Eleven children living in squalid conditions were rescued from a home on East Sixth Avenue in Spokane, Wash. over the weekend, according to fire department reports obtained by Law&Crime.
The house, in the 2100 block of East Sixth Avenue between South Crestline and South Lee Streets, was littered with “food, dog food, garbage, cigarette butts and animal feces throughout,” according to the reports. The “entire residence” reeked of “feces and urine,” the reports indicate. The fire chief said his own staff “struggled due to the shock of the reality” of the situation and that the children were living in a “tragically unsafe, unsanitary, and clearly inhumane” environment.
According to city reports, firefighters responded Sunday to a “rubbish fire” which threw a column of smoke into the air that was visible from nearby Interstate 90. Flames were visible upon closer inspection in the back yard of the small house. The actual fire was described as a “large trash fire in back yard of home” and “was quickly extinguished by the first alarm companies,” the report says. Fire crews initially received “mixed reports of people inside” the home “with up to 3-4 unaccounted for.” They also feared “a possible victim” was “in the basement of the home,” but that “person had self extricated from the basement” and everyone else made it out of the home safely, firefighters eventually learned.
After removing the burning debris from the side of the house, firefighters “determined that no fire had made it inside the structure.”
The incident commander informed other firefighters that “a lot” of children were “taken out of the house” and were staying warm in waiting vehicles while firefighters worked the scene.
One firefighter, Lt. Shane Sanders, then entered the home and described the conditions inside:
The incident commander authorized me to enter the dwelling to check for cause and origin in or near the structure. I entered the structure through the front door, which faces north, on 6th Avenue and was accompanied by Spokane Police Officer Neil Higgins. Upon entering the structure I immediately noticed living conditions that were unsafe, unhealthy, and untenable for the children living there. The living room had food, dog food, garbage, cigarette butts and animal feces throughout. There was a strong smell of feces and urine in this room, and throughout the entire residence. I next entered the kitchen which had piles of dirty dishes, a gallon of milk that had been left out, piles of garbage, old food, and multiple items stored on the stove top (which is a high risk fire hazard). Again, the floor was covered in garbage and animal feces, and there was even feces spread on the wall in the kitchen. I next entered the storage room; it was filled with piled dirty clothing, garbage, old food.
Lt. Sanders and the officer then checked the back yard where the fire occurred before returning back into the putrid house. Again, from the report:
The entire yard was covered with debris. There were multiple items here that could have harmed children; i.e. bare wiring, propane containers, garbage bags, broken glass, pieces of scrap metal and plastic with sharp edges. I re-entered the structure and continued through the house to check for any signs of smoke or flame that may have gotten inside the structure. The stairs going to the basement were covered with mud, feces, garbage, two hand saws, and appeared to be wet (no fire fighting activities occurred inside the dwelling). The bathroom had, what appeared to be, human feces in the bath tub as well as more garbage on the floor. The bedroom that I looked into had blankets and pillows on the floor, no beds. There were no dressers so clothing was thrown on the floor, and as well, there was garbage, feces, and a strong urine smell. Throughout the entire house, there was so much garbage, items stored in cardboard boxes, and furnishing that the fire load was extremely high. The avenues of egress were significantly small, and in fire conditions would be detrimental to escape. After I exited the structure I informed the Incident Commander of my findings and suggested SPD intervention for the protection of, and the health and welfare of, the eleven children living in this home.
Another firefighter noted that the scenario involved an “excessive hoarder situation with garbage piled not only in the back yard but also in the house.”
The fire department reports also reference an individual who noticed the fire and who tried to warn the people inside the house.
“That person ran up to the house and pounded on the door finding approximately eight children in the home by themselves running in ages from 6 months – 12 years,” the report says.
Battalion chief and paramedic James Schaffer added:
The children were dirty, what clothing they had was in poor condition and dirty also. The children appeared malnourished. Several of the children were barely clothed. The conditions in the basement were even worse then the conditions on the upper floor according to reports from my crews. I only saw the backyard and the first floor. Which was very bad.
Yet another firefighter, William Baldwin, described the scene as involving piles of refuse six feet tall and suggested something of a tent city appeared to have been set up in the yard:
Multiple extension cords running from bravo side exterior outlet to what appeared to be either a small camp trailer or tents. Dressers, piles of clothes, piles of garbage, and foam mattress pads observed in area behind house. Upon entering C side exterior door, more piles of garbage, debris and clothes were encountered with steps leading down to basement from back mudroom side C. Basement had more piles of debris, clothes and garbage along steps and covering the entirety of the basement with one pathway (walking on trash and clothes) leading to A Side of basement. One bed noted there and another bed noted D Side of basement. No smoke or heat. Opened door main floor into kitchen after fire was knocked down (not on SCBA) and immediately noticed extreme odor of garbage, rotten food, feces and urine.
Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer said he “[s]elf-initiated” to the fire because it was close to his own residence. He described the situation involving the children in his own write-up of the occurrence:
I arrived from the west and positioned my car to block traffic at South Crestline Street and East 6th Avenue. There was no visible smoke or suppression activity from my car’s viewpoint, and I was not monitoring the incident’s talk group. When I arrived, the IC [incident commander] came to my window and explained that the situation was more complex than the fire. The IC described the initially dispatched 11F as actually a large fire in the residence’s backyard (Charlie Side) consuming an unoccupied tent and significant amounts of trash. When companies began to access the residence (2114 East 6th Avenue) and check for extension, they located several small children, unaccompanied by an adult. The children physically appeared in various stages of malnourishment and abuse, as reported by firefighters and conveyed to me by the IC.
I confirmed the information with the IC as he relayed it due to the shock of the reality he explained. The IC confirmed that SPD had been requested to the scene. After the discussion, we both walked to the address side (Alpha) of the structure and attempted to view the Charlie side of the incident, however, a large amount of trash and derelict supplies (tires, camper, large containers) would not allow additional personnel to access the area. I walked back to the Alpha side and made entry into the main floor of the residence and located several children that were spread amongst the home’s first floor and basement area. They began emerging from several areas in the residence that were tragically unsafe, unsanitary, and clearly inhumane. The children were in various stages of dress and some were naked. The children that were clothed obviously were wearing garments that did not appear clean or laundered.
Firefighters and police officers decided to remove “each child individually,” to ascertain who the children’s parents were, and to take each of the 11 children via ambulance to a pediatric emergency room at Spokane’s Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center “for evaluation” and “treatment of their current physical and mental state,” the reports say.
Ambulance crews and police officers were told by firefighters that the situation involved “a possible child abuse situation,” the reports say.
The fire chief noted that the Spokane Police Department was told to take the lead on the case “due to the potential criminality of the activity found.”
The Spokane Police Department released the following statement to Law&Crime on Thursday:
The investigation is ongoing. The priority in this case was the safety of the children, which was the reason they were removed from the home. Police determined the environment did pose a risk to the children Determining whether criminal charges against the adults responsible for the children are warranted is not a simple process. It’s not illegal to have a filthy home. We need to look at whether or not the children were denied the basic necessities of life, not just was there a risk they were denied those necessities.
[ . . . ]
Law enforcement has the authority to remove children from unsafe environments if there are articulable reasons to believe an imminent risk of harm to a dependent person exists. SPD officers determined this threshold was met, and placed several children in the protective custody of CPS, who will perform their own investigation/process to determine the most suitable long-term living arrangements for the children.
SPD Special Victim’s Unit (SVU) will review the case to determine if criminal charges are appropriate against the people responsible for care of the juveniles.
Previously, Spokane Police Department Cpl. Nick Briggs released a similar lengthy statement on the case to Spokane CBS affiliate KREM-TV. It reads:
The investigation is on-going and at this point there have not been any arrests made. It’s important to understand there is a clear distinction between law enforcement removing children from a home due to unsafe conditions, and law enforcement arresting someone for mistreatment. The threshold is different and the criteria are different. Our main concern is the safety of the children, and when law enforcement has articulable reasons to believe children are in setting that poses an imminent risk of harm, Police have the power to temporarily place the endangered kids with CPS. Every situation where this placement occurs doesn’t mean criminal charges are warranted. The statute is very specific regarding mistreatment; a person has to be negligent in withholding one of the five basic necessities of life to be culpable. The threshold is necessarily high; the statute is not intended to punish parents or guardians who don’t have the means or resources to provide the same way others might, rather it is designed to hold only those criminal negligent responsible. Ultimately we want the kids to be in a safe and positive environment and, if possible, with their family or guardians. The investigation will look at a number of things, including what the root cause of the conditions was, and, in conjunction with CPS, determining where the children are safest going forward. Evaluating if criminal charges are warranted will certainly be part of the investigation, but the ultimate goal is making sure the kids are in a safe and productive environment.
The fire department documents, which Law&Crime obtained pursuant to an open records request, do not name the owner or owners of the property, the parents or guardians of the children, or the children themselves.
KREM reported that members of the Blackburn family saw smoke from the highway and drove to see what was wrong. They reported the fire, helped rescue the children, and allowed them to stay warm in their truck.
“They were very, very sweet kids,” a member of the family told the television station. “The oldest child said to me, ‘God moves in mysterious ways,’ and she said she believes that we saved their lives.”
Family member Randall Blackburn echoed the same story to NBC affiliate KHQ-TV.
[Editor’s note: this piece has been updated to include additional statements by the Spokane Police Department.]
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