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VALPARAISO — Pleas of not guilty were entered Tuesday morning on behalf of a Portage mother accused of abandoning her children in a home without running water or a working furnace.

Thanh Nguyen, 46, who has bonded out of jail, appeared alongside attorney Ben Murphy during her initial hearing.

Murphy turned on occasion and explained the proceedings to Nguyen and told the court that English is not Nguyen's first language.

Murphy said his firm had already explained the legal rights to his client.

When an initial hearing was first attempted in February, it was derailed after Nguyen claimed she could not understand her rights as they were read in English. A Vietnamese interpreter was to be sought, but there was no one at Tuesday's hearing.

Nguyen was ordered held without bond in February, but a misinterpretation of court documents was later blamed for her mistaken release from jail on a $1,500 cash bond.

Nguyen is charged with three level 6 counts of neglect of a dependent and a fourth 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 1/2 years behind bars, she was told Tuesday.

A follow-up hearing was scheduled for 1 p.m. May 7 before Porter Circuit Court Judge Mary Harper.

The case came to light Feb. 11 after Nguyen's oldest of three children, who is 16, sought help from school officials for a broken water pipe at their home in the 1100 block of Camelot Manor, according to Portage police.

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He and his siblings, ages 11 and 10, 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.