Allegations taint adoption story

Date: 2004-06-25

Accused Tenn. couple took in kids hard to place

The Commercial Appeal / The Associated Press
Tom and Debbie Schmitz said they felt a calling to care for children in need.

They opened their three-story farmhouse some 95 miles northeast of Memphis to children of all races, many of them with medical and emotional problems. Their pastor once described them as down-to-earth people with a lot of love to give.

Now, the couple are charged with child abuse, including an accusation that Debbie Schmitz threw a knife at a 14-year-old girl, striking her in the shoulder.

The state Department of Children's Services removed the 18 adopted, foster and biological children Monday after a nurse who worked in the home reported physical abuse and neglect. The children ranged in age from infant to 17. The couple told The Associated Press last year that they had four biological children.

Debbie Schmitz, 44, faces three counts of aggravated child abuse and one count of child abuse and neglect; Tom Schmitz, 45, was charged with one count of aggravated child abuse and one count of child abuse and neglect. She is free on a $50,000 bond, and he on a $25,000 bond.

Arrest warrants in the case refer to a 14-year-old female victim, but it was unclear whether all six incidents involved the same girl.

Besides the knife attack, authorities say the Schmitzes held down a girl and lanced a boil beneath her arm with a rusty box cutter. They also say Debbie Schmitz once attacked a girl with scissors and cut off all her hair, and that in a separate incident she told a girl to "dig her own grave."

In an AP story about the couple last year, the Schmitzes, who married in 1989, said they didn't set out to raise such a large family. It just happened.

They adopted several children in their home state of Wisconsin before moving to Trenton in 2002.

The family grew as word spread to state and private adoption agencies that they welcomed hard-to-place children. Some of the children had been physically abused, others had mothers who were drug abusers. The children called the Schmitzes "Mom" and "Dad."

Tom Schmitz was a sales manager for a company that rented portable toilets. Debbie Schmitz was a stay-at-home mom who home-schooled four of the children. The couple received government subsidies for some, but not all, of the children to cover their living and medical expenses.

The financial strain was apparent. Groceries alone ran at least $2,000 a month. To make ends meet, the Schmitzes lived off their 18 acres raising cows, chickens and vegetables.

Debbie Schmitz laughed at the notion that foster parents are in it for the money.

"Sometimes, it makes you angry," she said then. "Tom said it before, but you wouldn't be cleaning toilets if we were making big bucks off this. I'm sorry, but every dime we've got goes to the kids."

By Greg Campbell/AP

Debbie and Tom Schmitz, in happier times, April 2003, with 17 of their adopted, foster and biological children. Most of the adopted children have special needs. The state Department of Children's Services removed 18 children from the Trenton, Tenn., home Monday.


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