California pair who housed kids in desert shack get new home

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JOSHUA TREE, Calif. (AP) - A Southern California couple found with their three children in a makeshift desert shack said they hope to be reunited with their kids now that they have a house to live in.

Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, on Tuesday visited their new home near Joshua Tree that was paid for and furnished by donations to an online fundraising site started by a friend.

Their lawyers have said they'll argue that child endangerment charges against the couple should be dropped. Panico and Kirk said they're not abusive, just poor.

Authorities took custody of the three kids - between 11 and 14 years old - when the parents were arrested last month. The couple hasn't seen or spoken to their children since.

Panico fought back tears Tuesday as he thanked everyone who donated. He told KMIR-TV that he's dreamed of bringing his family together in a house like the one he now has.

Kirk recalled the fear she felt the day she and her husband of 17 years were arrested.

"I came out of the fort and there were three deputies holding their guns out and screaming for the kids to come out," she told the news station.

The San Bernardino County Sheriff's Department has said the children had been living in the shack without running water, bathrooms or electricity for several years in the desert about 125 miles (200 kilometers) east of Los Angeles.

The shelter was cobbled together with plywood and plastic sheeting. Several holes on the property were filled with feces, the sheriff's office said.

Sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Bachman said at the time that the children didn't appear to have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition but "it was apparent they had not bathed in days."

The children were not enrolled in public school and there was no evidence they were being educated, Bachman said.

Dozens of people rallied in support of the couple outside their court hearing March 6, holding signs that read "Being homeless is not a crime" and "Poverty is not a choice."

Panico said he hopes to see laws changed so families who are struggling are not so easily separated.

"And children wrenched from their parents? It's not right," he said.


Information from: KMIR-TV,