Authorities still wondering how Schmitzes got 18 children

Date: 2004-07-06

The Oak Ridger

TRENTON (AP) - After taking 18 children away from a couple charged with child abuse, authorities are still struggling to figure out where the youngsters belong and how they got to Tennessee.

Tom and Debbie Schmitz are accused of physical and emotional abuse that included beatings and long confinements in a dark basement or metal punishment cage. The children, ages 13 months to 17 years old, were taken away June 21.

The couple moved to rural Tennessee four years ago after abuse allegations were lodged against them in Wisconsin where they were taking care of 11 children in the Green Bay area.

No criminal charges were filed in that investigation, and the couple apparently brought several children with them from Wisconsin.

Nine children taken into state custody are the Schmitzes' adopted children, and another is in the process of being adopted. One is a biological child. But the status of the other seven is unclear, said Carla Aaron, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Children's Services.

"They were not in the custody of the Schmitzes, but were living there," Aaron said. "We're trying to locate their families."

In the meantime, the youngsters are in temporary foster homes.

The Schmitzes are free on bond and have a preliminary court hearing Aug. 17. They deny doing anything wrong and say they have a religious calling to take in homeless children.

The Schmitzes adopted their children through private agencies, Aaron said, and most of the youngsters are from other states. After locating legal guardians, authorities will have to determine if their children should be returned to them.

"That's not to say what they've done is a crime. Those are just questions we need to have answered so we can make some recommendations to a court on the best placement of those children," Aaron said.

Gibson County Sheriff Joe Shepard said the number of children who have lived with the Schmitzes in the past and where they are now is unclear.

"It's like a bouncing yo-yo, and nobody has accountability for a thing," he said.

Most of the Schmitzes' children had special needs and were eligible for monthly federal support payments, medical care and other government assistance.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, which supplies the money for special needs subsidies, said adoptive parents can put children in temporary care with other families.

"Across the country, these are done privately. It's not something that the governments has any roll in," said Joan Ohl, commissioner of human services' administration on children and families.

Guidelines for classifying special needs children vary by state. Basic rates in Tennessee can vary from about $300 a month to $550, while in Wisconsin they can exceed $2,000 for children with exceptional needs.

Aaron said the Children's Services Department is trying to figure out where the subsidies for the Schmitzes came from so that money can go to the children now in state custody.

"If we don't let somebody know, then the Schmitzes will continue to get those payments," Aaron said.

In general, special needs children are youngsters for whom it is difficult to find permanent homes. They may have physical, mental or emotional disabilities. They may have been abused or neglected, and some are simply too old for easy adoption.

Sherry Dvorak, a home-care nurse, said all the children in the Schmitz home had special needs.

Two of the younger ones, boys 13 months and 4 years old, must be fed through stomach tubes, and a teenage girl from China cannot walk without a brace on her right leg because of polio.

Most of the other youngsters, several of whom are teenagers, have emotional problems or learning disabilities, Dvorak said.

Dvorak, another nurse and several of the children have told authorities about abuse in the Schmitz home. Dvorak declined giving details, saying she was worried about hindering the investigation.

Sheriff Shepard said "six or seven" youngsters have told investigators about incidents of abuse.

"A couple of them are just now starting to open up with the people they're staying with," he said.


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