jail sentences Sept. 25. The couple's five children -- four sons and the daughter -- now are living with relatives or in foster homes.

The parents also were placed on probation for 10 years and warned that if they violate probation by not following restrictions set by juvenile workers overseeing their children, they will be sent to prison immediately.

That was no consolation to McCain.

"Even if you put (the couple) under the same conditions (in a cage), it isn't even going to do the same thing for an adult as it has done for the 7-year-old -- being locked in a dog cage, in a dark, cold basement," she said.

Fond du Lac County Circuit Judge Steven Weinke handed down the sentence on Friday. He said he gave the couple a light sentence because they tried to find help for their daughter, who had been diagnosed with "oppositional defiance disorder," an emotional condition that caused her to smear feces in her home and cause other disruptions.

A psychiatrist testified during the sentencing hearing that the dog cage, which was too small for the family's dogs, was "their kind of homemade solution" to disciplining the girl.

"What we don't know is if their parenting helped to exacerbate the problems," said Anne Arnesen, director of Wisconsin Council on Children and Families, a Madison-based child advocacy organization.

Mark Courtney, a child welfare expert from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said the judge's ruling points out the belief of some that different human rights standards are applied to children.

"If people are putting children in cages and we wanted to send a message to folks that children deserve the same rights to not be tortured or abused that adults have, then you have to send a strong message," said Courtney, an associate professor of social work.

Courtney said if the victim in this case had been elderly, it's likely a judge would have imposed a prison sentence.

"There's still the belief in the minds of a lot of people -- and that includes judges -- that children are the property of their parents and they need to be disciplined. That's the way a lot of people think -- spare the rod, spoil the child. If you use the rod on anybody over 18 you go to jail. No question about it," Courtney said Sunday.

The children are being protected under children in need of protective services (CHIPS) petitions filed last spring. The petitions expire next spring and could be extended for continued court protection of the children.

But the couple's parental rights have not been terminated and they have the option of petitioning the juvenile court to regain custody of their children, said a court official who did not want to be named.

The oldest boy, now 12, has been placed in the custody of his biological father, an arrangement that could make it less likely he would be returned to the Rogerses' custody, the court official said Sunday. The two youngest children, both boys, are in a foster home together. The remaining son and the girl are in separate foster homes.

Social workers from the Calumet County Department of Human Services have allowed the parents supervised visits with their boys.

The child abuse came to light Nov. 17, when the oldest boy, then 11, walked to the Brillion police station wearing neither a coat nor shoes in freezing temperatures and told stunned officers that his sister was being kept in a cage that reeked of urine. An officer immediately went to the home, and by shining his flashlight on the cage, saw the little girl inside hugging a stuffed animal.

The case drew national attention and prompted strangers to send the children clothing, food, teddy bears, money and Christmas presents.

Jessica Wenzel, 20, who was renting videos at the Express Video store in Brillion on Saturday, said she doesn't believe the Rogerses tried hard enough to get help for their daughter.

"Brillion is a close-knit town. We share times of happiness and we share our problems, and I think we would have definitely helped if they told anybody, went to the police or called a hospital," said Wenzel, who lived three blocks away from the Rogers family.

McCain, Wenzel and others in Brillion said the couple need to learn how to properly discipline their children, and a year in jail won't help them.

"Maybe after they get out, they shouldn't get the child back. No parent under any circumstances should have to cage their child," said Wenzel.

Although Weinke has been criticized for his sentencing decision, Arnesen said he was forced to grapple with a delicate issue because the goal of child welfare officials and courts is to keep families together. Counseling and parenting classes are used to help parents instead of breaking up families.

"It's very easy to rush into a case like this and send people to prison. It's sort of the first response. But it sounded to me like (the judge) was trying to be very careful," said Arnesen.

"People want simple answers. You read in the paper that what they did was terrible. So the simple answer is to send them to prison. But child welfare cases are often not simple, and I think the judge recognized that."

This story was written by Journal Sentinel reporter Meg Jones in Milwaukee, with contributions from staff writers Zahida Hafeez reporting from Brillion, and Colleen Krantz in Milwaukee.

Copyright 1998, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. All rights reserved.

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