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NEW COLUMBIA - A 37-year old New Columbia woman accused of starving and abusing one of her children is free on $15,000 bail following a preliminary hearing held in front of Magisterial District Judge Jeffrey L. Mensch of Mifflinburg on Monday.

Police said Melissa Lin Keister, of 171 Grover Drive, regularly withheld food from the child and punished her if she were caught “stealing or sneaking” food, forced her to sleep naked and on the floor of her bedroom and would force her to stand in a cold shower for punishment. Keister allegedly once withheld food from the child for an entire week, and kept the child in a room that was guarded by an alarmed door, unable to leave without being let out by her mother or one of her siblings.

Police were alerted to the situation when a home health aide called the Childline in April to report the alleged abuse, which she said included watching Keister refuse to feed the child at mealtime, then force the child to eat a substantial amount of food and drink Pediasure in an attempt to gain weight prior to a doctor’s visit.

A mobile therapist assigned to provide resources to Keister also told investigators she had met with the child several times both in the home and in public, and had seen her both eat and not eat in the home during mealtime. On the occasions when the child did not eat with the family, she told police, the child would stand in the doorway of the dining room. The therapist told police she believed this to be a cause of her mental diagnosis. The therapist said she did observe the child hiding food around the house but believed that, too, was due to the mental health diagnosis.

A second home health aide who worked in the home for approximately two months during the overnight hours reported her job was to watch the child sleep via video surveillance sent to an iPad, and when she first started the job, the child did not have a bed and was sleeping on the floor. Keister allegedly told the worker it was because the child was eating her mattress and hiding items in the mattress. She was told the child could “earn” her bed back through good behavior. The child was also forced to sleep naked and inside a square marked off with tape on the floor, because, Keister told her, the child had been “unsafe in pajamas” on a previous occasion. She said part of her job was to make sure the child did not sleep on her knees with her head on the floor and that it did not appear as though the child slept more than an hour or so during the night, therefore causing her to fall asleep randomly throughout the day. When she would fall asleep during homeschool hours, Keister allegedly made her stay awake by performing wall squats or running around the residence. After receiving her bed back, the aide told police the child appeared to sleep during the night and was interacting more with the other children in the household.

It is also alleged Keister frequently gave the child melatonin to sleep and that if it didn’t work, she would “overdose” her on Benadryl. The child is prescribed several medications but did not receive them on a regular basis, said one of the home health aides.

When interviewed about the allegations, Keister told investigating officers that the child has a disorder which causes her to lack a bond with caregivers, which is why she is only able to receive food from herself or her husband.

In June, Trooper Adam Depauw of the Milton State Police interviewed the child, who by then had gained approximately 20 pounds and was “almost unrecognizable.” The child told investigators that if she was caught stealing food she was not allowed to eat the next meal. She reported that did have a bed in the home, but was not allowed to sleep in it - that she was required to sleep in a taped square on the floor and that if she slept on her knees during the night Keister would force her to take cold showers and that if she cried, the showers lasted longer. She told police that sometimes the other children in the house would slide food, unwrapped, under her door so she could eat without leaving evidence.

When the family went out to a restaurant, the child told Depauw she was not permitted to eat, that when at home she was naked all hours of the day and in her room unless visitors were at the residence. She also told Depauw if she was caught eating food that Keister would make her drink vinegar to make her vomit up the food she had eaten and then would give her food she was allowed to eat. This didn’t happen everytime, she said, but seemed to depend on Keister’s mood. She estimated it happened about 50 times. She also said she once ate a frozen pizza out of the basement freezer because she was so hungry, and that Keister often physically disciplined her either with her hand, a back scratcher or a paddle. On one occasion the child alleged Keister struck her head off the corner of a desk.

The child was removed from Keister's care.

Keister is scheduled for preliminary arraignment in front of the Honorable Michael T. Hudock on Oct. 28.