Mom who caged kids gets 20 years

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Date: 2008-05-23

Mom who caged kids gets 20 years

 
TREATED LIKE AN 'ANIMAL' Three adopted youths, including one with disabilities, were kept in a device. BUT A ROLE MODEL IN OHIO She was lauded by the governor in 1995 for outstanding parenting.

By Paul Pinkham, The Times-Union

A Jacksonville woman who a judge said caged three of her adopted children like "animals" was sentenced Thursday to 20 years in prison after two of the children testified about their cages.

Brenda M. Sullivan, 51, pleaded guilty in January to three counts of aggravated child abuse in a case that a Jacksonville pediatrician called the worst he'd seen in 30 years of treating child-abuse victims.

"Their general environment was that of an animal," Circuit Judge Mallory Cooper said. "That's how they lived. They lived in a cage."

Sullivan will appeal the sentence, her lawyer said.

The mother claimed when arrested that the cagelike contraption her 49-pound, 17-year-old mentally disabled son was found in was prescribed by a doctor when they lived in Ohio. But the doctor testified in March that he prescribed the crib when the boy was 7 and it never had the slatted wood covering that Florida investigators found when they arrested Sullivan and her husband, Wilson, in 2005.

Assistant State Attorney Julie Schlax said the doctor was near tears when he saw the "perversion" the crib had become.

Wilson Sullivan died of cancer while the case was pending.

The teenager weighed 3 ounces less than he did at age 7 when the Sullivans adopted him. Now 20, he weighs 169.

"There's only one conclusion when you look at the medical evidence in this case, and that is that she literally starved him," Schlax said.

Two other children, 13-year-old twins the Sullivans adopted as infants, both testified Thursday that they were kept in similar cages. Cooper ordered Sullivan hidden behind a screen while the children testified so they didn't have to see her.

One of the twins told the judge whenever he was disciplined, "I would have to go inside my cage." He testified he didn't go to school in Ohio, but now gets straight A's.

Defense attorney Charles Fletcher didn't dispute any of the facts, but said the client he got to know in three years of representation was kind, thoughtful and well-liked by many who knew her in Ohio and Florida. He said he didn't think prison was the right option.

"I don't think she's a threat to society," Fletcher said. "She's obviously not going to be adopting any more children."

Cooper said Sullivan treated her own four children well, explaining the disparity between those who thought she was a good mother and her actions toward her adopted children. She was commended by Ohio's governor in 1995 for outstanding parenting and praised in the Akron area for taking in children born with crack addictions or fetal alcohol syndrome.

Schlax told Cooper that Ohio authorities refused to cooperate with Florida's case against the Sullivans.

"We as a society want to give parents the benefit of the doubt," the prosecutor said. "Unfortunately, for 10 years, the state of Ohio gave these parents the benefit of the doubt, and these children suffered horribly for it."

paul.pinkham@jacksonville.com, (904) 359-4107

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