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Foster parents arrested after children found to be extremely malnourished

MURRAY – A Murray couple was arrested last week after two juveniles in their care were admitted to Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, for severe weight loss with supporting evidence of malnutrition and physical abuse.

Samantha Arnett, 36, and Robert Arnett, 44, were each charged with two counts of first-degree criminal abuse of a child under 12 years old, a class B felony, which is punishable by 10-20 years in the state penitentiary for each count.

Calloway District Judge Randall Hutchens set bail on Friday at $5,000 each. Robert posted bond the next day. His arraignment is scheduled for Tuesday, June 11, at 9 a.m. However, Samantha remained in jail and was arraigned in Calloway District Court Tuesday.

Noting that Robert was no longer in custody due to posting bond, Hutchens asked Assistant Commonwealth’s Attorney James Burkeen for his recommendation for reducing Samantha’s bond, but Burkeen requested that the bond amount not be changed.

Hutchens granted Samantha’s request for a public defender, after confirming she has not been employed for 10 years. Her preliminary hearing is scheduled for next Wednesday, June 5, at 9 a.m.

According to court documents, the children have been under the care of Samantha and Robert Arnett, who are their aunt and uncle, respectively, since May 2019, when their parents lost custodial rights.

On May 20 of this year, the Mayfield Police Department received an anonymous tip that the two juveniles were neglected and abused. A Mayfield police officer conducted a brief investigation and contacted the Calloway County Department of Community-Based Services (DCBS) office, noting he felt duty-bound to report the evidence of which he was aware.

In his report, the officer expressed concerns “for the children’s wellbeing as they were isolated to their residence,” noting that the children were homeschooled, and that they were not being medically evaluated or eating properly.

Shortly after receiving the report, a DCBS social worker interviewed the Arnetts, both of whom said they did not believe either child had any medical conditions and further advised that both children “eat a lot” but were not gaining weight; however, neither caregiver had an explanation for bruising and other marks on the children’s bodies.

When questioned alone, Samantha told the social worker that she has had difficulty at times getting the children to eat but added that she did not believe they were losing weight. Upon further questioning, she acknowledged the possibility that at least one of the children had lost weight.

Samantha said that both children had been evaluated by medical personnel who advised that they were healthy despite not gaining weight. She also stated that blood work had not revealed any potential underlying cause of their weight loss.  

Through the social worker’s investigation, it was discovered that the children had not been seen by their primary care providers since January 2023. At that time, the Arnetts were advised to seek additional medical treatment because of malnutrition concerns related to the children being underweight for their size as determined by the children scoring in the 13th percentile compared to others their age and gender; but the Arnetts “refused to seek further medical attention for the juveniles.” Since then, the children had lost an additional seven pounds, approximately.

The children were referred to Vanderbilt by DCBS and their primary care providers on May 22 and, “due to the severity of their conditions,” were immediately admitted. At the time, medical staff at Vanderbilt advised that the children would need to stay in the hospital for at least five days. They also noted marks and bruising over various parts of the children’s bodies that were consistent with physical abuse. Vanderbilt staff further stated that “law enforcement needed to be contacted and a forensic interview needed to be scheduled and conducted.”

On May 23, the social worker contacted the Calloway County Sheriff’s Office (CCSO) to launch a criminal investigation, and the couple was arrested that night.

An anonymous source with personal knowledge of the situation described the children’s gaunt appearance, likening their sunken cheeks and an apparent lack of subcutaneous fat to “photos you see of starving children in Africa.” The source also noted that the couple’s biological child appeared to be well-nourished and showed no signs of abuse or neglect.

As of today, the children are still at Vanderbilt, but they are starting to show signs of improvement, according to the source. Upon admission, they were placed on a restricted calorie diet, which is considered standard treatment for those who are extremely undernourished to avoid “refeeding syndrome,” a potentially life-threatening condition that causes fluid and electrolyte shifts and other metabolic complications, according to the National Institutes of Health; however, those calorie restrictions have now been lifted.

Individuals charged with crimes are presumed innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

Sentinel Staff

Jessica Paine
I’m Jessica Paine, founder of The Murray Sentinel. You may know me from my time as a citizen journalist, running the Calloway Covid-19 Count page on Facebook, or you may be familiar with my more recent work for another local news outlet. Being that I’m “from here,” you may have known me since I was “knee-high to a grasshopper,” although you knew me as Jessica Jones. But whether you know me or not, I’m glad you found your way here.

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