For five years, the children planned to escape from their mother.
The day they ran away, two of the boys set off for the nearby railroad tracks, leaving the other six behind. Anyone who saw the pair go might have thought they were adventurers, a couple of modern-day Boxcar Children who would be home for dinner. But more than a dozen miles later, when they reached the county line between Hillsborough and Pasco, they met a woman who knew that something was not right and called the police.
Their flight and her phone call set in motion a series of events that put their mother, Jamie Hicks, 43, behind bars on child abuse and neglect charges. Bruised and dangerously thin, the two oldest children, 16-year-old twin boys, weighed only 88 and 94 pounds. They and their siblings told horror stories of being beaten and forced to eat their own vomit. Then came the revelations: They were not the first children Hicks had been accused of subjecting to poisonous mothering.
Several days after news broke of Hicks' arrest, Casey Gossard, a 21-year-old Marine from Utah, was shopping with his wife when his phone rang. It was his aunt, telling him about a story she'd seen out of Tampa. He looked up the article online, working to keep himself calm as he read to the bottom of the page.
"My name is Casey Orien Gossard," he typed in the comments below. "I am a half brother to the kids mentioned above and Jamie Hicks is my biological mother. I am trying to get in contact with my siblings, if anyone can help me my email is …"
More than 2,000 miles from Tampa in a city halfway between Salt Lake City and Provo, Casey's adoptive parents, Jennifer and Greg Gossard, were reeling from the news. In 1997, they adopted Hicks' first three children after she lost custody in Utah. They knew that she kept having children after moving to Florida, but eight?
After raising seven children, including four biological kids, the Gossards were looking forward to retirement. Now their adopted children were looking at them expectantly.
"All three of them said, 'Mom, will you do something?' " Jennifer Gossard said. "What do you say? What do you do? There's just nobody else."
At the end of this month, Hicks' children, age 2 to 16, are expected to fly to Lehi, Utah, for a monthlong visit with the Gossards. He is a 51-year-old inspector at a company that makes heart valves; she is a 47-year-old school secretary. The couple is applying for an interstate foster care license with the hope of one day being able to adopt. If all goes according to plan, the Gossards will have 11 children at home, three who haven't left the nest yet and eight more from Tampa.
They are moving into a bigger house. Their friends and neighbors look at them with wonder and skepticism. "I wish you could understand," Jennifer Gossard tells them.
She had three young children when she signed up to be a foster parent. The idea held an instinctive appeal — she was removed from an abusive home at age 10 and adopted at 14 into a loving family. Gossard and her husband aren't rich, but they reasoned that they could foster one child at a time while the parents got their lives together.
Instead, they got three — twin 2-month-olds and a 3-year-old boy. Police found the toddler wandering barefoot in a trailer park in the middle of the night, Gossard said. It was March in Utah, when temperatures at night often fall into the 30s, and the trailer's windows were wide open as if inviting a summer breeze. Inside, the twins lay on a bed without a blanket, surrounded by an array of weapons.
Hicks never did get her life together.
Rather, Gossard remembers her telling a judge to go ahead and keep the children. "God told me I could have more," she said. And she did.
More than a decade later, Hicks reappeared unexpectedly at Casey Gossard's boot camp graduation. It's unclear how she found out about the ceremony in San Diego, but there she was, holding a baby in her arms and loudly demanding to be called "mom."
Casey talked to her a few times over the years, he said. But she kept the details of her life to herself.
"I had wanted to believe that Jamie had become a better person, but I feel like my trust in her was misplaced," he wrote in a Facebook message. He's now stationed in Japan.
Home for the eight children Hicks had after moving to Florida was a concrete block house on E Annie Street in North Tampa. She shared it with Vernon Lovell, 53, father to five of the children. He is also facing neglect charges — the children told police he mainly watched and did nothing to intervene.
Tampa law enforcement and Eckerd Community Alternatives foster care officials won't talk about what happened inside the house, as Hicks' criminal case remains open and her parental rights have not been severed. Lovell's attorney and Hicks' public defender also refused to comment.
But Gossard, who has traveled to Tampa twice to meet the children, said the older ones talk unprompted about their reclusive mother and the attempts they made to get law enforcement's attention. Though most of the children were homeschooled and rarely left the house, the 16-year-old twins went to public school until the sixth grade, when school staffers began asking questions. The same routine played out in their karate lessons, which ended when the instructor noticed bruises. The Department of Children and Families opened an investigation and closed it, with no public explanation of why.
"Am I going to be allowed to take walks?" one of the kids asked Gossard. Of course, she said.
More than walks, she has planned family hikes when they visit, and picnics, which the children have never been on, and movie marathon nights. It's difficult to imagine what this itinerary must sound like to children who told police their mom "choked them to the point of losing consciousness," according to one report. Equally unknowable is what they make of the Gossards, Mormons who go to church every Sunday and who gave all of their children names beginning with "C."
The eight aren't pining for the house on E Annie Street.
"They were clear," said Jennifer Gossard. "They told me: 'We don't want harm to come to her, but we never want to see her again.' "
Researcher John Martin contributed to this report. Anna M. Phillips can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3354.