BLISSFIELD - It was a chilly day and traffic on the normally busy U.S. 223 already had picked up.
Two girls, ages 7 and 10, trudged down the side of the highway, tears streaming down their faces. The traffic and the look of the girls prompted a woman to call police.
The girls told Michigan State Police that their father, 31-year-old Jason Betz, made them walk from their Palmyra home to school, five miles on one of Lenawee County's busiest roads, because they missed the bus.
Troopers picked the girls up before they got too far.
Mr. Betz faces child-abuse charges after his daughters were found walking along U.S. 223 at about 8 a.m. March 27. He was arraigned in Lenawee County District Court yesterday on two counts of fourth-degree child abuse, a misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail.
“That road is extremely busy in the morning with truck traffic and vehicular traffic. It's very busy,” Trooper Paul Royal said. “It's one of the more dangerous roads in our area.”
According to the Michigan Department of Transportation, about 11,000 vehicles travel that area of U.S. 223 daily. Troopers say the traffic is especially busy during the morning rush hour.
Trooper Royal said he was called to the scene after an elderly lady reported seeing two Blissfield Elementary students walking along the shoulder of the busy road.
Seeing their backpacks, the woman guessed the girls were on their way to school, he added.
She also knew that the nearest school was in Blissfield, about five miles from where the girls were walking, just outside Palmyra.
Trooper Royal said he calculated that the distance from the girls' home to the school was 4.8 miles. But he said more disturbing to him than the distance and the temperature - it was about 38 degrees that morning - is the amount of traffic that routinely utilizes the road.
The girls told the trooper they missed the bus that morning and because their mother had left for work already, they had asked their dad for a ride.
According to the girls, Mr. Betz, who comes home from work at 3 a.m., told them to walk, troopers said.
Trooper Royal said Mr. Betz denied telling his children to walk and said that they never had awakened him. Mr. Betz could not be reached for comment.
In court documents, Mr. Betz is accused of putting the children in danger when he exposed them to “traffic conditions along a major highway.”
Mr. Betz also faces misdemeanor traffic violations in Lenawee County District Court including one count each of no insurance, violating the conditions of a restricted license, and driving with an improper license plate.
He is free on a personal recognizance bond and will be back in court May 15.
Trooper Royal said his department had not been involved in any other abuse cases involving Mr. Betz. Another child, an infant girl, is in the household.
The Lenawee County Sheriff's Department said Mr. Betz was arrested in 1997 for domestic assault, a charge that was reduced to disorderly conduct.
The Family Independence Agency is also involved in the case. Spokesman Karen Smith said that while a student walking to school is not a case of neglect on its own, added circumstances warrant the abuse charges - in this case, the dangerous nature of the road.
The children remain with their parents.
Blissfield Elementary Principal Pat Gitersonke declined to comment on the case but admitted that any child walking along U.S. 223 would be a concern for her. She said that with such a big school district, the majority of her students live too far to walk to school.
The district extends from the Ohio border north past Deerfield and from west of Palmyra across to the Monroe county line.
The road “is probably one of the most dangerous highways in Michigan,” Ms. Gitersonke said.