New foster parent says children relieved to be rescued

Date: 2004-08-23

The Oak Ridger

MEMPHIS (AP) - The children who were allegedly abused by a Gibson County couple are relieved that "they've finally got people to believe them," their new foster parent says.

Sherry Dvorak is a foster parent for four of the 18 children removed from the home of Thomas and Debra Schmitz, who face multiple counts of abuse and neglect.

The state took custody of the Schmitz children in June amid allegations that youngsters were beaten, locked in a punishment cage and forced to dig what they were told were their own graves.

The case is headed for a grand jury, and her four children welcome the investigation, Dvorak said.

"There is only one child who has testified so far. They've got a whole slew of kids to go through yet," Dvorak said.

The Schmitzes said they have a religious calling to take in unwanted children and have adopted nine "special needs" youngsters who draw monthly federal subsidies.

They were in the process of adopting another child and had seven children placed in their home by other adoptive parents. One child taken into state custody was born to them.

The Schmitzes deny doing anything wrong, and they refuse interviews on advice from their lawyers.

The couple sought to have the abuse charges dismissed at a court hearing Tuesday. A judge dismissed two felony charges, but sent four lesser ones to a grand jury that meets Sept. 27.

Dvorak's wards "were on cloud nine when they left that courtroom because they've finally got people to believe them."

The charges filed to get arrest and search warrants were based on only a small part of the evidence investigators have collected, said Gibson County Sheriff Joe Shepard said.

"We're going to present a lot more," he said.

Michael Robbins, a Memphis lawyer representing Debra Schmitz, said he expects prosecutors to seek additional charges.

"You put something in front of the grand jury, and chances are they're going to say, 'Roger that,"' Robbins said.

The allegations were brought to the sheriff's department by Dvorak and two other nurses who worked with children in the Schmitz home. Several of the children also have talked with investigators.

The youngsters range in age from infant to 17 years.

The Schmitzes took in handicapped children in the Green Bay, Wis., area before moving to rural northwest Tennessee four years ago. They were investigated on child abuse allegations in Wisconsin shortly before that move but no charges were filed.

Dvorak said Debra Schmitz used the Internet to keep in touch with other adoptive parents of special needs children.

"She told me -- she could get on the Internet and have me a baby within three weeks," Dvorak said.

While special needs subsidies are federally funded, the money is disbursed through the states in which adoptions occur.

The states also define special needs, which can include physical, mental or emotional problems. Monthly subsidies are based on state foster-care schedules and can range up to $1,000 or more, depending on need.

Under federal guidelines, adoptive parents with family emergencies can temporarily place their children in other homes.

Shepard said investigators still are trying to determine how many children passed through the Schmitz residence.

One teenage girl came to the Schmitzes when her adoptive family in another state no longer wanted her, Shepard said. Later, the Schmitzes tried to send the girl back but the mother refused to take her.

The girl was then "shipped off" to a family in Arizona, Shepard said.

Dvorak is caring from two young boys and two teenage girls. One of the girls grew up in an orphanage in China and wears a leg brace because of polio.

"An American couple, from what she told me, adopted her and brought her to the United States. For whatever reason, they wound up letting Tom and Debbie Schmitz have her and now she's here," Dvorak said. "She's never had anybody to attach to. She's never trusted anybody."

Carla Aaron of the Tennessee Department of Children's Services said the state knew little about the Schmitzes until the abuse charges were filed. The adoptions all were handled through private agencies.

Moving children from home to home, as with the girl now in Arizona, leaves scars even when there is no physical abuse, Aaron said.

"What is she thinking? Nobody wants her? She's not good enough for any home?" Aaron said. "Regardless of who's at fault, that child is the one who's going to suffer."


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