The five-year-old girl, weighing 158 pounds, couldn't walk 10 feet without wheezing. Police found her four-year-old sister in a urine-soaked diaper, sucking a bottle. She weighs more than twice the average for a girl her age.
Both kids lived in a house teeming with cockroaches and "giant spiders," according to warrants obtained from the Cobb County Magistrate. Cobb police arrested the girls' parents, James and Anne Cardona, on Monday, and moved their daughters into state care.
The Cardonas, charged with felony child cruelty and contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor, were released on $5,000 bond each. They were ordered to have no contact with their daughters.
James Cardona's sister said the girls should have been taken away years ago. They lived in "filth ... there was stuff all over the floor, dirty dishes all around," said Frances Elizabeth Cantrell, who resides in Dallas.
The house, located in the 100 block of Dogwood Drive, "stunk of urine and mold," authorities said.
Cantrell last saw her brother five years ago, soon after his eldest daughter was born.
"I tried to tell them you need to clean up this place," Cantrell told the AJC. "They said they couldn’t help themselves."
According to details found in the arrest warrants, the girls were shown little care by their parents.
"[The five year old's] hair is matted together with bugs and tangles, with head lice large enough to see while standing above the child," read the responding officers' account. Her sister was found lying on a filthy mattress without bedding, police reported in the warrant, her feet black from dirt.
Anne Cardona, 35, was back at her ramshackle Dogwood Drive home Thursday, ordering a reporter off her property.
Longtime neighbor Faye Arrowood told the AJC that Anne Cardona grew up in the small bungalow just off Lower Roswell Road in an area zoned both commercial and residential. A dentist office and commercial pest control business are directly across the street.
Anne Cardona moved away after marrying but the couple moved back in to take care of her mother, who was confined to a wheelchair, Arrowood said.
Neighbors said they occasionally saw the girls playing in the Cardona's yard, which remains littered with fallen trees and discarded folding chairs. The Cardonas claimed the girls were home schooled.
"The older girl tried to talk to me one time," said Arrowood, who sometimes took food to the Cardonas,. "I could tell her communication skills were not so good. I thought to myself, 'she should be able to talk at this age.' "
Normer Adams, executive director of the Georgia Association of Homes and Services for Children, said it would be difficult for the Cardonas to regain custody of their daughters.
"In this kind of situation, it’s going to be very, very hard for the parents to get these children back, without a lot of work by the parents and the state," Adams said.
In a case like this, Adams said, the state typically works with the parents to learn better parenting skills, how to keep a clean home, and general hygiene and nutrition.
"Any parent in their right mind would see these children are suffering," he said.
Among their health problems: morbid obesity, according to pediatrician Stephanie Walsh, who works with such children at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta at Egelston.
She said the 5-year-old girl is roughly 120 pounds overweight. The 4-year-old girl, who weighs 89 pounds -- more than 50 pounds above what's advised for her age. They're at major risk for health problems including diabetes, hypertension and high cholesterol, Walsh said.
"Kids like to get out and move around and play," she said. "If [the five-year-old] isn’t, she is missing out on a big part of being a kid."
The conditions of the home also raise health concerns, she said, noting that mold can be linked to allergies and asthma.
Arrowood remembered haunting sounds emanating from the Cardona home.
"I could hear a lot of screaming," Arrowood told the AJC. "Children screaming."