'House of horrors': Children's injuries overwhelming, nurse says
Five of seven young children taken from a West York home described by police as a "house of horrors" were covered in bruises, abrasions and scars, according to a York Hospital nurse who examined them.
"There were multiple scars on all these children," said Elizabeth Jenkins, a forensic registered nurse. "It was overwhelming to see all ... these marks on them — all the bruising and the scars."
Jenkins was one of three people to testify at 72-year-old Charles M. Benjamin's preliminary hearing Wednesday, April 3, before District Judge Jennifer Clancy.
At the close of the hearing, Clancy determined enough evidence exists for Benjamin to stand trial and forwarded the case against him to York County Court. His formal court arraignment is set for May 10.
Benjamin remains free on $250,000 bail, charged with five counts each of aggravated assault, child endangerment, simple assault and reckless endangerment and one count of false imprisonment. He is now living with his son in the 200 block of Parkway Boulevard in York City, he told the judge.
GPS monitoring: His bail conditions require him to wear a GPS monitor on his ankle. At the hearing, senior deputy prosecutor Kara Bowser told Clancy that Benjamin needs to be monitored to keep him from trying to have contact with his children and their mother, who also is charged with child abuse.
"Sometimes things aren't as they appear to be," defense attorney Clarence Allen told reporters after the hearing. Benjamin declined comment.
Allen noted that five of Benjamin's adult daughters were in court to support him Wednesday. Asked how many children Benjamin has, Allen said he's unsure.
Benjamin and 25-year-old girlfriend Janay Fountain have seven children, including infant twins who are not listed as child-abuse victims in charging documents. Like their older siblings, they remain in protective custody.
The couple's five other children — ages 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 at the time they were taken into protective custody by York County child caseworkers — are listed as victims, and their injuries were described in detail by Jenkins as she testified.
Too many to chart: According to Jenkins, the children had marks all over their bodies, including bruising and scars on their faces, arms, legs, backs, buttocks and torsos. Some of the children had redness to their genital areas as well, she noted.
Jenkins said that when she catalogs a patient's injuries, she uses a body chart to map their locations. But in the case of the five Benjamin children, she said she could only mark "acute," or fresher, injuries.
"There were too many scars and too many injuries" to document all of them on the body charts, she testified.
West York Police Detective Michael Mendez Sr., the lead investigator in the case, said the oldest two children initially claimed they had injured each other, but that the oldest child then said it was their parents who hit them.
The boy told authorities he and his younger siblings were hit with a board, a belt and a curtain rod or Venetian blind rod, and he reported that his father tried to drown him and one of his sisters in the bathtub, the detective said.
Mendez testified that York Hospital's findings were forwarded to a Hershey Medical Center pediatrician for her expert opinion on how they might have been caused.
That pediatrician, Dr. Kathryn Crowell, submitted a report stating that injuries on at least four of the children could not have been caused accidentally or by their siblings, Mendez said.
'Consistent with' abuse: Her report states that some of the injuries are "highly suggestive" of child abuse and "are consistent with physical abuse," according to the detective.
Mendez said Fountain told him it was Benjamin who injured their children and told him that "pretty much the children were locked in their bedrooms all day long," and that sometimes Benjamin withheld food from them.
Fountain said she would sometimes try to sneak food to her children, but she said if Benjamin caught her, he would lock her in a room, too, according to Mendez.
Mendez told Judge Clancy that when he searched Benjamin's former home in the 1300 block of West Market Street, he found a bungee cord attached to a bedroom door that allegedly was used to keep the children from leaving the room.
"It stank severely of urine," Mendez said of that bedroom. "It also had the foul smell of feces."
'Piles of feces': He said he found "piles of feces" behind the radiator in the room. Mendez said it appears the children had to relieve themselves in the room because Benjamin wouldn't let them out to use the bathroom.
Also testifying Wednesday was Megan Moore, an emergency-duty caseworker for the York County Office of Children, Youth and Families.
She said she was dispatched to Benjamin's home Feb. 6 and, after speaking with the family, had the children taken into protective custody and transported to York Hospital to be examined.
Moore testified that Benjamin told her the children don't listen.
According to Moore, Benjamin's 5-year-old daughter "appeared terrified" of her father.
"She was crying and shaking" as she walked past her father, Moore testified.
Moore confirmed the oldest child reported that Benjamin hit him and that Fountain confirmed Benjamin "hit the kids with a board, a belt and a curtain rod."
"I asked her why she didn't intervene," Moore said. "She stated she would be locked in the bedroom if she tried to intervene."
Mom cooperating: Also on Wednesday, Fountain waived her preliminary hearing via a video conference with Clancy from York County Prison.
"We're trying to reduce the contact between (Fountain) and (Benjamin)," Judge Clancy explained to reporters.
Fountain's $200,000 bail has been reduced to recognizance bail by a York County judge, but she will remain locked up until her home plan is approved, defense attorney Alice Glasser confirmed. That means she's waiting for probation officers supervising her release to approve the place where she hopes to live.
Fountain asked during the video proceeding when she could see her children. Glasser explained to her that custody will be sorted out by a different attorney.
Glasser told The York Dispatch that Fountain is cooperating with the investigation "in general" and is working with the York County District Attorney's Office.
West York Police Chief Matt Millsaps has said the older children have never been to school and had limited access to the outside world.
— Reach Liz Evans Scolforo at email@example.com or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.