San Bernardino County prosecutors on Wednesday dropped felony charges against a homeless Joshua Tree couple accused of child abuse after they were found living with their children in a shack in the desert.
The couple now faces several misdemeanor charges.
Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, were charged with three felony counts of child abuse in March after sheriff’s deputies came across the family while on patrol. Authorities said the couple had been living for years with their three children in a desert shack with no access to running water, bathrooms or enough food.
Their children, ages 11, 13 and 14, were taken into custody by the county’s Department of Children and Family Services.
Friends of the family quickly rallied to their defense, saying they were being prosecuted for being homeless. They described a couple who cared deeply for their children and did the best they could in difficult circumstances.
Prosecutors said the new charges more specifically address the conduct of the couple. Kirk and Panico now face three misdemeanor charges of willful cruelty to a child and three misdemeanor charges of failure to address truancy.
Panico’s attorney, Michael Kennedy, said the move by prosecutors was a victory.
The felony charges were “probably not supportable, so they have opted for dismissing [them] and downgrading the case to misdemeanors,” Kennedy said in a written statement. “We remain distressed that there will still be delays in getting the family reunited, which has been our primary aim, but they no longer have the sword of felony Damocles hanging over their impoverished heads.”
The couple has been allowed to visit their children, but they have not yet been permanently reunited. A pretrial hearing in the case is scheduled for late June at the Joshua Tree courthouse.
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