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'Covered in garbage and animal feces': 11 children taken into protective custody after Washington house fire

Warning: This story contains descriptions of neglect of children and may be disturbing to some.

SPOKANE, Wash. — Warning: This story contains descriptions of neglect of children and may be disturbing to some. Reader discretion is advised.

11 children were taken into protective custody after a rubbish fire broke out in the backyard of a house on 6th Avenue in Spokane on Sunday morning. Firefighters on the scene discovered the home was covered in trash, old food and animal feces, according to a report from a Spokane Fire Department lieutenant.

The 11 children reportedly "appeared in various stages of malnourishment and abuse," according to the report.

The fire started in the backyard of the home but was quickly extinguished. The report said the lieutenant made contact with the incident commander once he arrived to the house. The incident commander reportedly said, "a lot" of children were removed from the house during the active fire and were put in cars to stay warm.

With approval from the incident commander, the lieutenant entered the house through the front door and immediately noticed the untenable living conditions.

According to the report, the living room of the house was covered with food, dog food, trash, cigarette butts and animal feces. The house also reportedly smelled of feces and urine. 

The kitchen was reportedly covered with piles of garbage and old food, and the wall in the kitchen had feces spread across it. A gallon of milk and piles of dirty dishes were left out and multiple items were placed on the stove top, which the lieutenant said is a high-risk fire hazard.

Upon leaving the house and entering the backyard, where the fire took place, the lieutenant reportedly noticed the entire yard was covered in debris and dangerous objects, such as bare wiring, propane containers, broken glass, pieces of scrap metal and plastic with sharp edges.

The lieutenant re-entered the house to make sure there was no smoke or flames inside. While making his way to the basement, he reported that the stairs were covered with mud, feces, garbage and water. He also reported seeing two hand saws on the stairs.

When he got to the bathroom, the lieutenant reported seeing "what appeared to be human feces" in the bathtub and more garbage on the floor.

The downstairs bedroom reportedly had no beds, only pillows and blankets on the floor, and a strong urine smell. The lieutenant also said there were no dressers in the bedroom, so clothing was thrown on the floor. The floor was also covered in garbage and feces, according to the report.

The lieutenant said he told the Incident Commander about what he saw inside the house and suggested that Spokane Police intervene "for the protection of, and the health and welfare of, the eleven children living in this home". He then got permission from the owner of the house to assist SPD in their walkthrough of the house.

Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer also filed a report of the findings at the house. According to his report, the Incident Commander informed him of the severity of the situation inside the home when he arrived.

Schaeffer said several small children were found throughout the house, unaccompanied by a parent. He said the children "physically appeared in various stages of malnourishment and abuse."

Once he and the lieutenant went back into the house, Schaeffer reported that the children "began emerging from several areas in the residence that were tragically unsafe, unsanitary, and clearly inhumane." He reported that some of the children were dressed in dirty clothes while some were naked. 

The lieutenant and Schaeffer developed a plan to remove each child from the home individually, according to the report. Once out of the house, they would work to figure out who the child's parent or guardian was, then send them to Sacred Heart's Pediatric Hospital for further evaluation. 

All 11 children have been taken into protective custody at this time and the Special Victims Unit (SVU) has launched an investigation into the situation.

SPD Cpl. Nick Briggs issued the following statement on the situation:

The investigation is on-going and at this point there have not been any arrests made. It’s important to understand there is a clear distinction between law enforcement removing children from a home due to unsafe conditions, and law enforcement arresting someone for mistreatment. The threshold is different and the criteria are different. Our main concern is the safety of the children, and when law enforcement has articulable reasons to believe children are in setting that poses an imminent risk of harm, Police have the power to temporarily place the endangered kids with CPS. Every situation where this placement occurs doesn’t mean criminal charges are warranted. The statute is very specific regarding mistreatment; a person has to be negligent in withholding one of the five basic necessities of life to be culpable. The threshold is necessarily high; the statute is not intended to punish parents or guardians who don’t have the means or resources to provide the same way others might, rather it is designed to hold only those criminal negligent responsible. Ultimately we want the kids to be in a safe and positive environment and, if possible, with their family or guardians. The investigation will look at a number of things, including what the root cause of the conditions was, and, in conjunction with CPS, determining where the children are safest going forward. Evaluating if criminal charges are warranted will certainly be part of the investigation, but the ultimate goal is making sure the kids are in a safe and productive environment.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.

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