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VALPARAISO — A 46-year-old Portage woman charged with abandoning her three children in a home without running water or a working furnace last winter has been granted limited visitation rights with the children.

Porter Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper agreed to modify the no-contact orders to allow Thanh Nguyen two supervised visits a week with her three children. Each visit is to last three hours and take place at an appropriate facility.

The judge, who called the move a "good start," voiced concern about the welfare of the children and noted that Nguyen has yet to complete any of the programs required of her.

Harper also said unsupervised visits would present the opportunity for witness tampering in the underlying criminal case against Nguyen. Nguyen's oldest child may be a primary witness in the case, the judge said.

The decision to modify the orders came after a hearing that was slowed at times by the need to rely on a Vietnamese interpreter on a speaker phone. The situation required attorneys and the defendant to relocate near the witness stand so as to be heard by the interpreter.

The modifications were sought by the defense in the wake of an April 30 fact-finding hearing held in juvenile court that determined "there has been a substantial and continuing change in the circumstances of the children ... such that a change in custody would be in their best interest."

Primary physical custody of the two younger children (ages 10 and 11) was granted to their father, with both parents to share joint legal custody, according to a motion filed by Merrillville-based attorney Andrew Yoder.

The 16-year-old son is with his stepfather.

Nguyen has pleaded not guilty to three felony counts of neglect of a dependent and a felony count of possessing a legend drug, which is a prescription drug for which she did not have a prescription. Each charge carries a potential sentence of 6 months to 2 ½ years behind bars, she was told Tuesday.

The case came to light Feb. 11 after Nguyen's oldest child sought help from school officials for a broken water pipe at their home in the 1100 block of Camelot Manor in Portage, according to police.

He and his siblings told police Nguyen stopped by just long enough to drop off food on occasion and then could not be reached by phone, according to a police report.

A school official reported the children had been heating the home with three space heaters and sometimes the oven turned on with the door left open, police said.

Police said when they located Nguyen, she said she had been at the Four Winds Casino in New Buffalo, Michigan. She denied the claims of her children, telling police, "I come home after they sleep and leave before they get up."

The eldest son told investigators he had been caring for his younger siblings "for as long as he can remember," according to the police report. "He added he cooks their meals, cleans the house and makes sure they get all of their chores/homework done."

The boy said his father was away on vacation in California, and his mother prohibits the children from contacting him, police said.

Nguyen reportedly begged police to let her go home when first called in for questioning.

"I love my kids," she was quoted by police as yelling. "They can't go to foster care."

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Porter/LaPorte County Courts and Social Justice Reporter

Bob is a 23-year veteran of The Times. He covers county government and courts in Porter County, federal courts, police news and regional issues. He also created the Vegan in the Region blog, is an Indiana University grad and lifelong region resident.