The isolation that ended with Matthew Degner lifeless in his backyard is difficult to fathom.
Members of his extended family had never met him. A neighbor said she saw him just once in the seven years she lived right next door. Prosecutors say he never saw the inside of a school or a doctor’s office.
Inside his Berwyn home, his mother had sealed off nearly every window and door with thick styrofoam insulation, plastic sheeting and duct tape to keep the smells of the hundreds of animals living there indoors.
Despite the lengths Lydia Price went through to keep her family and the conditions they lived in a secret, there were many opportunities to prevent Matthew’s death.
Since 2003, Berwyn police had visited the home at least six times, once for a report of a possible operation of a meth lab. When Price refused entrance that day in 2004 after an officer smelled a strong odor of animal feces coming from inside, the incident was shuffled off to the Berwyn Health Department, where it’s unknown if follow-up was made.
As recently as June, a building inspector knocked on the door to notify the family of a list of building code violations, but left when no one answered.
Matthew’s aunt called the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services to try to have someone check on the well being of the kids, but lacked the information for the agency to take action.
A neighbor met with a building department inspector and said five kids that never went to school lived in a poorly maintained house that smelled bad. He was told it wasn’t a building issue.
And of course — at any point — a neighbor could have knocked on the door to ask if the family needed any help.
The death of any child is tragic. But Matthew’s death last month is all the more unsettling because it didn’t have to happen.
'Something was terribly wrong'
While government agency after government agency — including the police department, the city government, the school districts and DCFS — said they have little to no records of complaints against the family, neighbors and extended family members claim they reported them.
Antonio Andrade knew something wasn’t right, and he said something about it.
As one of Price’s next-door neighbors, Andrade’s biggest complaint was about an overgrown tree that was stretching into his lawn. He’d tried to cut down one of the branches earlier this summer, but said he was met by a shouting Price. That’s when he decided to contact the building department.
“The same day I went to City Hall about the trees, I told them that there were five kids living in the home that never went to school or went outside,” Andrade said. “They told me that it didn’t cause any problems and they never did anything about it.”
Andrade also said he complained about foul odors coming from the house, but it mostly stank at night.
Although several neighbors said they heard animals inside the home, nobody except Matthew’s aunt, Susan Degner, had any inkling there might be a problem. On the day Matthew died, Sept. 8, more than 200 animals — varying from the exotic and strange to 109 cats that were all euthanized due to either feline leukemia or feline AIDS — also were recovered.
Susan Degner, a Plainfield resident, never got to meet her nephew. She’d only ever met Price’s two eldest children, Nathan and Elizabeth, once at Susan’s daughter’s birthday party in 2001.
“Even back then when we saw them, we knew that there was something terribly wrong. The little boy was very needy,” she said of Nathan. “All he did was hold on to his grandmother’s leg and told her how nice she was and how much he liked her. And Elizabeth was so shellshocked and scared to be out of the house that she was scared of everything and barely talked.”
After that day, Susan Degner only heard secondhand of the family. Rumors circulated about the home housing 20 birds and some rats.
Nobody ever saw the younger children, and extended family had no clue Matthew and his 12-year-old sister were mentally disabled.
In summer 2007, Matthew’s father, Robert Degner, was arrested and later imprisoned for 21 years on charges of home invasion with a firearm in Tinley Park. That’s when Susan, Robert’s sister-in-law, decided to take action and call a DCFS child abuse hotline.
But after explaining everything she’d heard about the family and asking DCFS to perform a well-being check, Susan Degner was denied. She didn’t know an address, she just knew the family lived in Berwyn. She hadn’t actually seen the kids in years. And she said she was told she needed proof of physical abuse before social workers could enter a home.
Not knowing what else she could do, she let the issue go.
“I’m kicking myself because I should’ve been calling every day and demanding that somebody go over,” Susan Degner said. “Had I known the depth of the depravity of what was going on in that house, I would’ve found out where they lived and broken down the door and just ran away with them.”
‘The lengths they went to ...’
One of the key components to keeping the conditions inside Price’s home a secret was the children’s lack of formal education — or an education, at all.
Illinois is one of 10 states that doesn’t require parents or guardians to enroll school-age children to verify their educational needs are being met. Both South Berwyn School District 100 and West 40 Intermediate Service Center, a regional education agency the family could have registered with, have no record of the children existing.
It’s unclear whether Price actually homeschooled her children — though she told police seven years ago that she did. But by all indications, when they were ready for kindergarten, she simply didn’t send them.
The state considers homeschooling a form of private education and mandates children should receive an education of the same quality as their peers, but there’s no enforcement mechanism to the law and no agency tasked with checking in on those kids, said Richard Erdman, West 40’s educational services director.
Had the children gone to school, Jane Bagus, the director of faculty and student services at District 100, is confident her staff could have intervened.
“When there is that kind of abuse, there are signs, both physical and mental,” Bagus said.
In Matthew’s situation, school social workers would have consulted with the principal and Price, offering the family counseling and other services. But they’re also mandated by state law to report any signs of abuse to DCFS, which could have included the kids’ bug bites, animal scratches and feces-caked feet the children were found with after Matthew’s death.
While local school officials say they never knew of the children, the city’s building department had problems with exterior conditions of the home — but no one ever went inside.
Just three months ago, the property was cited for sagging fencing, overgrown bushes and rotting wood on the garage. In July 2008, Price’s home also was fined for its deteriorating exterior.
“We did knock on their door and try to contact them, but in this case, nobody ever answered the door,” said Charles Lazzara, Berwyn’s building department director. “The only time we ever try to gain access to a home is if we have cause to do so. If we had gotten a complaint of a horrible foul-smelling odor from the home, that would have given us cause . ... Then we would have done a well-being check.”
Price’s neighbor, Antonio Andrade, claims that he had reported bad smells coming from the house, but Lazzara said Andrade only discussed exterior blight issues with him. The family sealed off all their windows and routinely shooed people away from the property, he said.
“It was amazing the lengths they went to keep people from knowing what they were doing in there,” he said.
The actual owner of the home, who wasn’t Price, seemingly didn’t know either.
Although he doesn’t consider himself the owner or the landlord, Robert Majewski of Westmont holds the mortgage and the deed. He said he entered into a lease-to-own contract with Price in 1999.
Under that contract, Price was supposed to make a balloon payment in 2004, Majewski said. That fell through, but Majewski decided not to foreclose and allowed Price to keep making payments.
“I knew that the husband wasn’t around at that point and she had five kids and her mother there,” Majewski said. “I let it go.”
Majewski said he hadn’t been to the house in seven years.