Chapter 3: Games or abuse?

Date: 2007-12-04
Source: freep.com

Chapter 3: Games or abuse?

Ricky tells therapist his foster parents tied him to bed, but investigator finds nothing to confirm abuse

BY JACK KRESNAK • FREE PRESS STAFF WRITER • December 4, 2007 

A Jackson County judge signed the order terminating Casey and Rick Gann's rights to 4-year-old Ricky on Feb. 4, 2002, after delivering this message:

"It's not right to have Ricky in foster care until he's, you know, 6 or 7 years old, to see if something's going to happen and you're going to be able to take care of him. I don't think either of you are equipped right now to take care of him properly," Family Court Judge Chad Schmucker told the Ganns, who had tried to persuade him otherwise.

"I think this is the only way to give Ricky an opportunity to have a real future, to have the permanency, to have a normal childhood, to do well in school, to thrive. I think Ricky needs this."

Ricky's stories are conflicting

About 2 1/2 weeks later, Ricky's therapist noticed a raw sore on his left wrist. He told her it was from a dog leash that his foster parents, Tim and Lisa Holland, used to tie him to the bed at night. He also said they put handcuffs on his ankles. Therapist Susan Honeck called Child Protective Services.

It took an investigator less than an hour to get to Ricky's Head Start school. Taking the boy aside, Levente Heydrich bent lower to make eye contact. From Ricky, he heard a story similar to the one Ricky had told Honeck.

But Ricky also wavered, saying it happened once, then that it happened every night, Heydrich said. The handcuffs were used when the family played cops and robbers, Ricky said. But there was confusion about whether the mark on his wrist came from the game or being tied up.

Tim and Lisa denied tying him to the bed. They said he'd been dragged by one of their dogs with the leash wrapped around his wrist. But the Hollands did admit using handcuffs when they played cops and robbers and a game where they would capture and hold one another hostage. And Lisa disclosed for the first time that she had a child's harness that she used to restrain Ricky at the supermarket.

Heydrich went to the Hollands the next morning to inspect Ricky's bed. He found nothing to indicate the boy had been tied to it. He lectured the Hollands against using restraints and playing war games and said the Jackson County Department of Human Services had to approve use of a harness, but he closed the case without confirming abuse. The boy's story had contradictions, the mark could have been caused by walking the dog, and the Hollands' home was neat and clean and seemed to be in order.

By this time, the Hollands had two other foster children. One was Trevor, Ricky's 7-week-old half-brother, who had been placed with them after his birth on Dec. 30, 2001. The other child was an 11-month-old boy. Both seemed in good health.

Heydrich never spoke to Ricky's therapist. He had other cases and didn't have time. He later said he was getting four or five new cases a week and his ongoing caseload stood at more than 20.

Ricky was opening up more to Honeck, talking about "Mr. Bloody Bones" who locked him in the basement for a time-out. Then he told her in a Feb. 28 session that he was no longer being tied to the bed, saying, "Mom and I promised that I will stay in my bed and she won't tie me to it."

Lisa Holland canceled Ricky's next two sessions with Honeck and began lobbying his foster care worker, Theresa Bronsberg, to stop them altogether. Honeck argued that it was too soon to end therapy and, in any case, Ricky needed a closing session. He never got it. His last visit with Honeck was in April, though the DHS had authorized her services through August.

Bronsberg seemed satisfied that the drugs prescribed by his psychiatrist, which eventually included an antidepressant to help Ricky sleep, were enough. In early March, the psychiatrist, Dr. Aurif Abedi, had observed Ricky with Lisa and saw nothing to suggest an abusive relationship. Ricky himself had said he was very happy.

Over the next five months, Lisa repeatedly told Abedi that Ricky was out of control -- he was defiant and not sleeping well -- and she couldn't handle him. Abedi adjusted Ricky's medications, cautioning Lisa to watch for side effects.

Also during this time, the Hollands dutifully reported to the DHS a series of injuries to Ricky. He cut his thumb on broken glass. He pinched his hand in an accordion door. He fell and cut his chin, requiring seven stitches. He got snapped in the face with a bungee strap and hit by a toy. None of them triggered a new investigation.

As family grows, so do problems

The Hollands were moving ahead with their plan to adopt Ricky and Trevor as well as the 11-month-old foster boy. That child remained with them until January 2003; he was moved after caseworkers recommended that relatives adopt him, enabling him to be raised with siblings.

It turned out Trevor had problems, too, but they were different from Ricky's. Lisa once told his adoption worker that he had been diagnosed with failure to thrive, a potentially serious condition characterized by a failure to gain weight or develop properly. He had lost weight after coming to the Hollands, though investigators later were never able to confirm the cause.

But Trevor did have developmental delays; Lisa was taking him twice a week for physical and speech therapy. The Hollands also agreed to work with him at home, moving his limbs and stimulating his facial muscles.

From the beginning, Jackson County DHS workers had not acted on the advice of Ricky's therapist that he should be the only child in a foster home. The Hollands would get two more in 2003: 2-month-old Sarah, Ricky's half-sister, in February, and Lisa's 2-year-old nephew, whose parents had neglected him, in July.

Under control or out of control?

Nevertheless, to Ricky's adoption worker, Melissa Sewell, the Hollands seemed to have everything under control.

"After visiting the foster home and seeing Ricky interact with Tim and Lisa Holland, it seems there could not be a better family for Ricky. He has taken Tim and Lisa on as his parents and says he will do anything for them and will never leave them. Ricky is very attached to the Hollands," she wrote in March 2003. The Hollands adopted Ricky in October.

But a state licensing worker who later checked into whether the Hollands should be allowed to have more than four foster children had reservations about the household.

Noting that Ricky's behavior had gotten worse, Janice Tribble said it didn't seem to be a good plan to have so many young children in the home "with a destructive, angry 6-year-old who has escalating behavior problems."

"How will one person keep all of these children safe when the other person is working?"

Contact JACK KRESNAK at 313-223-4544 or jkresnak@freepress.com.

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