Mary Lou Steff was treated no better than the cows and chickens she was told to tend during the day and sleep next to at night in a rickety Springville barn. ¶ Perhaps worse, according to investigators and relatives of the 66-year-old developmentally disabled woman who want to take custody of her. ¶ For more than a decade, Steff lived under the care of her brother and sister-in-law, who abused and neglected the woman, authorities say. ¶ What happened to her reads like a Charles Dickens novel, although the accounts are contained in county reports. ¶ Her brother and sister-in-law slapped her in the face and denied her breakfast to speed up her morning chores, and when they went away, they locked her out of the farmhouse, forcing her to take refuge in a barn a strong wind might knock down, according to the county report and people who saw what was going on. ¶ She was not allowed to bathe, see doctors or have her eyeglasses replaced when they broke.
“Mary Lou was able to share the horrific details of her life but was not able to remember when certain things happened,” according to recently completed investigator’s report to Surrogate Court. Others, including witnesses, have filled in the details.
But Mary Lou’s sister-in-law denied that the disabled woman was neglected or mistreated, and in fact said she was treated well. Mary Lou slept on a couch in the barn for just a couple of nights in warm weather because her room was being cleaned, Clara Steff explained.
“She only lived in the barn a couple days when we were trying to clean her room. It had a terrible odor. She had peed up in the bedroom. I took her to the doctor’s until the doctor stopped practicing,” Clara Steff said.
Mary Lou’s brother, Wilfred, would not talk to The Buffalo News about how his sister was treated.
But Mary Lou recalls her older brother shooting her in the back with a BB gun.
“A shotgun too, but I wasn’t hit,” she told The News.
“I don’t know,” said the woman, whose hands are gnarled from years of hard labor.
Did she live in the barn, as authorities claim?
“I was living out in the barn,” she said.
Her answers are short, but she is generous with her smiles, which fit her childlike manner. Her gray hair is shorn into a pixie cut, a dazzling image of Mickey Mouse cheerfully looks out from her bright red sweatshirt. Blue jeans and sneakers complete her attire as she stands outside her refuge, the home of other relatives.
She arrived at this new home Oct. 10, and if Erie County Adult Protective Services officials have their way, she will continue to live there in the care of a nephew and niece, Carl and Virginia Steff.
County officials are now seeking to permanently revoke Wilfred and Clara Steff’s guardianship.
The story of Mary Lou Steff highlights what can happen when those entrusted to fend for society’s most vulnerable end up violating that trust, according to public officials familiar with the case.
Now, as details of her mistreatment are coming to light in court documents, there is outrage. “As provider of services for individuals with developmental disabilities, this is just a horrific life,” said Rhonda Frederick, chief operating officer at People Inc. “It sounds like no one knew she was there. If someone had reached out to an organization for help, we could have advocated for her. It’s fortunate that we don’t hear hundreds of these stories in Western New York. We have such a strong service system and caring community. One of these stories is one too many.”
The response by Adult Protective Services in removing the woman and placing her with relatives may have saved her life, Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz said.
“In this case, all the evidence pointed to abuse and exploitation and the individual was removed from an abusive situation,” Poloncarz said. “This incident reminds us once again of how important and demanding Department of Social Services casework is, and of the difficult decisions protective services workers have to make. It is our hope that in Erie County we can do what is right to protect vulnerable adults and prevent those who are responsible for this abuse.”
How it started
Mary Lou for decades lived a comfortable life on her family’s more-than-100-acre farm in the rolling hills of southern Erie County. Her parents, Mary and Harry Steff, cared for her. Food was plentiful. Mary Lou, in fact, was described as overweight.
When her parents went out, she tagged along. But because she was developmentally delayed, her mother was protective and limited her activities, according to a distant relative and neighbor.
Then in 2002, when her last surviving parent died, life began to change for her.
Guardianship of Mary Lou was transferred to her brother and sister-in-law. At Harry Steff’s funeral, her brother Wilfred made it clear to other relatives that they were no longer welcome to visit the farm.
“Virginia and Carl explained that Wilfred and Clara were able to get away with this campaign of depravity because at Harry Steff’s funeral they announced to the family members that if any of them set foot on the property, they would be shot. In fact, a caseworker informed me that Wilfred kept numerous guns in his house,” according to a recent investigator’s report to County Surrogate’s Court.
Mary Lou soon became a prisoner, never allowed to join outings or even go to church.
If she complained, her brother “threatened to put her in a group home or old folks’ home,” the investigator’s report said.
She was denied breakfast in the morning in order to hasten the start of her chores. Hunger stalked her. She was given lunch and dinner, but not allowed extra portions or snacks, relatives and the investigator’s report said.
If she failed to complete her chores in a timely manner, Wilfred Steff was not above physical punishment, and slapped her in the face, according to legal papers filed by Erie County Social Services Commissioner Carol Dankert Maurer in seeking Mary Lou’s removal from the family farm on an isolated hilltop along Route 39.
Neighbor moved to act
A neighbor recalls Mary Lou walking over and accepting a glass of pop.
“When she finished drinking it,” the neighbor said, “she asked if she could have the bottle. She said she could give it to someone who would get a 5-cent deposit and buy her candy.”
Other neighbors recalled seeing a woman whose life appeared to be harsh.
Richard Belcher, who lives about a quarter-mile away and is a brother-in-law to the Steffs, said Mary Lou regularly wandered over to his home looking for food.
“She picked apples from the tree out back, there,” Belcher said, pointing out his kitchen window, “the green one with all the leaves still on it. She was getting herself something to eat.”
Mary Lou lost a tremendous amount of weight over the last year as her workload increased and the amount of food given her decreased, Belcher said. Other relatives said that Wilfred depended on Mary Lou more and more around the farm as his health declined in the last year.
“Mary Lou did more work on that farm than two men,” Belcher said. “She carried bales of hay out to feed the cows.”
Mary Lou’s appearance also was noted in the investigator’s report to Surrogate’s Court.
“She is very slender and stands only 5 foot, 2 inches tall. This is scarcely the robust, obese white female Dr. Joel Paull described when he interviewed her for the court in 2002,” the report stated.
“She did recall one time police came to check on her, and Clara told them that she would start letting Mary Lou live in the house. They were satisfied with that and left, but in reality that did not occur,” the report said.
Another time, when relatives bought Mary Lou a winter coat, Wilfred Steff burned it, according to Social Services court papers. Belcher confirmed that incident occurred.
The clothes that Mary Lou owned, the report to Surrogate’s Court stated, were kept in empty dog food bags stored in a shed. When she arrived at her nephew and niece’s home, she had little more than the clothes on her back.
After seeing different incidents from his nearby property in which Mary Lou appeared to be mistreated, Belcher said he felt compelled to contact authorities about a month ago. Belcher says he is estranged from Wilfred over a quarrel they had over his hunting on Wilfred’s his land without permission, but that the disagreement has nothing to do with his concern for Mary Lou.
Belcher said he acted after he noticed Mary Lou wandering over to his nearby home and picking apples and eating them.
“I called the police, and a few weeks later Mary Lou was taken away and placed with a nephew and niece,” Belcher said. “Someone had to do something.”
Not long after Belcher complained to authorities, Surrogate’s Court appointed attorney Leigh E. Anderson, an advocate for the disabled, as Mary Lou’s lawyer and directed her to investigate Mary Lou’s living conditions.
What Anderson found was shocking.
“Her sleeping quarters were in a shed attached to the barn. She had to shovel manure and water the heifers. If Wilfred and Clara went away, they locked the door to the house so she had to remain outside and without access to any food. Mary Lou said she was always hungry. Sometimes the neighbors would give her food. She could not remember when she was allowed to bathe or the last time she saw a doctor or a dentist,” Anderson reported.
Anderson’s findings will be reviewed next month in Erie County Surrogate’s Court.
Not only was she never paid for her long hours of work on the farm, Mary Lou never got to keep her monthly disability check from Social Security, Anderson determined. And when Wilfred Steff discovered Mary Lou had salted away a suitcase full of loose change, he confiscated it, Anderson reported. Mary Lou also told The Buffalo News that incident occurred.
If Mary Lou failed to follow orders around the farm, the consequences were dire.
“Mary Lou told me that Wilfred used to shoot his shotgun in the air, and one time, he shot her in the back with a BB gun. Obviously, Wilfred and Clara are a danger to Mary Lou’s health and well-being,” Anderson reported on her interview with Mary Lou at the home of the nephew and niece.
Belcher said he witnessed the BB gun incident.
“Wilfred shot her with a BB gun if she wouldn’t do what he said. I was outside and saw him shoot at her,” he said. “I also saw him try to run her over with a tractor.”
But to hear Clara Steff tell the story of Mary Lou is to hear an entirely different version of how the woman was treated.
Defending their care
The 60-year-old sister-in-law argues that she and her 69-year-old husband did all they could to provide Mary Lou with a good life.
And what of Mary Lou being shot with a BB gun or frightened by the shotgun blasts?
Clara Steff says that never happened.
Was Mary Lou denied food?
That too, Clara Steff says, is false.
“I’ve taken care of Mary Lou for years,” she said during an interview last week in a barnyard that has no fewer than nine chained up dogs and where chickens and a peacock skitter about next to the barn authorities say was Mary Lou’s home.
Brian Steff, the son of Clara and Wilfred, said that while it is true that his aunt had lived in the barn, he explained that it was only for a couple of nights during the warmer weather.
“She was sleeping on a couch that was inside the barn. Her room smelled really bad, and my parents were cleaning it out,” he said, adding that his aunt was always well fed.
“When we ordered out fish fries on Fridays, my aunt always got one and on Sundays when we would get chicken barbecue, she got one. I paid for hers myself.”
Wilfred Steff was unavailable to be interviewed, though The News returned several times after he had arrived home on a tractor last week from visiting a neighbor.
Of his aunt being forced to go penniless, that too was untrue, Brian Steff said.
“When we went to the store, she’d give us $5 dollars to buy her candy,” he said.
Erie County Surrogate Barbara Howe on Nov. 26 will review Anderson’s request that Mary Lou remain with her niece and nephew, who also live in the region, while the couple moves forward seeking permanent guardianship of their aunt.
“They are committed to undertake any step necessary to erase these years of deprivation, degradation and hardship,” Anderson wrote, “and introduce Mary Lou to a life of love, comfort and fulfillment consistent with her needs and abilities.”
The Erie County Sheriff’s Office recently referred the case to the District Attorney’s Office for review. When contacted Friday to find out if there would be criminal charges, a staff member for District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III emailed this response to The News:
“The Office of the Erie County District Attorney neither confirms nor denies or comments upon the existence or non-existence of a criminal investigation until such time as a person or persons are charged with a crime.”
Since being removed from her brother’s farm a few weeks ago, Mary Lou’s condition has steadily improved.
“Virginia has bathed Mary Lou every day and is working patiently to reverse layered grime in blackened toenails and fingernails,” Anderson stated.
For Mary Lou, better days appear to have arrived.
When asked about living with her nephew and niece, she said, “I’m glad.”
Her smile said much more.