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‘It took a kid to die’

Berwyn, IL

Robert Degner
Robert Degner

In a worn-out blue sweatshirt with her dishwater-blonde hair pulled back in a loose ponytail, Lydia Price paced.

It had been exactly two weeks since her life was fundamentally altered by the death of her 14-year-old son, Matthew Degner.

Puffing on her Misty Menthol Light outside with mere moments between drags, Price looked lost.

The 47-year-old has virtually nothing left.

Matthew’s gone, and she may never see her other children again. Most of the animals she kept stacked in cages upon cages in her home are now dead. That house, that world she fought to protect, is now fenced in and boarded off. A court order prohibits her from going there, and it’s likely to be demolished.

Price said she had quit smoking for 10 months prior to her son’s death. She doesn’t care that she’s picked back up the habit.

“They were my reason for living,” she said of her children. “Now my life is empty.”

While adjusting to this new life, Price must grieve for the loss of her son at the same time she faces the specter of a lengthy prison sentence.

The Berwyn mother is charged with two felonies relating to Matthew’s death, four misdemeanor counts of endangering the life of a child and two other misdemeanors related to animal hoarding and animal cruelty.

For now, she’s out on bail and living in a modest apartment with her brother in south suburban Justice. On Friday, prosecutors — who declined to comment for this story after repeated attempts — will ask to put her back in jail.

‘You wouldn’t believe it’

Going back to the overcast fall day Matthew was reported dead nearly a month ago, Berwyn Assistant Fire Chief Greg DiMenna arrived at Price’s two-flat, barely seen behind a heavy veil of trees, to find five or six police officers somberly milling about the front of the building.

Meanwhile, Price’s four other children and their 77-year-old grandmother were standing in the backyard. DiMenna immediately called for three more ambulances to take them to the hospital.

It then only took a peek inside the home, DiMenna said, before he decided nobody could go in without a Hazmat suit. Animal waste was seeping out of cat cages, bugs hovered around the tops of mattresses and 4-inch-long African hissing cockroaches ran rampant.

While nearly everything DiMenna saw that day was shocking, the abject squalor and cruelty toward animals isn’t what stuck with him — it was the children.

“That’s the thing I can’t believe most about what I saw, that it took a kid to die for this to be discovered,” DiMenna said. “That’s all they knew and they had no choice and that’s what really bothers me, that the mother could let this go on.”

Matthew had already been taken to MacNeal Hospital in Berwyn, where he was pronounced dead.

Charles Lazzara, Berwyn’s building department director, didn’t get to Price’s home until the day after, but once there, he spent most of his time inside writing dozens of fines. To make a case for a pending demolition of the building, Lazzara wrote each for the maximum amount of $2,000.

Between those fines and fire code violations, the discovery of the Price family totaled $88,484.

“It’s definitely more than the value of the house,” Lazzara said.

Price likely will never again see the inside of her home or sift through her belongings.

“The police confiscated everything,” Price said. “I don’t even have a picture of my son for myself.”

How did it get so bad?

As many as 3,000 cases of animal hoarding are discovered every year across every socioeconomic and demographic group, said Dr. Gary Patronek, the founder of the Massachusetts-based Hoarding of Animals Research Consortium.

And those numbers are rising.

“Something is going on here; this isn’t just a quirky lifestyle choice,” said Patronek, a veterinary epidemiologist who leads the Tufts University group of researchers.

Animal hoarding is a symptom of mental illness, and Patronek’s working within the medical community to have hoarding classified as its own mental disorder. Animal hoarders often exhibit traits of addictive behavior, denial and a savior complex, he said.

“There’s a lot of trauma going on in these people’s histories. In adulthood, we often see the fall into hoarding precipitated by a traumatic event,” Patronek said. “It’s similar to almost any addictive behavior. It’s an attempt to fix something inside you.”

While it’s difficult to know exactly what went wrong inside Price’s mind, Matthew’s father, Robert Degner, also might have played a role in the family’s early stages of animal hoarding.

Price said Robert Degner was a reptile dealer on the weekends and began breeding the cockroaches DiMenna saw to feed the pets. They got loose, but Price was afraid to use poisons because of her mentally disabled children.

Later, she claims he brought home five litters of kittens from a friend who allegedly threatened to euthanize them with car exhaust. The family would eventually cede an entire room in their Berwyn home to those cats and their offspring, she said.

Robert’s brother, David, also said Robert Degner had a long-standing love for animals.

“Most of the time we saw him, he was breeding rats to feed his snake or breeding roaches to feed his spiders or something like that,” David Degner said. “He was always doing crazy things like that, but I don’t think he would be a hoarder with 200 animals. He was never just collecting animals.”

David Degner said that even as children, he and Robert didn’t have a close relationship with their extended family. When they became adults, the two also grew apart and lost contact for months at a time.

Sometime in late 2005, Robert Degner left the Price household.

From that point on, David Degner remembers his brother for his “legacy of lies.” He said Robert routinely told stories he didn’t believe and became somebody who didn’t want to hold down a steady job.

There was a string of older women who would support Robert, but not his family, for a time, David Degner said.

Finally, on June 29, 2007, Robert Degner was arrested after forcing his way into an ex-girlfriend’s apartment at gunpoint. He later was sentenced to 21 years in prison, and he now resides at Stateville Correctional Center in Joliet.

Robert Degner has not yet responded to a formal written request to interview him, as required for inmates in Illinois prisons.

David Degner thought about trying to help his nieces and nephews, but he didn’t know what he could do. He had two kids of his own, one with a mild form of autism.

Although he didn’t know Price very well, he assumed the children would best be served to live with their mother.

“I used to think about the kids and I knew that their dad probably wasn't providing for them . ... You always hear those stories about people who were raised in a dirt house and go on to do something phenomenal. I had always hoped that for my brother Bob’s kids,” David Degner said. “It’s like having handcuffs behind your back. You feel terrible, but you can’t do anything.”

Who else could help?

While Matthew and his 12-year-old sister were mentally disabled and likely lacked the ability to report their own abuse, by all accounts, the other siblings — ages 16, 17 and 18 — could have alerted anyone for help.

Celeste Killeen, a children’s social worker in Idaho and author of “Inside Animal Hoarding: The Case of Barbara Erickson and Her 552 Dogs,” said people who are dependent on animal hoarders often find it difficult to leave even the most squalid conditions.

“They think to themselves, ‘I won’t even have this if I contact the authorities,’” said Killeen, an expert on the topic.

For children, being raised by an animal hoarder also can lead to other psychological problems.

“They’re not getting the education they need, they’re not getting what they need to develop socially,” Killeen said. “They live in an environment where denial is an everyday coping mechanism, which teaches them poor coping mechanisms.”

Despite extensive research into animal hoarding, both Killeen and Patronek said the Price family incident was the first they’d heard of where a child had died.

But what may have doomed Matthew Degner is that information about his home life never got to the right place.
Kendall Marlowe, an Illinois Department of Children and Family Services spokesman, recommended calling multiple agencies and being persistent. In some cases, it may be necessary to find the right agency to report a problem.

Truancy and child neglect can be reported to local school districts, while neglect as well as abuse of any kind should be directed to a state agency, such as DCFS.

Complaints of foul odors and dilapidated houses should be directed to a city or town’s building department, while if it’s suspected a child may be in imminent harm or a well-being check on a family is in order, police should be notified.

The more specific the information, the more likely it is to result in an investigation.

“People may hesitate to reach out because they feel they don't know enough, but it's important to reach out with whatever information you do have,” Marlowe said. “Just because you don’t know everything doesn’t mean you shouldn't call.”

For those still unsure of making that call, Marlowe advised reaching out to the family or person in question with an offer of help rather than letting something fester behind closed doors.

To see Lydia Price anxiously puffing and pacing on her brother’s porch in Justice, you wouldn’t suspect she was capable of the level of neglect and abuse prosecutors say she committed.

Although neighbors describe her as mean and unhesitant to yell at anybody who got too close to her home, today, she’s soft-spoken and weary. With her posture giving off hints of defeat, she simply stares off into the sprawl of the suburbs and takes another puff of her cigarette.

Continue to Part 3

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