A husband and wife were charged Thursday with kidnapping their eight children from foster care last month and fleeing New York, in part because they believed the children were being abused by their caregivers, prosecutors and their attorney said.
Mother Shanel Nadal and father Nephra Payne were arrested in Harrisburg, Pa., last month, waived extradition and were arraigned in criminal court in Queens, where the charges also included custodial interference and child endangerment. They were being held on $75,000 bail each.
Nadal, 28, slipped out of a supervised visited at a Queens foster care agency with her sevens sons and infant daughter, and then left town with her 34-year-old husband, prosecutors said. The family was found a week later safe in their van in Pennsylvania. The children were unharmed.
"This mother and father sadly risked the relationships they were building with their children during supervised visits when they allegedly kidnapped them," said Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown. "This is a serious matter."
Their attorney, Norman Steiner, said the couple vanished because they could no longer wait for the slow-moving Family Court system to give back the children. Steiner said one boy was molested in foster care and his siblings "suffered horrendous abuse" during two years in foster care.
"They are loving, caring parents, who made a choice — the lesser of two evils — to take their children and make them safe," Steiner said.
The children — seven boys named Nephra, who have different middle names, and an infant daughter, Nefertiti — range in age from 11 months to 12 years, according to the police complaint in Harrisburg. They were returned to New York City and are again under the care of the Administration for Children's Services. It's not clear if they were placed in the same homes.
The couple lost custody of their seven sons in 2009, after allegations of abuse. Steiner said one of the boys had bruising on his eyes and was taken to the doctor by his father. The boy later went to school, and authorities had the father arrested on abuse charges, Steiner said. Steiner said there had possibly been a fight at home with other siblings. The criminal abuse allegations against the father were later dropped, he said. A Family Court hearing was scheduled for Oct. 19 in Manhattan.
The parents were working toward regaining custody, Steiner said: They went to parenting classes, attended supervised visits and kept their home immaculate. They regularly attended Family Court hearings and cooperated with authorities.
But Shanel Nadal had an eighth child, Nefertiti, born last year, and did not mention it to authorities. They also lost custody of her, and the birth led to even more problems with Family Court, Steiner said.
"To me that's atrocious that the city steps in and tells you how many children to have," Steiner said.
Child welfare officials do not comment on specific cases. But in order to remove a child from a home, there must be a determination of serious safety or risk concerns for a child to remain there.
The agency said it was aware of the parents' abuse allegations and takes such allegations very seriously. The agency also is investigating how the children were abducted during a supervised visit, a spokesman said.
Nadal disappeared from the 3-acre campus of Forestdale, a nonprofit, privately run foster care center, on Sept. 19. She 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, she slipped away unnoticed with the children during a trip to a vending machine, police said.
Police thought they may have gone to North Carolina, but they ended up in Pennsylvania where they had relatives. The children showed no signs of physical abuse when discovered, and it looked like the family had planned to spend the night in the vehicle.