Older sister in Dollar case pays price for caring

Date: 2005-02-17

GREG HAMILTON
St. Petersburg Times

The state came out with both barrels blazing in a courtroom showdown on Tuesday, ripping into a member of the now-infamous Dollar clan for what it decribed as several despicable acts of torturing young children.

Not even bothering to couch the accusations with weasel words like "alleged," the Department of Children and Families stated without equivocation that the woman before the court had held a child's head under water, tied up at least one youngster and locked children in a closet overnight.

Even an act that could be construed as caring, bringing food to hungry children, was presented as an example of neglect. If this woman knew the children were so hungry, the DCF lawyer snarled, then why did she not report this abuse and neglect to the proper authorities?

No way should the judge allow this woman, this horrid abuser, access to these suffering children, they said.

Circuit Judge Ric Howard agreed with the state. In a decision that makes sense only when viewed as an overabundance of caution in a still-unraveling case, Howard said the woman in court, Shanda Rae Shelton, will not be allowed to see her siblings.

The DCF thunderbolts were not aimed at the woman who has actually been criminally charged with abusing the children: their adoptive mother, Linda Dollar. She and her husband, John Dollar, are each accused of aggravated child abuse of five of the seven children in their home.

The state, instead, tore into Shelton in the worst way imaginable, branding her before the packed courtroom as a willing participant in the torture of her brothers and sisters.

Obviously, there is much still unknown about this horrid case - details that will shed more light on the actions of all of those involved. That includes the DCF, which soon will have to try to explain to the world why it characterized the Dollars as "model parents" in 1995.

On Tuesday, the focus was on Shelton because she dared to ask to see the children. Had she not made the request, she would be seen as not caring about them. She also could have avoided the ordeal of sitting in a courtroom far from home being flayed by lawyers.

The DCF based its case on three accusations. The first was that Shelton held a sister's head under water. Given what has been alleged about John and Linda Dollar, the listener assumes the worst. Then, the details emerge.

The incident happened a number of years ago in a lake in Tennessee. The younger girl was wearing a life jacket and Shanda was told by Linda Dollar to pull the child under water so the girl would pop back to the surface and see for herself that the life jacket works.

Does that rise to the level of abuse? To date, the state of Tennessee doesn't think so, because no charges have been filed against Shelton.

The second accusation, that she tied up a sibling, fell apart in court as Shelton denied it and DCF did not pursue it.

The third, that she locked children in a walk-in closet overnight, is stickier. Shelton admits she did it, under threat from Linda Dollar. Shelton added that she does not believe that is an effective disciplinary tool.

Is it cruel? Possibly. Is it abuse on the level of warranting a criminal charge or denial of visitation? Hardly.

The most troubling aspect of Shelton's behavior came after she left the Dollars' home three years ago. She did not report the conditions in the house to any law enforcement or child protection agency.

Her chief reason, that Linda Dollar had threatened that she, too, would be arrested, raises legitimate questions. If Shelton had nothing to hide about her own actions, then Linda Dollar's threats were hollow and calling the police would bring no backlash. And if she engaged in any abuse under duress, she could have called the police and let them sort out who is truly at fault. In either case, the torturing of the children would have ended.

The trouble with that construction is that it assumes a level of logic in the participants and ignores a fundamental point: Shanda, now 25, was adopted by Linda Dollar when she was only 4 months old. She grew up isolated from the outside world, with Linda Dollar as the dominant adult in her life. When Linda Dollar said she would be jailed or thrown out in the street penniless if she told anyone about conditions inside the house, Shanda believed her completely.

While the public mulls over Shelton's actions, perhaps some attention is due the DCF. On Tuesday, the agency spent considerable time painting Shelton in the harshest tones. Then, the court took a recess so the lawyers could negotiate.

During that time, Shelton's attorneys said later, the DCF offered Shelton supervised visitation. Shelton's attorneys turned it down because one of the conditions was that the visits be videotaped. It could turn the visits from a family reunion into a law enforcement evidence-gathering mission, they felt.

So, if her lawyers are to be believed, DCF flip-flopped on just how big a danger they consider Shelton to be.

It is way too early in this ordeal to know for certain just what happened, other than that five of the Dollars' children were treated worse than prisoners of war. How much blame is to be apportioned to the various participants; why some of the children - including Shanda - escaped the harshest treatment; why this couple ever adopted children in the first place are just a few of the questions swirling.

If the court chose to err on the side of caution by allowing the recovering children to be left alone for now, with no contact with their older sister until more information is available, that is understandable under the circumstances. The most important consideration is their welfare.

But if the DCF wants to portray Shanda Shelton as a monster, it had better come up with more and better evidence than the pile of mud they slung at her in the courtroom on Tuesday.

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