A California couple has been accused of child abuse after deputies found their three children living in what they described as a large plywood box on a remote property without running water or electricity or adequate food. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department announced the arrest Thursday, saying it appeared the children had lived in there for four years.

Mona Kirk, 51, and Daniel Panico, 73, have been charged with willful cruelty to a child and are being held in the Morongo Basin Jail on $100,000 bond. Despite the nature of the charge, officials later clarified that the family’s situation appeared to stem from poverty, which had not been specified in the sheriff’s original news release.

Deputies discovered the trailer home and plywood structure while conducting routine checks in the area around 11 a.m. Thursday on the 7000 block of Sunfair Road, in a remote area of Joshua Tree, Calif., according to the news release from the sheriff’s department.

San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department deputies arrested a Joshua Tree, Calif., couple after coming upon this site. (Morongo Basin Sheriff Station)

At first, deputies thought they had found an abandoned trailer home and a large box in the desert. The box was about 20 feet long, 10 feet wide and 4 feet high.

There were mounds of trash and human feces and holes in the ground that appeared to be used as toilets. Bikes and broken swing set pieces, old furniture and a stray punching bag were strewn about the property.

When deputies went inside the trailer, they found about 30 to 40 cats roaming freely.

Site of arrest in Joshua Tree, Calif. (Google Maps)

Then they found the children. According to the sheriff’s department, the children, ages 11, 13 and 14, had been living in the rectangular plywood hovel for about four years.

“The victims were found to have an inadequate amount of food and were living in an unsuitable and unsafe environment due to the conditions located on the property,” the sheriff’s news release said.

The deputies contacted county Children and Family Services, which took custody of the children.

Kirk and Panico, who were located on the property, were arrested.

Despite the willful cruelty charges against Kirk and Panico, Capt. Trevis Newport of the Morongo Basin Station told the Los Angeles Times that it didn’t appear the couple had been confining the children to the plywood structure for malicious purposes, as in the case of the Turpin children, whose parents allegedly chained them in their rooms in nearby Perris, Calif. Newport said this case only appeared to be the result of poverty.

“They’re homeless,” Newport said. “It’s a shelter, the shape of a box … nowhere near what it sounded like when it came out.”

Newport clarified that, although the family had inadequate access to food, as described in the news release, the children did not appear malnourished. They were not enrolled in school, and it was not clear whether they were home-schooled, according to the Los Angeles Times.

“It’s just tragic that these children were being raised in conditions like this,” Cindy Bachman, spokeswoman for the sheriff’s department, told the newspaper. “There are services available to help these folks, and clearly they chose not to ask for any help.”

Joshua Tree, located in the Mojave Desert and just north of Joshua Tree National Park, is home to 7,414 people, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. About 29 percent of them live in poverty, 22 percent of whom are children. The median income is $34,970.

It’s about 90 minutes east of the home where investigators discovered the Turpin child-abuse case in neighboring Riverside County, involving 13 children and adults ages 2 through 29 who had been allegedly locked up in a room smelling of human waste. David A. Turpin and Louise A. Turpin were charged last month with multiple felony counts of torture, child abuse, abuse of dependent adults and false imprisonment after one of the children managed to escape the home through a window and call police.

David and Louise Turpin face up to life in prison if found guilty of the charges.

Mona Kirk and Daniel Panico face up to six years in prison if found guilty of child cruelty.

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