When fire crews were called to a Pasco County home several weeks ago, neighbors were surprised to learn that an 8-year-old boy had set fire to his bedroom.
In fact, some neighbors didn’t even know that a little boy lived at the house. They’d only seen the couple’s five daughters.
Pasco County Sheriff’s deputies said the boy’s parents kept him locked in a bedroom for as long as 12 hours a night with no access to a bathroom or electricity. They found the room smeared with feces and urine when they arrived on scene. The parents were arrested on aggravated child abuse charges.
In a neighborhood at the 18000 block of Sugarberry Lane where most residents protect their privacy, the circumstances surrounding the unassuming white house with two swings hanging from trees in the front yard perturbed neighbors. Some said they would have done more to alert authorities had they known of the abuse. But several 911 calls made from the home over the last year - along with an incident in which a neighbor reported that the boy came into their garage seven times in one day looking for food - did not raise alarm among authorities.
According to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office, Kelley Davis, 36, and Daniel Davis, 37, kept their son locked in the room without light or electricity. Inside the room was only a mattress and blanket, according to arrest reports. The couple had five daughters who deputies said were not treated this way.
“They seemed normal,” said Charles Clutter, who lives a few houses down from the Davis family. “You truly don’t know who your neighbors are.”
Neighbors said the family began renting the house at the beginning of the year.
“They keep to themselves,” said Tom Bowen, 57, who lives across the street.
The Davises have lived in Florida since 2010, public records show. Neither have prior criminal records in Florida, though they had been evicted twice in the area. Daniel Davis worked at a roofing and construction company while Kelley Davis was a stay-at-home mom, according to court records.
Both have been released on $10,000 bonds since being arrested on Oct. 5, when one of their daughters slipped a pack of matches to their son, and he lit his room on fire. Upon responding to the fire, authorities found the child’s dirty room. His parents had turned off the electricity to the room using the circuit breaker, according to the arrest affidavit. The ceiling fan in the room had a broken chain and its light bulb was missing, reports state.
Authorities said the Davises admitted to keeping the child locked in the room for up to 12 hours at night, and when he misbehaved. The window to his room was boarded up and he frequently defecated in the room overnight, records state.
The couple did not respond to repeated phone calls for interview requests. Knocks at the door of their home near Spring Hill went unanswered. The law firm representing them declined to comment.
The couple’s six children are now in state protective custody, according to the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office.
Deputies had been at the home before, though they never saw a reason to intervene. On Feb. 25, dispatchers picked up a call from the Davis home. A woman could be heard cursing in the background and a child said someone called 911, according to an incident report. A woman told dispatchers that the 911 call was an accident. When authorities arrived at the house, a woman said her 3-year-old had accidentally made the call. There weren’t any “signs of distress,” deputies wrote at the time.
Authorities also received a 911 call from the house on July 28, but the phone was immediately hung up. Dispatch attempted to call back twice, but no one answered and they did not send deputies to the home.
Next door neighbor Shawn Brannack and his fiance, Tina Kelley, said the Davises' son came to their garage seven times in one day on Aug. 26 to steal food, so they decided to call the Sheriff’s Office. Deputies responded, and spoke with Tina Kelley and Daniel Davis.
“There were no safety concerns or welfare concerns,” deputies wrote in an incident report.
Daniel Davis told their neighbors to contact him directly instead of the sheriff’s office if there were any future incidents, Brannack said. Two months later, deputies would arrest both Kelley Davis and Daniel Davis.
“It was just unbelievable,” he said. He added that if he had known the child was being abused, he would have done something.
Brannack noticed other odd behaviors from his neighbors next door. He said the parents wouldn’t let their children mingle with other kids in the neighborhood.
The family would pile trash into the back of their pickup and dirty diapers would blow over into Brannack’s yard, even after he paid for a tall fence to keep trash out. Brannack recalled trash getting ground up in the Davis' yard when the lawn was mowed.
“I’ve had a problem with them since they moved in,” he said.
Dr. Cameron Rosenthal, a pediatrician and medical director of the University of Florida Child Protection Team, said when parents isolate their kids, it can be difficult to spot abuse.
“I think it is challenging, in that kids can be so cut off from the outside world by their caregivers and you could argue more so now than ever because of coronavirus,” Rosenthal said.
Warning signs of abuse include frequently unsupervised children, seasonally inappropriate clothing and lack of hygiene, she said.
Rosenthal told people to trust their instincts, but acknowledged that in hindsight, people often question how they didn’t notice potential warning signs.
“Really, the way that the law is written in Florida, we’re all mandatory reporters,” Rosenthal said. “So it’s not just medical providers or law enforcement — you, me, everybody is a mandatory reporter.”
If a child is not in an immediate emergency situation, but a neighbor still has concerns, they can always report it to the statewide abuse hotline at 1-800-962-2873 or online.