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The story of Paislee Joann Shultis, the four-year old child from a small town south of Ithaca who disappeared with her parents in 2019 just when the authorities were coming to take her away from them, has exploded across the media stratosphere and over multiple continents now that she’s been discovered in Saugerties.
“Paislee Shultis found alive in secret room,” “New York girl missing for two years found stashed inside ‘small, cold and wet’ staircase,” “Chilling Grin .… Father of Paislee Shultis appears to smirk outside court after ‘kidnapped’ daughter found in dirty room under stairs.” These headlines are from the BBC, USA Today and The Sun respectively. Like the eye of a horseshoe crab, the great eye of the media is compound, and all the ommatidia are presently turned toward this sensational tale of depressing family drama in Saugerties.
As the initial headlines fade, the actual picture emerges from underneath.
Late Monday evening on Valentine’s Day, Saugerties police in concert with state troopers and other enforcement forces converged on a house on Fawn Road in Saugerties owned by Kirk Shultis, Sr., the missing child’s grandfather.
According to Saugerties police chief Joseph Sinagra, his officers had been called out to the property numerous times before. “We would go there, and sometimes we were met with resistance,” said Sinagra, “and at other times, they’d say, ‘Oh, no, you can come in and look around. There’s nobody here. The child’s not here.’” On this occasion, however, police, responding to a credible tip and after more than an hour of searching, found otherwise. An officer with a flashlight spotted a piece of blanket fabric behind a crack in the main staircase. When the police set to work removing treads and risers from the stringers of the stairway, a small room underneath was revealed. And so was the missing girl, Paislee Joann Shultis, along with her mother. They were hiding together under the stairs.
While it’s conceivable moving deeper under the rise of the stairs that the space would be larger, the photograph provided to the newspapers and reposted by Internet news services all over the world appeared to show a space near the bottom of the stairs stuffed full of tousled blankets and no larger than a bassinet. This picture lent itself to a sensational interpretation of neglect and cruelty.
Hopefully, it was just a space used to hide the child should the authorities come seeking. The photograph of it displays only the slovenly efforts of the Shultis men. Incompetent carpenters both, they succeeded only at the impression of squalor.
The police have identified Paislee’s biological parents as Kirk Shultis Jr., 32, and Kimberly Cooper, 33. Why the two originally lost custody of their daughter has not been explained. The most common reasons to lose custody of a child are neglect, physical abuse, domestic violence and drug use.
Whatever the reason, Child Protective Services (CPS) would have been involved. “There are many reasons parents can lose custody of their children, and I wouldn’t like to speculate in this case,” explains Michael Belsky, a partner at the family and matrimonial law firm Tully Rinckey, which has represented clients in the Saugerties courts. “What I can shed light on is the process. The first thing that happens is that CPS gets called in.
“If certain patterns repeat themselves, CPS keeps having to show up, the county lawyer could choose to file an Article 10, basically terminating the legal rights the parents have over their own child. From there, an interested party, another member of the family perhaps, could file an Article 6 to have custody of the child granted, but that custody doesn’t transfer back to the parents. If they take the child, that’s a crime.”
Both Shultises, Kirk Sr. and Jr., face charges of child endangerment and custodial interference. Depending on the degree of seriousness, custodial interference can be a class E felony, which at the judge’s discretion carries a sentence of up to four years in prison.
The case has been referred to the Ulster County Court to decide whether the charges warrant the felony classification. If the court decides they don’t, the case returns back to Saugerties town court, where both men are set to appear on April 27.
A case for a grand jury?
This sounds an unlikely outcome to lawyer Belsky. “In my opinion,” he says, “this isn’t going to be just a slap on the wrist. I wouldn’t be surprised if they were going to convene a grand jury to review the more serious implications of the charges. The charge of child endangerment at this point that seems to me the most concerning. The police reported Paislee seemed physically healthy, so that’s good, but there will have to be a period of observation to assess her mental and emotional well-being so the findings can be presented to the grand jury. We don’t know how much time she spent hiding out.”
Paislee’s mother has been charged separately so far with misdemeanors, and returns to the court on March 2.
Because the judgments contained in the court records of Family Court proceedings are not open to public inspection, it’s likely no further information will be released until the court cases begin. But that doesn’t mean the outlets will stop trying.