JOSHUA TREE (CBSLA/AP) – Felony child abuse charges were dropped Wednesday against a couple were found living in a makeshift desert shack earlier this year on a Joshua Tree property.
The felony charges against Daniel Panico, 73, and Mona Kirk, 51, were dismissed by the San Bernardino County district attorney's office. They were replaced by three misdemeanor counts each of child endangerment and failure to address truancy.
The new charges mean they will not have to serve time in state prison and can seek employment.
The parents appeared in San Bernardino County Superior Court Wednesday, where they plead not guilty to the new misdemeanor charges. The judge also issued a new order which will allow them to contact and visit their children.
On March 1, San Bernardino County Sheriff's deputies arrested the couple after going to their property in the 7000 block of Sun Fair Road, where they discovered a makeshift tent and a trailer.
Deputies learned the couple and their three children ages 11 to 14 — had been living there for four years without running water, bathrooms or electricity.
The property had mounds of trash and human feces strewn about. Inside a trailer, deputies also found 30 to 40 cats.
The children were not enrolled in public school and there was no evidence they were being educated.
However, at the time of the arrest, friends came to the couple's defense, arguing that they were good parents who were poor, not neglectful. Dozens of people rallied in support of the couple outside their first court hearing in March, holding signs that read "being homeless is not a crime" and "poverty is not a choice."
"I don't think they are guilty of anything, other than being poor," Leanna Monroe, a friend of the couple, said. "This family is a giving, caring, loving family."
The children didn't have any obvious injuries and showed no outward signs of malnutrition, officials said.
Their attorneys argued that rather than arrest the couple, deputies should have called family services and allowed the matter to proceed through dependency court, rather than criminal court.
Panico and Kirk are due back in court June 29.
(© Copyright 2018 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)
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