A Wyoming County jury on Wednesday found a Washington Township couple guilty of child neglect on all counts after three days of testimony regarding two of the dad’s three children.
Both Kevin Frank Bloxham, 44, and Nancy Ann Sebolka, 44, were each charged with two felony counts of endangering the welfare of children.
Sebolka was also charged with two counts of conspiracy to commit simple assault and two counts of corruption of minors, for neglecting the youngest boy and for having the older brother to hit a younger brother so that she would not get in trouble for hitting him herself.
The case originated on Aug. 24, 2015, when a then 12-year-old son of Bloxham ran away from home and ended up at a gas station about two miles away.
On Monday, Wyoming County District Attorney Jeff Mitchell gave his opening statements, followed by defense attorney Paul Ackourey.
Cindy Miner, supervisor at the gas station when the child ran away in 2015, was the trial’s first witness. Miner said a clerk saw the boy trying to purchase a bag of potato chips with change, mostly pennies. The clerk paid for the snack herself and gave it to him. Miner recalled asking him if he was hungry, and realized something didn’t seem right so she called the police.
On Tuesday, Bloxham’s two youngest children, the boy who ran away and his sister, testified. The boy showed the court the size of oatmeal portions he was usually served for breakfast, and salad portions usually served for a second meal in the summer. He said that he liked oatmeal at first, but it became boring after a while, and he sometimes refused to eat it.
He told the court that if he didn’t finish his chores, he didn’t get fed, and there were never second helpings or extra food. He testified that Sebolka locked the doors when the children were sent outdoors after breakfast, and that he used a five-gallon bucket outside rather than being allowed in to use a bathroom. He said that if he tried to go inside, Sebolka would yell at him for breaking in.
The boy had gotten into trouble for taking crackers from his dad’s snack cupboard. He was awoken at 2 a.m. one day and brought to the kitchen with his siblings, and when he admitted taking the crackers, Sebolka told him to go outside and walk around the house in the rain.
He claimed that an older brother would hit him at the request of Sebolka, and although it didn’t usually leave marks, it hurt. He said he also was kicked and pushed to the ground by his brother if he wasn’t getting his work done.
He described four or five attempts he made to run away. He said that Sebolka told him that she didn’t want him living in her house any more. He said that his stomach hurt and that he was tired all the time from hunger.
The younger sister took the stand and described the family and meals in much the same way her brother did.
Meshoppen Police Chief John Krieg took the stand on Tuesday afternoon, and answered questions from a 14-page report. He also said that when he transported the children upon their removal from the home, they asked if they would be getting better meals at foster care.
On Tuesday afternoon, Dr. Rebecca Grimaud Chilson testified as an expert witness in pediatrics. She said that she had examined all three of the children.
Chilson remembered after their being placed in foster care, the boys were clearly excited abut being allowed to eat as much as they wanted, and having a more varied diet. However, they said that they sometimes became nauseated after eating, vomited, or had distended abdomens.
Chilson acknowledged ordering lab tests, and both boys had extremely elevated liver enzymes, abnormally low vitamin D levels, and low metabolic alkaline phosphatase, all of which indicate malnutrition. She noted, “Children always have elevated levels of alkaline phosphatase, so it is very abnormal to have low readings.”
Chilson testified that the boys’ symptoms pointed to re-feeding syndrome, which occurs when a prolonged limiting of calorie intake is stopped and normal eating is resumed.
She diagnosed both boys with child abuse/neglect and malnutrition.
On the next visit, both boys had gained weight and the nausea and vomiting symptoms had stopped.
Cindy Francis, a family preservation therapist, testified that she met the older boy when he was in seventh grade at Tunkhannock Area Middle School. She related that students sometimes placed unwanted lunch items on a tray rather then throwing them out, and that he would sometimes pick up “extras” to eat.
She also noted that Children and Youth Services had originally gotten involved with the family in 2012.
She said that the family discussed house rules with her during a home visit. She was told that one house rule was, “No talking back.” The younger boy tried to say something, and Sebolka reacted, “Shut up and get out of my house.”
She said on the witness stand that Sebolka insisted that her way was the right way and that no one had a legitimate concern or complaint.
A family nurse practitioner from the Children’s Advocacy Center testified that the children were brought to the center because of suspicion of child abuse by Chief Krieg. She said that the children were given a head-to-toe medical exam and spoke with a forensic interviewer.
The children all had normal physical exams and their body mass indices were within the normal range. The children had been removed from the home nine days prior to that exam. The children did not disclose abuse or neglect during the medical exam, but did disclose it during the forensic interviews, she said.
Bloxham and Sebolka took the witness stand on Wednesday. Bloxham testified that Sebolka was very health conscious and took pride in the family routine, diet, meal planning, and lifestyle. He said he was grateful that she had provided a home for his family which allowed him to move out from his parents’ house and have some independence at a point when he would not have been able to afford a similar situation.
Sebolka spoke at length about the meals she provided and her understanding of nutrition. She said that she felt that her relationships with the children were “fine” and that she loved them.
On Wednesday, after the jurors left the courtroom for lunch, Attorney Ackourey asked the judge to dismiss the charges against Bloxham, and said that most of the complaints were lodged against Sebolka.
DA Mitchell protested that Bloxham was well aware of Sebolka’s actions and did nothing to change the situation.
No charges were dismissed.
Several character witnesses took the stand Wednesday afternoon to attest to Sebolka’s homemaking skills, character, and reputation.
In closing statements to the jury, Ackourey explained reasonable doubt. He said that although Children and Youth had been to the home for many visits because of the boys’ behavioral issues, they did not see a problem with the home or meals. He said that Sebolka was not considering calories as she prepared meals, but her intent was to provide good nutrition.
He reminded the jury that there were two separate defendants who needed to be considered separately. He stressed that the burden of proving guilt rests solely with the prosecutor. Regarding the evidence presented, he said, “Your job is to cut through the alleged testimony and get to the truth.”
He said, “Regarding Kevin, there is nothing there. As to Nancy, I’m asking you to go back there and return a verdict of not guilty.”
Mitchell, in his closing arguments, addressed the jury and said, “Numbers do not lie, especially the numbers inside the children themselves. This trial isn’t about chores, video games, or TV. It is not about food they didn’t like, such as oatmeal, spaghetti, or salad.
It’s about that they simply were not given enough to eat, typically only two meals a day in summer.
He reminded the jury that Sebolka had said, when the older brother was bothering the younger one, “If I were you I’d crack him one, but this way I wouldn’t get in trouble for hitting him.”
He also reminded that Bloxham testified that the school contacted him and asked if the older boy could have two sandwiches in his lunch instead of one. Nothing changed. He was told that the child needs more calories.
Mitchell said that the undercurrent in the testimony is that these kids are troubled. They want someone to make them feel nurtured. That didn’t happen. The older boy was overweight. His weight went down. The food was never changed. The other kids were treated the same even though they were not overweight.
It was about control. It was Nancy’s house. She had to have control. She controlled them with food.
“Numbers don’t lie,” Mitchell said. The doctor has more than 600 patients. She told you specifically this was neglect.
Mitchell reviewed the charges at hand.
Mitchell concluded that the jurors took an oath that if sufficient evidence is presented, to give a guilty verdict. “I ask you to give these kids justice.”
President Judge Russell Shurtleff asked the jurors, in reviewing evidence, to act as factfinders regarding this case. He said that jurors should examine evidence in the light of what others have said, and give to each part of the evidence such weight as you think it is entitled.
“Never be influenced by fear, favor, prejudice or sympathy,” he said.
The tipstaff was charged, alternates thanked and dismissed, and the jury sequestered at 7:03 p.m. At 7:24, the jury asked for a copy of instructions, particularly in regard to the elements of the charges.
The jury was seated and the judge re-advised them. The jurors returned to the jury room, ate dinner, and continued deliberating. At 9:50 p.m., the tipstaff informed the judge that a verdict had been reached.
The jurors returned to the jury box, and the forewoman read the verdict slip.
First Bloxham, then Sebolka, were found guilty on all charges.
The judge asked Ackourey if he wanted the jurors polled, and they each responded with their verdicts, which were unanimous.
The judge then addressed Bloxham. He said that sentencing would be held at a later date. For two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, a felony of the third degree, he faced a sentence of up to 14 years in prison, and fines of up to $30,000.
Sebolka, for two counts of endangering the welfare of a child, also faced a sentence of 14 years in prison and fines of up to $30,000. For two counts of corruption of a minor, a misdemeanor of the first degree, she would face a sentence of up to 10 years in prison and fines up to $20,000.
For two counts of conspiracy to commit simple assault, a misdemeanor of the second degree, Sebolka faced a sentence of up to four years in prison and fines of up to $5,000. The aggregate total was not to exceed 28 years in prison and $60,000 in fines.
The couple was then taken into custody.