A few weeks before Christmas last year, Montgomery County social workers saw the squalor at Douglas Stubbs' sagging old house in rural Poolesville and bundled his six children off to foster homes. Stubbs watched them go, and figured his life had finally hit bottom.
Not only did Stubbs and his wife Paulette lose custody of their son and five daughters, but county police charged the impoverished couple with willfully maintaining an unfit home for the youngsters.
In a tumbledown house reeking of animal waste, Stubbs, 56, kept an inventory of adult magazines and films, peddled marijuana and entertained prostitutes -- all within sight of his children, according to a police affidavit based on interviews with two of his daughters and filed in Circuit Court.
Almost a year later, having pleaded guilty to six misdemeanors related to their care of the youngsters, Stubbs and his wife await sentencing. On a recent morning, as he sat by a decaying Cadillac heaped on his junk-strewn five acres, Stubbs sobbed at the thought of his absent children. He said officials had told him they might seek adoptive parents for his 9-year-old son but have not decided about the daughters, ages 10 to 16.
This is an account of a father's unsavory effort to cope with poverty. It also is a story of how the government at once tried to help and punish a man who said his own inabilities and ignorance accounted for his highly unorthodox way of life -- a life that county officials called emotionally damaging to his children.
The Stubbs family might never have drawn public attention were it not for an unidentified caller alerting the county Department of Social Services. Stubbs' living conditions then gained wide notice when The Montgomery County Sentinel, a weekly with a circulation of 15,000, published several stories beginning in February depicting him as a blameless man enduring wretched hardship. Hoping to muster sympathy, Stubbs admitted later, he had misled the newspaper by failing to mention the criminal charges, which the Sentinel belatedly reported this month in a front-page story and apology.
Suffering from emphysema and barely able to read or write, Stubbs said in an interview, he has known only hard times and odd jobs since quitting school in the third grade. He said he bought and peddled second-hand adult magazines and movies to help put food on his family's table. He said he grew and sold marijuana two years ago for the same reason.
"A man gets desperate, he has to do something," said Stubbs, a gaunt man with a wrinkled face, " . . . You see, everything I did, I did to support my wife and kids. They're my flesh and blood and I love them. That's the truth."
But Detective Stephen Meiklejohn, the investigating police officer, sought and obtained a warrant for Stubbs' arrest, based on the "deplorable" conditions to which police said Stubbs had subjected his children. Meiklejohn, a 15-year member of the force, said in an interview that no case had ever wrenched his emotions quite like that of the Stubbs children.
"I saw what was going on in that house," he said. "These kids went through a lot. I feel for them."
Stubbs, in choosing to support his family as he did, was far from typical of others struggling in rural poverty, according to several experts. "What you've got here is a very unusual hustle," said Peggy Barlett, an Emory University anthropologist.
"I was raised in a two-room shack in the Missouri swampland," said Gene Summers, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Wisconsin. "It's difficult for someone to imagine the hardship, the pressure, the degradation that goes with that kind of an existence. If an opportunity comes along, you grab it; it's understandable. But having come from that background, I can tell you that this man is an aberration."
Stubbs' poverty is indeed an anomaly in a county where the average household income exceeds $65,000 a year. Raised in the Bethesda area, Stubbs survives in Appalachian squalor on hard acres of red clay at Montgomery's western tip, off an unpaved road that skirts cornfields and pastures, then twists a mile into the woods toward his home.
"We see pockets of poverty around Montgomery County," said William Sher, a county housing official. "We know of about 150 houses that are condemnable. And of those I've looked at, his is the worst."
The century-old house lacks running water, and the clay earth makes a conventional septic system impossible. The family used kitchen pots as toilets until the county, after removing his children, built Stubbs an outhouse. The county also lent him an old space heater, which provides his four dim rooms their only warmth. In the cold before, two girls slept upstairs while the four youngest children passed nights on two threadbare sofas squeezed in a room with their parents' foldaway cot.
Paulette Stubbs, 39, declined to be interviewed. After the children were placed in foster care, she took a job in a pizza restaurant where she earns about $750 a month, her husband said.
In his application for the warrants, on file in Circuit Court, Detective Meiklejohn quoted Stubbs' two teen-aged daughters as saying that their father kept dozens of adult magazines and films along with a life-sized female mannequin in the living room. That room was where the parents and four children slept, an area off the kitchen just large enough for the cot and castoff sofas that line three walls.
According to the charging document in the Stubbs court file, the children were exposed to "a large collection of pornographic material, inappropriate touching, unsanitary conditions, immoral activity, inappropriate sexual activity and criminal drug activity."
The parents were not charged with physically or sexually abusing the youngsters, nor with drug trafficking. Rather, they were charged with exposing the children to an unfit environment.
"On many occasions, men came to the Stubbs residence to view the material and to purchase some of the pornography from the father," the detective wrote.
The 13-year-old daughter, he wrote, "stated that on numerous occasions, her father has 'hookers' come to the house, and her father's friends come over and pay her father money to have sex with these ladies." Meiklejohn quoted the youngster as saying she saw one of those encounters after she walked into a bedroom unaware.
Stubbs acknowledged owning the material -- a collection of some 200 magazines and films confiscated by police. As for the mannequin, he said, he intended to submit a snapshot of it to a magazine photo contest.
"I never intended for my kids to see any of that," he said, referring to the films and magazines -- and to the prostitutes, who he said were at his house on only one occasion. It was his responsibility to feed his family, Stubbs said, and he could think of no better way of getting money than to peddle sexually explicit material.
"If the devil were standing over there," he said, "and my children were standing over here with me, and if the devil made a proposition so my children could survive, I'd make a deal."
"The guy had a wife and kids to provide for," said Robert McCarthy, Stubbs' court-appointed attorney. "You and I can agree that he didn't go about it appropriately, but at the same time, the guy's not a monster."
Before pleading guilty Sept. 4, Stubbs, like his wife, faced up to three years in prison and a $2,500 fine for each of the six charges, McCarthy said. But as part of a plea bargain, neither will serve time. The couple could be fined, given suspended prison terms and placed on probation when they appear for sentencing Dec. 22, McCarthy said.
The Department of Social Services, bound by privacy rules, would not officially acknowledge involvement in the Stubbs case. But Michael Fitzgerald, chief of the department's child welfare division, said that if the six youngsters are in the agency's custody, their futures will be determined by established procedure that could lead to court-ordered termination of parental rights.
In the 10 months since their children were placed in foster homes, Stubbs said, he and his wife have tried to better their lives as best they know how.
Hoping he could reunite his family by improving his standard of living, Stubbs said, he sought to prod county officials into helping him last winter. In January, he invited a Sentinel reporter to tour his place, complaining that its miserable condition had cost him custody of his son and daughters.
To avoid embarrassing the children, Stubbs said recently, he never mentioned the criminal charges to the reporter.
As stories about his plight appeared in the Sentinel in following months, the county Department of Housing and Community Development offered help.
Although the house is condemnable, Sher said, the county will take no such action while Stubbs and his wife live there.
Stubbs said he intends to seek subsidized housing, but could face a substantial wait. A sale sign went up on the property this week.
"I think he's struggling to change himself," said Meiklejohn, who has stayed in touch with Stubbs. "I think he really wants to lead a normal life. But I don't think he knows how to go about it."
Meanwhile, a new winter approaches. Stubbs sat in a rusted lawn chair as the morning passed and spat tobacco into a stained paper cup. "Ain't no light in my tunnel," he said, and wiped his lips on his sleeve.