Girl spent 22 hours a day in a room for almost 2 years
By Jennifer K. Woldt
of The Northwestern

An Oshkosh couple is accused of locking their daughter up in a small room for nearly two years as punishment for behaving badly.

The couple only allowed the 13-year-old girl to leave for bathroom breaks, meals and to do chores, according to a criminal complaint filed in Winnebago County Circuit Court Tuesday.

The complaint states the girl was locked in a small bedroom for 22 hours a day for nearly two years. The bedroom was secured with a dead bolt accessible only from the outside and an alarm system that went off if the door was opened. There was a camera in the room that recorded what the girl was doing during at all hours of the day and night and the only furnishings in the room was a urine soaked mattress, a blanket, a pillow and an empty dresser.

Clint M. Engstrom, the girl's 32-year-old father, and her stepmother, Lynn M. Engstrom, 35, are charged with causing mental harm to a child, a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 12 years, six months in prison and a $25,000 fine.

"The facts are bizarre in this case," Winnebago County District Attorney Christian Gossett said. "This case is charged as causing mental harm to a child, but the behavior they engaged in and the conditions this child was kept in are just appalling."

Court Commissioner Daniel Bissett ordered the Engstroms to each be held in the Winnebago County Jail in lieu of a $25,000 cash bond. They are due back in court for a preliminary hearing Jan. 25.

The girl's maternal grandfather, Joe Zimmer, said the couple had shut him out of his granddaughter's life about the same time that police said the girl was first confined to her room.

"We were aware that Lynn (Engstrom) was pretty strict in regards to bedtime, but we had no idea this stuff was going on," Zimmer said. "We've had no contact with (the girl) since they shut us out about two years ago."

Officers from the Oshkosh Police Department were called on Jan. 12 to St. Elizabeth's Hospital in Appleton, where the 13-year-old girl had been brought because she was hearing voices. The girl told detectives her parents had been confining her to a bedroom for nearly two years as a form of punishment, the complaint sates.

The girl told officers that she had been living with her father and stepmother in their home at 1612 Minnesota Street, and that she had been grounded to her room since February 2005. She said she was only allowed out of the room for meals, timed bathroom breaks and to do chores.

Minnesota Street resident Tammy Ponzer, said she and her neighbors knew the Engstroms as a couple who had fixed up a dilapidated home, but had little social contact with others on the street.

"They seemed friendly enough," Ponzer said.

A search warrant carried out showed that the home was lavishly furnished with high-end electronics and toys for three other children, however the room were the girl was confined had no toys, books or other things associated with a child, the complaint states. Detectives also noted the room contained a single light bulb and there was no heat or air conditioning duct work and that the only source of heat was a space heater that was controlled from outside the room.

Clint and Lynn Engstrom acknowledged to detectives that the girl had been grounded to her room for 1 to 2 years and Clint Engstrom told detectives he installed the alarm on the door because they had problems with the girl sneaking out of her room to eat candy or watch television, the complaint states.

He told detectives the girl spent about 22 hours a day in the room and the girl told officers, "she was required to sit on her bed all day and night," the complaint states.

The girl told detectives that she was allowed to leave the room to eat meals, but she was only fed peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or a fruit and grain bar. If she did not hear when she was called for a meal, she would not be allowed to eat. The girl said she would steal food because she was hungry and that "she would sneak downstairs to the kitchen and find scraps of food and leftovers," the complaint states. She told police she would have to skip two meals as punishment if she was caught.

She also told officers her stepmother only allowed her one minute to use the bathroom, she was not allowed to have any presents or cake for her birthday and was not allowed to read any books, including the Bible. She told detectives that during the summer, she was allowed to go outside for a half hour to do chores that included picking up dog feces and taking out the garbage.