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Now I'm Really Scared of Them

22 Sept 2005

By Michelle Roberts

Testifying against adoptive parents, Kayla Nickel, 11, describes a life of hunger and violence

A girl who prosecutors allege was nearly starved to death by a couple who adopted her from the state foster care system testified Wednesday that her adoptive father once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her after she tried to sneak a piece of pizza.

New details emerged during the first day of a Marion County bench trial for Tammy and Christopher Nickel, both 33, who face two counts each of felony criminal mistreatment.

Their adopted daughter, Kayla, weighed less than 27 pounds when she was removed from their Salem home in December 2003 -- a month before her 10th birthday.

The girl, now 11, testified that she often became so thirsty that she drank from the toilet and that she was closed in her room for hours and days at a time. When she was given food -- rarely anything other than oatmeal and SPAM -- she was forced to eat alone in her bedroom while the Nickels and their biological son, the same age as Kayla, ate together elsewhere.

"When I first came (to the Nickels)," Kayla testified as her former parents looked on, "I thought they were going to be my forever mom and dad. I never thought they would be mean. Now I'm really scared of them."

Lawyers for the couple argued that the Nickels were never cruel to Kayla and did not withhold food as a punishment. The Nickels adopted Kayla when she was 5 years old.

Records obtained by The Oregonian show that the child weighed 33 pounds at the time of her adoption and suffered from an eating disorder triggered by the abuse and neglect of her biological parents.

On Wednesday, the Nickels' lawyers argued that the couple were simply overwhelmed by the challenges Kayla presented. The couple, say their lawyers, are guilty of second-degree criminal neglect -- not the first-degree charges they face -- because they did not intentionally hurt the girl.

"They're not guilty of intentional conduct," said Craig Rockwell, who represents Chris Nickel. "Given the circumstances, they weren't sensitive to what was going on. They should have been, but they weren't."

The Nickels were arrested shortly after an anonymous caller contacted the Oregon Department of Human Services on Dec. 9, 2003. The caller, records show, "stated that Kayla is extremely underweight" and that "the Nickels are starving her to death." The caller went on to tell a DHS worker that the Nickels withheld food from Kayla as a form of punishment and that in the week of Dec. 1, 2003, Kayla had become briefly unconscious.

Condition shocks worker

Police officers and two child protective services workers arrived at the couple's home on Dec. 10, 2003. They removed the emaciated Kayla and the Nickels' biological 9-year-old son.

"I was horrified," Karen Shobe, one of the DHS workers, testified Wednesday. "I had never seen a child in that condition."

Shobe said she and the other worker decided to remove the Nickels' son, too, because of the "emotional impact of the abuse he may have witnessed."

Kayla, who had large patches of hair missing and looked skeletal, was transported to Salem Hospital and, later, to Portland's Doernbecher Children's Hospital, where she received lifesaving treatment. Shobe said workers at first thought Kayla weighed 40 pounds, but at the hospital they realized she was wearing two thick layers of clothing to hide her condition.

Shobe testified that she nearly broke down and had to leave the room while helping Kayla undress. The girl's skin was translucent and sloughing off in large patches, her teeth were discolored, and her mouth was full of sores. She had pressure sores and "numerous bruises."

At one point, Shobe said she was sitting beside Kayla when the girl said she "never wanted to go back home again."

"She said she wanted to change her name and her hair color," Shobe testified, trying to hold her emotions. "She said I saved her life."

Growing in foster home

The girl now lives in a foster home in the Salem area. In the first 13 months after she was removed from the Nickel home, she grew 6 inches and gained more than 54 pounds.

Kayla's foster mother, Brandi Plaster, testified that she was called to the hospital that first night.

"The most unusual thing about Kayla (that night) was how apologetic she was," Plaster told Marion County Circuit Judge Joseph Guimond. "She kept saying, 'I'm sorry for being so disgusting. I'm sorry for being such a pig. I'm sorry for being so bad.' She promised that if we would take her home, she would be good."

When defense lawyers suggested that Kayla's behavior was manipulative and that the girl could be lying, Plaster became visibly upset.

"She's not savvy enough to manipulate adults," Plaster said. "She was 261/2 pounds at age 10. There's no explanation for that.

"In my opinion, the Nickels are so lucky that DHS came. If they hadn't, Kayla would be dead, and we'd be in a whole different courtroom right now."

The trial is expected to last through Friday. The Nickels could face as much as five years in prison.

© 2005 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

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