Schmitz' daughter talks about how her parents abused foster children
Not surprised now, she remembers the first incidents in Brown County
The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun
APPLETON -- Melanie Schmitz sits on her sofa, her legs drawn beneath her, and reflects on her childhood and the recent arrest of her parents on child abuse and neglect charges in Tennessee.
They are very much linked.
In this town, about the size of Jackson, Melanie tells the Wisconsin portion of the story; of the numerous children in her parents' care, of the abuse accusations made four years earlier in Brown County, and of the similarities of those allegations to some of the abuse accusations in Gibson County.
No charges were ever filed in the Brown County case.
It has been three years since she sneaked, one box after another, her belongings out of Tom and Debra Schmitz's Howard home during a period of time before she and the boxes disappeared in August 2001. She was 17 years old.
It was the third time she had run away in less than a year, since reporting to a high school counselor and social worker that the Schmitzes were mentally, verbally and physically abusing children in their home.
In September 2001, Tom and Debra Schmitz left the Green Bay area for Tennessee without her. In June, the couple were charged in Tennessee and had 18 children removed from their home. Prosecutors will present evidence to a grand jury later this month on four misdemeanor charges of abuse. Other charges could be filed, Tennessee authorities have said.
The charges didn't surprise Melanie, now 20. In November 2000, the then 16-year-old told Brown County social services about child abuse she said she had allegedly witnessed. At the time, the family lived on Windover Road in Howard.
Eleven children were in the home at that time, including a foreign exchange student, according to documents The Jackson Sun obtained from the Brown County child services investigation.
Tom and Debra denied any wrongdoing to police and investigators. No charges were ever filed, although Wisconsin authorities have indicated to the Press-Gazette that the case could be reopened.
The Jackson Sun talked with Melanie Schmitz and Shirley Hogan, Debra Schmitz's mother, in mid-July. Neither is on speaking terms with Tom or Debra.
Tom and Debra Schmitz are accused of beating children, locking them in a metal cage and forcing them to spend hours in a dark cellar.
Some accusations recalled by Melanie and Hogan are similar to ones in Tennessee. The Brown County accusations included: children being made to stand in cold showers, being locked in a bedroom for two days and fed only bread and water, being made to sleep in the bathtub or on the bathroom floor and one child being tied to the bed.
Melanie no longer wants a relationship with the woman she at times called "Debbie" instead of mom, the woman who used to be her best friend.
Yet, a 34-page report signed by Beth Reimer, a Wisconsin social worker, stated: "- this case will be unsubstantiated for physical abuse and neglect. It is also unsubstantiated for emotional abuse at this time."
The Brown County Sheriff's Department thus closed the case as "unsubstantiated" until it received any further evidence of abuse. One police officer, John Toonen, indicated in his report that Melanie "appeared to me to be telling the truth about everything, including the fact that if she ever told what went on she might have to live in a foster home, that the reason she was now telling the story was that because her parents were now trying to adopt another child and that they can't handle the ones they have now."
Four years later, Melanie stands by her accusations of abuse.
"I wish they would have listened to me, because all this stuff in Tennessee wouldn't have happened," she said.
'It all changed'
It was the mid-1980s, and Debra Schmitz lived on Westline Road in Suamico next door to her mother, Shirley Hogan.
Hogan and Debra's father had built Debra a two-story house next door to their home to get Debra away from an abusive relationship, Hogan said.
Debra and her three biological children lived on Westline from 1985 to 1989, when Tom and Debra were married and Tom adopted the three children. The couple has a child by marriage.
The family grew from four children to 10 (through adoption and other methods) to 18 kids in Tennessee. It's that growth that concerns Melanie Schmitz, who now tells of a home she claims was in chaos.
Yet Hogan's and Melanie's stories are told with the backdrop of statements from some of the Schmitz children that Melanie was a spoiled teenager who lied to investigators as revenge against a strict household.
But Melanie's and Hogan's memories aren't all bad.
Debra was "at one point a normal mom," Melanie said. "She would do stuff with us, and, you know, take us places and spend quality time with us."
"And then, it all changed dramatically within a few years."
Melanie said the children's care fell to her after her older sister Mandy left the house. The family moved to Windover Road in Howard in 1998 and lived there three years before moving to Tennessee in August or September 2001, Melanie said.
The Wisconsin investigative report states that Melanie told a social worker that "her mother drinks one liter of wine every two days."
Later in that same report, the same social worker reported that Melanie's aunt, Teri Hogan, told the social worker that Melanie said Debra "will drink alcohol starting at 8 a.m. and not stop until late at night or until she passes out."
Debra and other children in the home denied she drank excessively in the Wisconsin investigative report. But the nurses who have accused the Schmitzes of abuse in Tennessee both said Debbie would regularly start drinking wine before lunch and was often intoxicated by suppertime, according to the Gibson County search warrant.
The Wisconsin investigation
Just before the first time she ran away from the Schmitzes' home in November 2000, Melanie first alleged abuse to school officials. But the day after Melanie made her initial complaint her brother, Mitchell, told police officers she was lying and was mad because their parents had taken the car from her, a Brown County Sheriff's Department report said. But then Mitchell backed up her accusations later in the same interview at his school, indicating that he "probably got hit the most."
One police officer wrote: "Mitchell became scared when I started writing this (Mitchell's claims of abuse) down. I had to quit writing. Mitchell with a look of fear in his eyes stated 'You canbt tell my parents I told you this.' He was afraid of being hit."
The Schmitzes told investigators that Melanie was grounded shortly before making her complaint for being somewhere she was not supposed to be, according to reports. They said she was "a good child" but added that they are strict with her and that she'd had trouble with that. They went on to say their children had threatened to call social services in the past, that they do this whenever they're disciplined in a way they don't like, according to the report. The couple said in one report that they use different techniques with different children "as their needs vary so greatly."
The couple also addressed some of the accusations.
Debra admitted putting Marcus Schmitz, now 10, in a cold shower with his clothes on but said she was in the shower, too, holding him. She'd resorted to the cold shower after other techniques they used had failed to stop a terrible habit he had of "blowing snot and spitting."
Debra said she did this once and denied accusations that she left him in the shower for 45 minutes while she went to the store.
The shower lasted about five minutes, Debra said in the reports.
Debra denied having any problems with alcohol and said she drank "a glass of wine every couple of days or so while cooking dinner."
A therapist who supported the couple said she never witnessed anything that could be considered abuse by either of the Schmitzes, a report said. She added "they have some very difficult children and as a result sometimes have to use alternate methods of discipline, but none has ever been abusive."
Though some people have doubted her accusations and motives for making them, Melanie said: "I have never lied about anything. I've never exaggerated anything. I've always spoken the truth."