Mother jailed after 4-year-old found wandering a fourth time

Posted: August 02, 2014

A Burlington County mother of five was imprisoned this week on child-abandonment charges after her 4-year-old daughter was spotted for the fourth time in about two months walking alone on a sidewalk, police said.

Riverside Township Police Detective Ron Brock said the child, who was not identified, was unharmed and "in good spirits" each time she wandered out into the neighborhood. Twice, he said, she crossed Middleton Street, where she lives, without an adult and was returned home by police.

Her mother, Maryann Gonteski, 38, told officers that the girl was "hyperactive and likes to run and jump," Brock said.

On Thursday, Superior Court Judge Jeanne Covert set Gonteski's bail at $7,500 with no option to post bond.

Gonteski was confined Wednesday in the Burlington County Corrections and Work Release Center in Pemberton after a first appearance, when bail initially was set at $10,000 with the 10 percent option.

Gonteski is applying for a public defender, said Donna Mazzanti, a court spokeswoman. She said the judge changed the bail amount after learning there were four alleged incidents, information that had not been presented at the arraignment.

Mazzanti said the state Division of Child Permanency and Protection had placed into foster care Gonteski's two youngest children - the 4-year-old and a 5-year-old.

Two teenage siblings moved in with their father, who did not live with the family, police said. The order does not address where the 19-year-old daughter should reside.

In the latest incident, which occurred about 6 p.m. Tuesday, the preschool child had wandered about two blocks from her home and was found by strangers on busy Bridgeboro Street in downtown Riverside, Brock said. "She was just exploring, but was completely alone," he said.

The first time the child was found outside alone was at 8:30 p.m. May 20, he said. Gonteski told police she thought her oldest daughter was watching the child, Brock said. The mother, who did not appear to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol, was issued a warning, the detective said.

When the girl was discovered alone a second time - at 1:30 p.m. May 22 - Gonteski was charged with abandonment for "failing to care for or provide custody for a child," he said. She was released on signature bail.

After a third incident at 9:30 p.m. June 20, the mother told police she thought the child was home sleeping, Brock said. She was released that time after posting 10 percent of $5,000 bail.

After each incident, Brock said, police notified the state's child protective services. He said staff members assessed the home and devised a safety plan for Gonteski to improve the situation.

A spokesman for the agency said confidentiality laws precluded him from making any comment.

The case is unique, Brock said, because a parent who is alerted to a wandering child usually will take action to make sure it doesn't happen again.

"This woman was on her own and she had five kids to watch, and there were some traumatic things going on in her life," he said. "But if there is neglect, I have to do something about it."

856-779-3224 @JanHefler

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