Sheila McLaughlin reports:
A Middletown couple accused of locking their 12-year-old daughter in the basement for weeks as punishment for being unruly pleaded not guilty Tuesday to misdemeanor charges of child endangering.
Joanna and Shawn Blackston appeared in Butler County Juvenile Court on the charge after a grand jury declined to indict them on felony charges of felony kidnapping.
The court hearing came a day after Butler County Children Services Director Jeff Centers was placed on paid leave from his $86,000 a year job in the wake of trouble in the agency. A more definitive decision on his job could happen as soon as Thursday, County Administrator Charlie Young said.
“We’ve taken a look at children services and we are making some decisions on changes that are necessary. I would not attribute it to the Blackston case particularly, but the Blackston case is one of many issues,” he said.
The Blackstons are scheduled to go on trial Nov. 12. The couple faces up to six months in jail if convicted or they could receive probation. They had faced up to 10 years in prison on the kidnapping charge.
The girl and five other children – ranging in age from 2 to 16 – were placed in foster care after a children services investigator, working on a tip, checked the home and found the girl locked in the basement on July 3.
A 15-year-old was removed from the home several months earlier after reporting that she was punished by having to stay in the basement and watching the other children open Christmas presents.
Butler County Commissioner Cindy Carpenter, who has called for changes in the county’s child welfare system, has said the children services agency failed to check on the other children or respond to complaints about treatment of the children after the 15-year-old was placed in foster care.
With the threat of felony charges gone, Joanna Blackston’s attorney, Ched Peck, said his client can focus on getting her children back.
“These allegations are very serious. But without the threat of prison being there any longer, the focus turns very quickly to the children – getting some or all of these children back home,” Peck said.