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Foster Parents Guilty of Starving Girl

24 Sept 2005

By Michelle Roberts

Summary: Child abuse - A Marion County judge convicts a Salem couple whose adopted child weighed 27 pounds at age 9

A Marion County Circuit Court judge on Friday found a Salem couple guilty of nearly starving to death a child they adopted from the state foster care system.

Tammy and Christopher Nickel, both 33, did not visibly react as they were convicted of three counts each of felony criminal mistreatment for withholding medical treatment and for failing to provide adequate and necessary physical care to their adopted daughter, Kayla.

The girl weighed less than 27 pounds when she was removed from their home in December 2003, a month before her 10th birthday.

"Without any shadow of a doubt, I find them guilty," said Judge Joseph Guimond shortly after the conclusion of a three-day bench trial. "They took this child in and made a commitment to her. Then they gave up trying to care for her. She was being allowed to starve to death."

Guimond said photos taken the night Kayla was removed from the Nickels showed a girl so emaciated that she resembled a "Holocaust survivor or a child from a refugee camp."

According to testimony by social and medical workers, Kayla's skin was translucent and sloughing off in large patches, her teeth were crowded and discolored, and her mouth was full of open sores.

Kayla, now 11, testified during the trial 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 said -- she was forced to eat alone in her bedroom while the Nickels and their biological son, the same age as Kayla, ate elsewhere.

The girl testified that her adoptive mother also tortured her by pouring hot sauce on her SPAM, which hurt the open sores in her mouth. And she testified that Chris Nickel, her adoptive father, once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her after she tried to sneak a piece of pizza.

The girl's current foster parents testified that Kayla appeared to have been exposed to few foods during her five years with the Nickels. When the girl came to live with them, they said, she didn't recognize such items as peaches and ketchup.

The Nickels took Kayla in when she was 5 years old. The adoption was finalized in January 2001. Testimony and records show that the girl did not see a doctor or dentist in the nearly two years that followed, even as she wasted away.

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 human services 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.

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

Police and social workers testified that Tammy Nickel had gone into Kayla's bedroom shortly after their arrival. When they were allowed into Kayla's room, the girl was cowering under her bed. The girl later told social workers that Tammy Nickel had warned her not to talk to them, saying, "I'm not supposed to tell you bad things."

Kayla was transported to Salem Hospital and, later, to Portland's Doernbecher Children's Hospital, where she received lifesaving treatment.

A detective testified that when he asked Tammy Nickel why they hadn't taken Kayla to a doctor, she said the couple were afraid that authorities would take the children away.

Testifying on her own behalf Friday, Tammy Nickel said she and her husband were never cruel to Kayla and that the child's problems were the fault of her biological parents. She denied that her husband had ever held a gun to Kayla's head.

When asked how she could allow Kayla to waste away before her eyes and do nothing, Tammy Nickel said, "I don't feel I did nothing. I feel I didn't do enough."

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.

Therapists and doctors testified that abuse and neglect -- not an underlying mental disorder or physical problem -- were the reason for her condition.

"The one bright spot in this horrible case is how well she's doing now," Guimond said.

Sentencing is scheduled for 1:30 p.m. Oct. 31. The Nickels each face a maximum of five years in prison.

The Nickels have custody of their biological son, who was returned to them five months after being removed. Kayla's adoption by the Nickels has been terminated, and she remains in foster care.

© 2004 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

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