A New York City couple took their eight children from foster care and went on the run because some of them were being abused, their lawyer said Tuesday.
A day after the family was found safe in their van in Harrisburg, Pa., defense lawyer Norman Steiner alleged that one boy was molested and some of his siblings "suffered horrendous abuse" during two years in foster care.
"I expect them to be fully exonerated of this. If your child is in a dangerous place and you get them out of it, that's not kidnapping, that's justified," Steiner told The Associated Press.
The mother, 28-year-old Shanel Nadal, allegedly fled with the children during a supervised visit at a Queens foster care agency and left town with her husband, 34-year-old Nephra Payne.
The parents will be charged with kidnapping, custodial interference and child endangerment, Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown said Tuesday.
"This is a sad story of a mother and father who have jeopardized their children's safety by allegedly kidnapping them and taking them out of state," Brown said. "These parents have now also put at risk the very relationships they were supposed to be building with their children during their supervised visits."
The parents were in custody in Harrisburg, awaiting extradition hearings.
The children _ seven boys named Nephra, who have different middle names, and an infant daughter _ appeared to be unharmed. The range in age from 11 months to 12 years, according to the police complaint. They will be returned to New York City, under the care of the Administration for Children's Services.
The agency said it was aware of the parents' abuse allegations and was focusing on the children's mental-health needs.
"We are aware of the allegations currently being made by the parents and we take all allegations of abuse seriously. Our immediate concerns are for the well-being of the children," the agency said in a statement.
The agency also is investigating how the children were abducted during a supervised visit, a spokesman said.
Authorities had been hunting for the children since Sept. 19, when they disappeared from the 3-acre campus of Forestdale, a nonprofit, privately run foster care center.
Nadal went there for a scheduled group visit with the children, who were living with three different foster caregivers. Despite the presence of both Forestdale staff and at least some of the foster parents, Nadal slipped away unnoticed with the children during a trip to a vending machine, police said.
Forestdale officials wouldn't discuss the situation with the AP, but the agency's executive director, Anstiss Agnew, told The New York Times last week that neither the family visits nor the facility were set up with security in mind.
"I guess we could put up bars and put up a moat," she said. "We're trying to heal family here."
Steiner, who had just been retained Tuesday by Payne's brother, declined to provide details of the alleged abuse of the children. But he said they had been shuttled from home to home while in agency care. The allegations came to him through the brother, whom he would not identify, and other relatives, he said.
"(They) heard these parents complaining to them, of how poorly the children are being treated, and how they have to get them out of there," Steiner said.
Police initially thought the family might go to South Carolina, where they once lived. By Monday, the U.S. Marshals Service learned the family might heading to Harrisburg, where Payne has relatives. Investigators spotted the parked van on a city street Monday night.
As officers kept watch, Nephra Payne was seen coming and going with some of the children, Acting U.S. Marshal Martin Pane said.
"Our initial concern was, where were the other children? But ultimately the van was searched, and all the children were in there," Pane said.
The children showed no signs of physical abuse, he said. It appeared the family had planned to spend the night in the vehicle, investigators said.
Nadal's bail was set at $200,000. New York City detectives, along with local police, interviewed her Monday afternoon, according to Detective Sgt. Dave Hodges of the Dauphin County district attorney's office. He declined to share what she said.
The couple had lost custody of their seven sons in 2009, and subsequently lost custody of the girl born last year. Authorities in New York have declined to say why they seized the children, but the U.S. Marshals Service said it was because of an abuse allegation.
Parental abductions of children in foster care do occur from time to time, often involving a parent who fails to return a child from an unsupervised visit. But the disappearance of the Payne children drew attention for the number of children involved and the nature of the family's exit.
Barbara Emanuel, a foster mother caring for the baby girl, Nefertiti, was apparently the first to notice the family had fled. She doesn't understand how it happened.
"It's like they just vanished," she told the Daily News of New York shortly after the disappearance. "How does a woman escape with eight kids? I was there and I don't know how she did it."
Associated Press writer David B. Caruso in New York contributed to this report.