INVERNESS — The little blond-haired boy in blue and white pajamas sat on top of the bed and looked up at his grandmother, Pat Ciampa.
"Mimi," he said, "they not ever going to take me back to Mommy?"
"Mommy" to that 5-year-old is Crystal Jean Ciampa, accused of torturing her son and locking him in a 4- by 4-foot closet for hours at a time.
When Pat heard the question three weeks ago, she related to a reporter on Monday, she didn't hesitate.
"No, honey," she replied. "You never have to go back to Mommy."
He asked again, Pat said, and she told him the same thing. He smiled, bounced up and down and wrapped his arms around her.
"It was the most happy we have ever seen this child," she said. "I can't explain it. He was thrilled that he was never going back."
Authorities are now trying to make sure he never does.
The state Department of Children and Families filed a petition in court asking a Citrus County general magistrate to permanently revoke 26-year-old Crystal Ciampa's parental rights over her five sons. The agency has also asked that Joshua Heater, who lived with Ciampa in Homosassa, lose custody of the two sons he had with her.
Ciampa allegedly targeted the one son because he reminded her of his father. Authorities have not accused her of abusing the other four boys.
Besides locking him a closet, authorities say, the couple burned the child with a cigarette lighter and sliced his hands with a plastic cake cutter. They're also accused of forcing him to eat his own feces, drink his own urine and, once, to lick his own vomit from the kitchen floor.
Both are in jail, awaiting trial on charges of aggravated child abuse, child neglect and tampering with a witness.
Ciampa denied it all, but investigators said Heater, 26, implicated Ciampa and confessed to nearly everything.
The decision on the parental rights is scheduled to be made in October.
The boy and his 4-year-old full biological brother now live with their grandparents, Pat and Mike Ciampa. After authorities first took the children away from Crystal Ciampa, the kids lived with their father, Keith Ciampa, who is Pat and Mike's son.
But, Pat said, authorities had to also take the boys away from him after a day care worker noticed bruises on them. Later, Pat said, the children told a child protection investigator that their father had beaten them with a belt buckle.
Keith Ciampa, who has not been criminally charged, denied the allegations and said the children had stayed with his parents in the weeks before he was accused of the mistreatment.
"I've never spanked my kids with a belt, ever," he said. "I used my hand, but last time I checked, that's not illegal."
Since then, the two have had no contact with him and have lived with their grandparents, who hope to eventually gain full custody.
At Monday's hearing, General Magistrate Keith Schenck said Keith Ciampa was scheduled for mediation in August. There, authorities say, his lawyer will meet with DCF investigators to establish a case plan that would potentially allow him to regain custody of his children. He did not return a message on his cell phone Monday afternoon.
Now, Pat said, she and her husband are committed to their grandson's recovery.
He and his brother go to day care and regularly see a counselor. This fall, they intend to place him in kindergarten.
Because of the prolonged abuse, Pat said, the boy's healing has been gradual. The bruises and scrapes on her arms are evidence that, at times, both he and his brother have acted out toward their grandparents.
"We have good days and sometimes not so good. Most of the days are getting better," she said. "It's not going to happen overnight."
Most of all, Pat said, he loves his freedom to just be a kid.
With his brother, he enjoys playing outside. He collects leaves and bugs and chases lizards in the yard; he likes to play with toy trucks and ride his bike.
Both of the children now want to learn how to play golf. With their toy clubs, they sometimes go to a nearby course and hit balls with Mike.
Curious and creative, the little boy often tapes his drawings and other creations on spots around the house. Sometimes, he sticks them in places they're not supposed to be taped, like bedroom doors and the living room walls.
His grandparents don't mind.
John Woodrow Cox can be reached at (352) 848-1432 or firstname.lastname@example.org.