Authorities report a malnourished, mentally disabled 16-year-old girl locked in a room for four years by her grandparents has been taken off a ventilator but is still struggling for her life in an Indiana hospital.

The girl, who suffers from undisclosed physical and development disorders, was discovered two weeks ago starved, not breathing and without a pulse, weighing less than 40 pounds and her feet covered with feces.

Police said the grandparents, Steve and Joetta Sells, locked the girl in a room in their home day and night in this central Indiana city since 2011, feeding her sparingly and keeping her in unsanitary conditions.

Detectives said witnesses who tipped them off to the situation told them the grandfather also physically abused the girl, and that the grandmother fed her feces and urine as punishment. A mattress, space heater, bucket, cold oatmeal and blood were found in her room.

The girl was initially taken to a local hospital Dec. 1, then transferred to St. Vincent Indianapolis Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital. Police Det. Joel Sandefur said she was removed from the ventilator late this week, but her medical condition remains critical.

The grandfather, a city bus driver, has been charged with several criminal complaints, including child neglect and battery. The grandmother also faces several charges.

Madison County Prosecutor Rodney Cummings said the grandparents received $720 per month in government assistance as the girl’s legal guardians. He said it appears they used the money for their own interests and not for the benefit of their granddaughter.

An aunt and uncle, Christopher and Stephanie Durant, demanded answers as to why social workers failed to check on the girl over the years. They said they have offered to take custody of the girl if she survives.

“I want to know why the ball was dropped so many times and why so many people failed her,” said Stephanie Durant. “We’re family.”

Authorities said the girl’s biological mother gave up custody of the girl when she was 10 years old and agreed to have no contact with her.

James Wide, a spokesman for the state Department of Children Services, said the agency checked on the girl when she was removed from school in October of 2010 by the grandparents, but found no evidence of neglect or abuse.

Wide said he could not provide other details of the case because of confidentiality issues.

The aunt said she remembers seeing the girl for the last time in 2008, and she appeared to be all right then. She described her as a sweet girl who always seemed to be hungry and loved biscuits.

Stephanie Durant said she had little contact with the grandparents after they assumed custody of the girl in 2009, but could never have imagined the conditions police said she endured the past four years.

Jack Molitor is a reporter for the Anderson, Ind., Herald Bulletin.


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