Reporting child abuse is the responsibility of anyone who sees or suspects it. But a recent Tampa case in which parents were arrested for starving and abusing their children illustrates the difficulty of discovering abuse when a family isolates itself. The tragedy indicates failure on a broad level where a system of checks and balances, from government agencies to neighbors, all fell short. All Floridians need to learn from this.
By outward appearances, Jamie Marie Hicks and her family appeared relatively normal. Neighbors described an attentive, friendly parent who homeschooled her children but refused to let them beyond the yard's metal gate. Neighbors assumed she was just overprotective. But inside the house, the children lived in terror. Police say Hicks beat and choked them, held their heads under water and starved them. When she did feed them, their fare was often spoiled. If they vomited, she made them eat it.
The abuse was uncovered only after two of the boys escaped. Once at Hicks' house, authorities discovered eight children ranging from a 2-year-old girl to emaciated 16-year-old twin boys, who each weighed less than 95 pounds. Police arrested Hicks and Vernon C. Lovell, the stepfather and father of the children.
It would be easy to cast what happened in this home as a bizarre, isolated incident. But the potential for this kind of abuse to flourish is great. Nearly 76,000 students a year are homeschooled in Florida. Thousands of parents homeschool with great success, but when children are governed by abusers, the chance for intervention can shrink. Under current law, parents must register with the school district, maintain records and have their children sit for annual evaluations — which the parents can conduct themselves. The Department of Education should re-evaluate its homeschooling policy and consider requiring parents to present the children for some kind of regular physical check, providing another set of eyes that could spot signs of abuse.
But the state also failed Hicks' children. The Department of Children and Families previously investigated the family but closed the case — despite police saying that Hicks had a prior child neglect charge in Utah and lost parental rights for three children there. DCF says it is bound by law from giving any details about the investigation, making it hard to ascertain what other warning signs, if any, were overlooked. But this case is one more the agency needs to thoroughly review. It comes on the heels of a Miami Herald investigation that found 477 children who had contact with DCF died of abuse or neglect in the past six years.
Floridians also need to commit individually to protecting children, and child abuse advocates note April as Child Abuse Prevention Month. State law empowers anyone to report suspected abuse, and it can be done anonymously. Potential warning signs include repeated bruising, failure to thrive and malnourishment. In parents and caregivers, warning signs include drug or alcohol abuse, mental illness, young mothers, the presence of a paramour or multiple children in the household.
Not all suspicions of abuse pan out. But protecting children's safety is worth the risk of triggering a query and being wrong. Doing nothing while a child suffers is a far greater tragedy.