On July 28, social services worker Kate Bonniwell visited a home in Mears, Virginia, to follow up on a child abuse complaint.

When she got there, KTVB reports, Bonniwell said she was immediately overwhelmed by the state of the home and the health of the children who lived there.

Screenshot/Delmarva Now

At a court hearing in Accomack County last Friday, the Associated Press reports Bonniwell said she found the children covered in lice, bed bugs, and dirty diapers.

In the bedrooms, she found two toddlers sleeping in cribs that had metal rails screwed onto the top, effectively creating makeshift cages. According to Delmarva Now, there were bite marks and scratches on the crib rails.

The house was in a state of disrepair: There was spoiled food in the sink, mold in the only toilet, and dirty laundry all over the house. The older children were sleeping on mattresses on the floor without bed sheets. Additionally, the entire house smelled like urine.

Bonniwell told the courtroom she spent 23 minutes removing the lids off the cages while the toddlers made “animal noises” at her:

“The children didn’t act like normal children.”

The children were immediately removed from the home. Their mother, Malista Ness-Hopkins, 38, was arrested and charged with five counts of abuse and neglect.


Ness-Hopkins told Bonniwell she was having a difficult time managing all of the children, but she was planning to move soon. The mom had created the cages after she had found the children with a can of Drano.

She told the courts she only used the cages when she couldn’t watch them.

Bonniwell said Ness-Hopkins did appear to be overwhelmed and that the state of the home didn’t seem to impact the children:

“There is no evidence that the conditions were directly harmful to the children. She was overwhelmed.”

Judge Croxton Gordon disagreed. He believed the decrepit state of the home proved a prolonged period of neglect. He said in court, as reported by Delmarva Now:

“She said she only screwed them in when she couldn’t mind them. But she was there.”

WMDT reports the judge certified the child abuse and neglect case to a grand jury.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services defines child abuse and neglect as:

Any recent act or failure to act on the part of a parent or caretaker which results in death, serious physical or emotional harm, sexual abuse or exploitation; or an act or failure to act which presents an imminent risk of serious harm.

The signs and symptoms of child neglect and abuse usually vary, but they can include:

  • A sudden change in behavior or grades
  • Physical or medical problems that have not been addressed
  • Difficulty learning or learning delays
  • Child refuses to go home or be around a certain individual
  • A lack of adult supervision
  • The unexplained appearance of bruises, bug bites, or broken bones

According to Childhelp.org, an estimated 3.6 million reports of child abuse are made to child protection agencies every year in the U.S.

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