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‘Overwhelmed’ mom locked hissing, growling kids in filthy cages, she tells Va. court

A Virginia mother pleaded guilty to abuse and neglect charges in Accomack County after police said she locked her children in filthy cages. Social workers said the kids were growling and hissing.
A Virginia mother pleaded guilty to abuse and neglect charges in Accomack County after police said she locked her children in filthy cages. Social workers said the kids were growling and hissing. Accomack County Sheriff’s Office

Originally, the structures had been cribs.

But Malista Ness-Hopkins, a 39-year-old Virginia mother, got “overwhelmed” caring for her five children, according to her defense lawyer — and so she screwed lids on top of two cribs with her 2- and 3-year-olds inside, turning the children’s beds into filthy, lice-infested cages, WTKR reports.

That’s where social workers found the two children in July 2017, Delmarva Now reported. It took social worker Kate Bonniwell 23 minutes to free just one of the children by using an electric screwdriver to remove the top, she said. The penned-in 2-year-old was hissing and making “animal sounds” as she worked, according to Delmarva Now. There were bite and claw marks inside the cribs, police said.

“The children didn’t act like normal children,” Bonniwell testified at a pretrial hearing for the Accomack County mother, WBOC reported.

Social workers didn’t just find caged toddlers at the home: They found all five of Ness-Hopkins’ children — between ages 1 and 6 — living in deplorable conditions, with dirty diapers, lice and insect bites. Plates of food were decomposing in the sink and bathtub, according to WMDT. Broken glass and rotten food were strewn around the house.

The South Carolina Department of Social Services lists numerous signs of child abuse and neglect. Here are 10 signs to look for if you suspect a school-aged child is being abused.

Ness-Hopkins pleaded guilty Thursday in a Virginia court to five child neglect charges, WTKR reports. She faces as much as 25 years in prison, according to the TV station.

After Ness-Hopkins’ arrest last year, she was released on $10,000 bail, according to WBOC, with a judge requiring her to receive a mental health evaluation and get treatment.

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Beyond the caged children, authorities said there was a 1-year-old in a crib that didn’t have a top on it, as well as two other children — 5 and 6 — lying on dirty mattresses on the floor. They were all filthy, police said, with flea bites across their bodies. Ness-Hopkins told social workers that she had confined the children because they had once run off and played with a container of Drano, according to The Associated Press.

“Outside, there was trash and debris,” Meghann Patterson, an investigator for the Accomack County Sheriff’s Office, said during a 2017 preliminary hearing, according to Delmarva Now. “Inside, the smell was overwhelming. The kitchen was littered with trash and cockroaches were all over the floor.”

Ness-Hopkins’ boyfriend’s family owned the home where she was living with the children when she was arrested. Her attorney said she became depressed in May 2016 following her boyfriend’s death, which led to the neglect, WMDT reports.

She said she loved the children, that there was no physical abuse and that the negligence wasn’t meant as punishment, according to the TV station.

One of Ness-Hopkins’ children is now living with Ness-Hopkins’ mother, with the remaining four in foster care, WMDT reports. Severe neglect left one child with reactive attachment disorder, and another with post-traumatic stress disorder, according to the TV station.

Ness-Hopkins will remain free on bond until her sentencing, which is scheduled for December, Delmarva Now reports.

Much material in this story originally appeared in a story by the author published in October 2017.

Shakayla Denson, 26, was charged with murder, aggravated child abuse and grand theft of a motor vehicle after Tampa police say she left her 4-year-old daughter in the Hillsborough River to drown.

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