WAYNESBORO, Ga. --- For most of their lives, or in the case of the younger ones for their entire lives, Christine Long's children were trapped in conditions only fleas and roaches thrived in.
The mother of 11 -- who pleaded guilty Friday and was sentenced to two years incarceration that she can serve in alternate weekends in jail -- blamed her husband.
Jeremy Long, she said, beat down her will to try to escape from the Burke County shack where one year ago Friday officers discovered Mrs. Long and her children. They were living without food, running water or electricity. The children ranged in age from 18 to 9 months.
Mrs. Long, 34, and her husband were indicted on charges of cruelty to children and failure to educate.
Mr. Long pleaded guilty in June and received a sentence of three years in prison followed by 10 years on probation. Prosecutors asked Judge James G. Blanchard Jr. on Friday to impose the same amount of prison time on Mrs. Long.
It wasn't only child neglect that could be attributed to poverty, said Assistant District Attorney Kristi Connell. This is a mother who never told her children she loved them, never gave them a hug, never even apologized for what they went through, Ms. Connell said.
The children didn't know how to bathe or turn on a water faucet, Ms. Connell said. More than one foster parent discovered the children didn't know how to use a toilet.
The child who was 11 years old when found needed surgery to remove the wax buildup in his ears. He weighed just 47 pounds, probably because he considered himself the guardian of his younger siblings and always divided his food with them, Ms. Connell said.
"It was like something I'd never seen before," said foster mother Tonya Torek, who agreed to take in the 8-year-old boy. The children smelled horrid -- somewhere between animal and death. He had never been in a car and suffered motion sickness during the first trip to his new home, she said.
The first day he spent at a day care, he was astonished that they had lunch and a snack, Mrs. Torek testified. Sometimes, he told her, they wouldn't eat for two days.
One afternoon, the boy was chewing a piece of gum, and she asked if he wanted a snack. The boy told her no. "There's a little flavor in this gum. I think I can make it to dinner." The story caused Judge Blanchard to bolt from the courtroom for a few minutes.
The boy didn't know how to play, Mrs. Torek said. He told her he wasn't allowed to go outside because he didn't have shoes. His parents told him that the neighbors were bad people who would set him on fire if they caught him, Mrs. Torek quoted her foster son as saying.
"I think I have been waiting for this for a whole year," Mrs. Torek said of her testimony. "He needs a voice (in court)."
The oldest boy was 13 and considered himself the man of the house, Ms. Connell said. He feels responsible for how his siblings were neglected. "He doesn't understand why. The one question he would ask his mother is 'Why?' "
The brother who was 6 when the children were found craves to be hugged and held at his foster home, Ms. Connell said. He never got hugs from his mother. "He can't understand why she never hugged him,'' said Ms. Connell, breaking down in tears.
He and his 5-year-old sister needed dental surgery because their teeth rotted to the roots, Ms. Connell said. None of the children had ever seen a dentist. They said they never had to brush their teeth.
The first morning foster father Randy Dailey awoke with the 3-year-old, she asked to go outside, he said. She said she had to go to the bathroom. At home she would go outside and dig a hole for herself, he said.
All the children were terrified of others. None had been to school. Only the oldest three could read at a rudimentary level.
Mrs. Long testified Friday that she wished she had known of the resources in the community and sought help. "Every day became a day of survival," she said.
"I did what I could with what I had."
But, Mrs. Long and her supporters told the judge, she has worked hard to become a new person. She has done everything the Department of Family and Children Services has asked: she has a clean home and a car, a job, and she has friends and the support of the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Waynesboro.
It would be wrong to send her prison, said the church's minister, the Rev. Al Wright, a sentiment echoed by her new boss, and Burke County sheriff's Chief Deputy James Hollingsworth.
Mrs. Long said she is punished every day when she wakes up without her children. "I tell them I'm sorry all the time. It hurts that they went through that. They were my life," she said.
The children don't talk lovingly about Mrs. Long, and they are adamant that both parents were responsible, Ms. Connell said. If she doesn't go to prison, it will tell the children what she did was all right, Ms. Connell said.
But defense attorney John Long and Amanda Hudock urged the judge to show compassion for a woman who has rehabilitated herself.
It was the worst case of neglect he had ever seen, Judge Blanchard said. "Thank heaven" for foster parents and all the teachers and guardians who have reached out to help these children.
He sentenced Mrs. Long to two years incarceration, a term that will be served by spending every other weekend in the Burke County Jail. She will also be on probation for the next 16 years.
The sentence disappointed Erika Van Buren, who attended the daylong hearing. She noted that NFL quarterback Michael Vick got 23 months in prison for cruelty to dogs.
"Once again, an injustice has been done on behalf of these children," Mrs. Van Buren said.
Reach Sandy Hodson at (706) 823-3226 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE PLEA: Christine Long, 34, pleaded guilty to charges of cruelty to children and failure to educate.
THE SENTENCE: Mrs. Long was sentenced to two years in jail and 16 years' probation. She will serve every other weekend in the Burke County Jail.
WHAT SHE SAID: "Every day became a day of survival. I did what I could with what I had."