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Bad housekeeping not a crime

Call it a victory for lousy housekeepers. Or maybe it’s a win for parents who think their teenagers could help out around the house.

The mother of a 17-year-old daughter has won her appeal of a conviction of child neglect for keeping a filthy house.

Virginia Code § 18.2-371.1(B) does not necessarily criminalize the keeping of a filthy home when a child under the age of 18 is exposed to the filth, the court said in its Aug. 26 decision in Kemp v. Commonwealth.

To be sure, the conditions were not the kind most people would want to live in: a filthy kitchen with rotting food and dirty, moldy pans on the stove, dog hair and feces, ashtrays with “mounds and mounds” of cigarette butts, a bathroom with a hole in the floor and a broken shower door, clean and dirty insulin syringes, firearms and bottles containing urine.

A probation officer discovered the “squalor” when she came to the home to see if the daughter was complying with the conditions of her house arrest.

The family’s situation was complicated by the fact that the daughter had a restraining order against her father, and the rest of the family had moved in with the maternal grandmother. The daughter could leave the home for her job at a Wendy’s restaurant, and the mother testified that she and the grandmother took turns spending nights at the family home with the daughter.

As troubling as the conditions were, the appellate court said they did not expose the teenager to serious risk of harm or injury. And her age was part of the panel’s consideration.

The decision stopped short of saying the minor daughter could have washed a few dishes or emptied a few ashtrays. But the court did say she was old enough to avoid some of the obvious hazards.

“The Commonwealth points to dog feces, rotten bananas, cigarette butts and bottles of urine as significant health risks to the child. However, the daughter was fully capable of avoiding any potential health risk they might pose. Like the 17-year-old child playing near a busy street, the daughter here was both physically and mentally mature enough to recognize and avoid any dangers present in the house,” wrote Judge William G. Petty.

There was no question the defendant kept a deplorably filthy house,” Petty said. “But keeping such a filthy house does not rise to the level of a felony” where there was no evidence the conditions showed a reckless disregard for human life or subjected the child to a substantial risk of serious injury or death, the panel said in its unpublished opinion.

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