Stepmother accused of keeping girl in room

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MILWAUKEE, Wis. – An Oshkosh, Wis., woman accused of locking her 13-year-old stepdaughter in an attic bedroom for almost two years was able to manipulate schools, the girl’s friends and even police officers who were called to her home before Christmas, an Oshkosh police spokesman said.

Sgt. Steven Sagmeister said he didn’t know that officers from his department had been sent to the house last month until he read about it in Friday’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

“It was kind of like getting hit with a brick,” he said. “(You wonder), “Could you have been in there that much sooner?’ It’s a possibility, but . . . you’re trying to deal with the facts presented to you at the time. There (are) judgment calls that you have to make. . . . Even though people a lot of times think we’re clairvoyant, we’re not.”

According to a police report obtained by the Journal Sentinel this week, Lynn Engstrom called 911 on Dec. 20 when Beth Redmann, the girl’s paternal grandmother, tried to visit the girl and deliver presents. Redmann, who left before police arrived, later was ticketed for disorderly conduct after Engstrom claimed Redmann forced her way into the family’s home. When Redmann talked to one of the police officers, Joseph Nichols, about making a child abuse report, he told her he had seen all four children – the stepdaughter and Engstrom’s three children from a previous marriage – in the home and they were fine.

This week, about a month after the 911 call, Lynn Engstrom and her husband, Clint Engstrom, were arrested and charged with causing mental harm to a child. A criminal complaint says they kept the 13-year-old “grounded” in an almost empty bedroom behind a locked door, monitoring her every move with a video camera. She was confined about 22 hours a day with no heat, a urine-soaked mattress and no toys or books. She was allowed to leave the room only for one-minute bathroom breaks, meager meals and chores, the complaint says.

The situation was discovered Jan. 12 after the couple took the girl to a hospital, saying she was hearing voices, tearing out clumps of her hair and picking at her skin.

Nichols and the other officer who responded to the 911 call in December, Mark Lehman, saw the 13-year-old come downstairs to the bathroom while they were in the Engstroms’ house, according to their report. She then went back upstairs. Redmann already had left, and the officers had no reason to suspect child abuse at that point, Sagmeister said.

“Everything that was done was done by manipulation of the mother,” he said. “They were being told by Mrs. Engstrom the things she wanted the officers to hear.”

When Nichols later talked to Redmann by phone, it was in the context of interviewing a person who had created a disturbance, Sagmeister said. Although Redmann told Nichols that she feared for the girl’s well-being and had heard an alarm on her door, Nichols took no further action.

“He had just been in the house, and everything was very clean and everything seemed appropriate,” Sagmeister said. “We can Monday-morning quarterback that to death, say, “Could he have made a referral (to child protective services)? Should he have gone back to the house?”‘

Nichols has not been disciplined, although he might have been “talked to,” Sagmeister said. He said he didn’t know whether the department would be examining its protocols in light of the situation.

Lynn Engstrom’s manipulation of the Police Department was just one of many examples of her deception, Sagmeister said. The girl had been transferred from Smith Elementary School to Grace Lutheran School in Oshkosh and back. It is unclear how often she attended classes. When school officials asked where to send her academic records, Lynn Engstrom once told them to send the files directly to her, Sagmeister said. Another time, she said she was sending the girl to a boot camp in Utah.

When the girl’s friends came over to play, Engstrom told them, “She doesn’t want to play with you anymore,” Sagmeister said.

Even the girl didn’t realize how much she had been victimized, Sagmeister said. After police interviewed her at the hospital, “she looked up at the officer from her hospital bed and said, “You mean it’s really not my fault?”‘

Under state law, people in occupations who regularly come into contact with children, including law enforcement, are required to report suspected abuse or neglect to the police, sheriff’s department or a child welfare agency, according to attorney James P. McLinden, a board member of the Wisconsin State Bar Association’s Children and the Law Section. Authorities are required to act within 12 hours of receiving such a report, he said.

McLinden, who is not involved with the Oshkosh case, said it was hard to tell whether Nichols and Lehman should have done more under the law.

“It sounds like if they’d engaged in a little more conversation or asked to look around, they might have discovered this, and the neglect allegations would have been a little more obvious to them,” he said. “My common sense tells me it was a real cursory police call.”

As to whether the officers should have followed up after talking with Redmann, McLinden said it was a judgment call.

“It’s probably a close call whether what the grandmother was saying constitutes that there was physical abuse going on,” he said. “It raises so many questions about who should have known.”

Lynn Engstrom, 35, and Clint Engstrom, 32, will be in court Thursday for a preliminary hearing on the criminal charges against them. If convicted, each faces a maximum of 12½ years in prison and a fine of $25,000. No attorneys had filed to represent the couple as of Friday, according to online court records.

This week, Oshkosh police said that the 13-year-old is staying with a grandmother but did not identify her. Redmann and her attorney declined to comment. Engstrom’s three children are staying with their father.

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