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Trial focuses on children's living conditions

GRAND FORKS -- The case of James Hume, on trial for felony neglect of three small children prosecutors say were living in a crude, hazardous and smelly garage, is about how to decide if parents should be punished under the law for unusual living arrangements, said Hume's attorney, David Ogren.

"One of the special things we are looking at here is, at what point do we start holding someone criminally responsible where children are involved in a housing situation," Ogren told the jury of 10 women and three men, including an alternate, in his opening statement Tuesday in a Grand Forks courtroom.

Some time long before the filth in the home gets so bad that the stench is "overwhelming," according to prosecutor Jason McCarthy's opening statement.

Hume, 32, was charged a year ago after Grand Forks County sheriff's deputies said they found him with his three children, ages 7, 4 and 2, living in a garage attached to the house where Hume's parents lived northwest of Reynolds.

The Humes' home actually is the former Holmes store and post office in what once was a small community.

The children had only a portable toilet and no running water in the garage, which was filled with flies and hazardous conditions for such small children, said McCarthy, assistant state's attorney for Grand Forks County.

He charged Hume with three Class C felonies of abuse and/or neglect of children. Each count carries a maximum penalty of five years in prison.

Animal-filled home

McCarthy told the jury that on Aug. 3 last year when deputies inspected the garage, Hume's parents would not allow deputies inside their attached house. Deputies obtained a search warrant Aug. 6, 2012, and searched the house, where Hume had told them the children bathed.

The house was filled with at least 30 cats, several dogs, geese, rabbits and a large snake, and the feces and urine smelled so bad that deputies could not enter the house without wearing masks, McCarthy said.

Hume will testify today, Ogren said, that while the conditions in the garage were not good, his children were not there very much and the evidence will show they didn't really live there. Only a week after he was charged, county social services officials allowed his children to move back in with him in a home in Thompson, where he still lives with them, Ogren said.

"There's going to be some disagreements over whether the children were ever in (their grandparents') house," Ogren said. Despite the unusual nature of the garage as a living space, Hume was supervising his children so they were safe, Ogren said.

Many parents, including him, allow their children to play football, an often dangerous sport, Ogren said.

"Do we hold them criminally liable for it? No," he said, because the children are supervised.

Tanya Johnson, who reported the situation to the sheriff's department Aug. 3, 2012, after seeing Hume's home, testified Tuesday that her younger sister, Tiffany Johnson, was Hume's girlfriend and living in the garage with Hume and his children.

She said Hume was reluctant to let her see his living arrangements and warned her that his mother would be angry that Johnson had seen the place, inside and out.

Hume is scheduled to go to trial next month on a separate felony charge that he threatened Tanya Johnson in a text message to her sister after his arrest, saying "She is going to get hurt," because she told law enforcement about his living situation.

Stephanie Henderson, the mother of Hume's two young daughters, is scheduled to testify for the prosecution today. She said in an interview Tuesday that she wasn't aware of how bad the living conditions were at the Humes' because "I wasn't allowed in there."