LUBBOCK, Texas (AP) — Neighbors said filthy children regularly climbed into trash bins and scavenged for food behind the West Texas house where 11 children lived with their parents. Other residents heard screaming at night — one described "shrieks of terror" — that were quickly followed by loud music to cover the sounds.
"It never stopped whenever they were living there," neighbor Paige Figge told a judge last week, after the children were taken into state custody.
The testimony came during a court hearing for William and Claire Rembis, who have faced child welfare investigations in at least three states since 2001. The couple is now accused of neglect in Lubbock, where one investigator suggested the family may be moving to avoid such investigations, which are difficult to track across states.
The couple denies the allegations, saying they move for jobs and that Texas officials are targeting them because they choose to homeschool their family, oppose vaccinations and simply have so many children.
"They don't eat out of the trash," 36-year-old Claire Rembis told The Associated Press outside the courtroom in Lubbock. Her 48-year-old husband called the allegations "ridiculous."
The couple hasn't been criminally charged, but they face a host of problems in Texas: Their children, who range in age from 16 months to 17 years old, were taken into state custody in late August, after child welfare workers discovered 10 of them had been taken to Colorado amid the Lubbock investigation. The family was evicted from their rental home on Tuesday, and the parents' custody hearing continues next week.
Two of the children also were briefly removed from the family's home in Plano, about 300 miles east, in 2013, and all were removed in a separate case there last year. In Michigan, child welfare officials received five complaints between 2007 and 2012, including one about unsupervised children eating out of garbage cans. In New Jersey, the couple was investigated after their oldest son, who was about 2 at the time, was found wandering alone in 2001, according testimony in the Lubbock case.
No national database exists to track such cases across states. The Rembises disclosed their past addresses to Texas officials, but if families don't divulge that information, case workers have to find it, said Texas Department of Family and Protective Services spokesman Paul Zimmerman. Even then, a lot of digging must be done.
"It's easier to track a stolen car," said child welfare consultant Timothy Turner, who has worked for state welfare agencies in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.
"It's very tedious and piecemeal," Turner said, noting it can take a long time, letters and phone calls to find cases in another state. "And by the time that all occurs, a lot of times they disappear."
State agencies often can't release details in such cases, especially if no action was taken. In New Jersey, where most family court records are confidential, state law bars the Department of Children and Families from even confirming whether the agency was involved with the Rembis family, spokesman Ernest Landante said. Michigan Department of Health and Human Services spokesman Bob Wheaton said records in such cases are also closed in Michigan.
Those cases were briefly cited during last week's custody hearing, where child welfare investigator Kristin Stecklein said some of the children didn't have beds when she visited the home earlier this year, including a 5-year-old girl who another child told her slept in a box in a closet. The couple homeschooled their children, but Stecklein said she didn't "see any signs" of school material — a point William Rembis disputed on Friday.
Texas Tech University students who lived next door to the family testified that children were in the alley scavenging in trash bins six days a week. One student, Madison Burnham, said she saw a child eating food from a box she'd recently thrown out.
"I don't think children should be allowed to do that," Burnham told the judge.
Other neighbors testified that after screaming began inside the house, loud heavy-metal music was played to cover the sounds.
Claire Rembis denied the noise allegation. She also said her children wear hand-me-down clothing and doesn't mind them going barefoot.
"It's just being natural," she said. "To us, it's just normal."
Stecklein said the family's home had a "strong foul odor" and not enough food to feed 11 children and two adults when she visited. William Rembis also disputed that allegation in testimony, noting his family received about $1,100 a month in food stamps
"We've never had a problem with having enough food," he told the judge. "My kids are well fed."
Rembis said he wanted to move to Colorado for "better jobs" after losing two jobs since April in Lubbock. Lubbock County Child Protective Services attorney Kacee Harvey suggested another motivation, telling the judge that moving "is a pattern with this family." The judge upheld an objection from William Rembis' attorney about keeping testimony focused on the Lubbock case.
Rembis said he simply wants to get his children back, and "we'll go to whatever lengths are necessary."