In Splendora, Texas, postal carrier Vanessa Picazo stands outside the… (Pat Sullivan / Associated…)
Reporting from Houston — The jailed parents of two Texas children found living in an abandoned school bus north of Houston say the arrangement was temporary, with one of the parents vowing to return soon.
The father, Mark Shorten, told the Associated Press this week that he brought his family to Texas several years ago after their Louisiana home flooded during a hurricane. They planned to build a new house in Splendora, about 35 miles northeast of Houston, and live in the school bus on the lot in the meantime.
The bus wasn't supposed to be a permanent home for the family, Shorten said during the phone interview from an Oklahoma City federal prison. But, as KRIV-TV reported, both Shorten and his wife were convicted of embezzling money from Hurricane Ike victims and have been in prison as a result.
The children, ages 5 and 11, were discovered living in the bus this week after a postal worker noticed them and became concerned. The children have been placed in foster care, child welfare officials told The Times.
"The little girl's hair was just matted, like a stray dog's," postal carrier Vanessa Picazo told the Associated Press.
Picazo said she had seen the children in the past. She recalled that once, when the 11-year-old girl volunteered to sign for a package, she was unable to write her own name.
The children did not appear to have been enrolled in school. Shorten told the Associated Press they were being home schooled through a Texas Tech University program.
He also told the Associated Press that he had no idea the kids were living in such filthy conditions. "The house is normally clean. If me or my wife were there, it would not be in that shape, I assure you," Shorten said.
The children's mother, Sherrie Shorten, is scheduled to be released from a federal prison in Lake Charles, La., next month and plans to return to care for her children.
"We moved from an apartment into the bus to conserve funds, but then we were arrested," she told the Houston Chronicle in a telephone interview from prison this week, adding: "There was no smell when we lived there."
The bus was equipped with electricity, hot water, heat, bunk beds, a shower and flush toilet, with a refrigerator in a nearby shack, Sherrie Shorten told the Chronicle.
She said that before the children were placed in foster care, she spoke with them daily by phone, as well as their temporary guardian, her 60-year-old aunt, Hazel Burts. She said Burts worked during the day at a utility company and stayed with the children at night. That's what Burts told KRIV after the children were discovered.
Randal McCann, a Lafayette, La., attorney who has represented Shorten, told The Times that he had spoken with Burts before the children were discovered and that there were no signs of problems.
"I had no idea those kids were living in a school bus," McCann said. "If I would have known what was happening here, the court would have been notified."