Authorities unsure why no one saw child abuse
Authorities unsure why no one saw child abuse
Sunday, September 24, 2006
THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH
Facing dozens of charges, James and Vonda Ferguson are to be tried this year.
MARYSVILLE, Ohio ? James and Vonda Ferguson believed in togetherness time.
They would regularly gather their six adopted children to bond as a family. There were board games, songs, Bible readings and crafts.
Prosecutors say there was another family tradition.
Except for the baby, the children would line up to await blows from a belt. Their turns lasted two to five minutes, sometimes until blood seeped through their underwear, according to court records.
Abuse and assault charges filed by prosecutors indicate that was far from the worst of it.
Prosecutors say the Fergusons ritualistically tortured their five oldest children, now ages 10 to 16, at their homes in Marysville and Springfield for more than four years beginning in mid-2000.
The three boys and two girls were burned, bitten, hit with hammers and jabbed with sharp sticks, prosecutors say. The children sneaked cat food after not being fed for days.
Mrs. Ferguson faces two counts of rape charging that she used the handle of a toilet plunger to sodomize two of the children. She and her husband have pleaded not guilty to numerous charges related to child abuse.
The dozens of charges, some of the most horrific in central Ohio in recent years, have prompted questions.
How could so many children be abused so badly for so long with no one catching on?
"I don?t know how you miss that much ? abuse to that degree," said Pat Lyons, executive director of Prevent Child Abuse Ohio at Children?s Hospital in Columbus.
Court records state that childrenservices workers in Clark County, where the Fergusons lived until moving from Springfield to Marysville in 2003, might have had suspicions.
But an investigation apparently failed to prove that the couple was abusing the children they adopted as infants or toddlers from Butler, Hamilton, Montgomery and Licking counties.
The family approached Clark County officials in late 2001 with concerns about its eldest, a daughter then age 11.
The Fergusons said the girl sexually abused and attempted to poison some of her siblings and set a fire that caused more than $100,000 in damage to the family?s home on May 2, 2000.
The girl received intensive mentalhealth treatment, the other children were placed in counseling and their parents received psychological evaluations.
While finding that the Fergusons appeared to be suitable parents, the psychologist recommended that each receive training on how to discipline their children.
"I?m very patient. I provide unconditional love. For my weaknesses, I?m too lenient," Mrs. Ferguson, 43, told the psychologist.
Mr. Ferguson, 46, told the psychologist: "We don?t allow arguments and fights. We believe in nonviolence." In statements to detectives later, he said he was a "puppet" and beat his children at his wife?s instructions.
Their daughter eventually was removed from their home after the Fergusons voluntarily gave up their parental rights and said she was a danger to the other children.
Lyons, of Prevent Child Abuse Ohio, wonders whether hints of abuse emerged from the children during counseling and whether the Fergusons indeed received help with disciplining their kids.
The psychologist?s recommendation "may have indicated any child in their care was at risk of excessive discipline," she said.
Cathy Appel, deputy director of family and children services for the Clark County Department of Job and Family Services, said she could not provide details on her office?s investigation.
However, she said physical and collaborating evidence is not always available.
"Sometimes, things have to occur where children are out of the environment for a significant period of time and then they become willing to tell the rest of the story," she said.
The Fergusons? children were removed from their home in November 2004 after a Union County childrenservices worker contacted the sheriff?s office about suspected abuse.
Asked about the Fergusons? surrender of their daughter amid allegations that she sexually abused her siblings, Appel said: "Sometimes, adults attempt to place the blame on the child" to deflect suspicion from themselves.
Another child, the eldest son, received additional counseling in early 2003. He was a chronic runaway from the family?s homes in both Springfield and Marysville.
Union County children-services officials declined to comment and referred questions to Prosecutor David Phillips. He did not return telephone calls.
The Fergusons received about $1,000 a month in state subsidies for adopting special-needs children.
Although families seeking to adopt are investigated, Ohio law does not require any monitoring of children once adoptions are completed. Parents aren?t legally bound to cooperate with any discretionary inquiries by childrenservices workers.
A new state law requires more-extensive study when a family seeks to adopt a child that would place five or more children in a household, but the Fergusons? adoptions preceded the law.
"We don?t do enough," Lyons said. "Whenever there is an adopted child placed with a family, there should be significant follow-up for an extended period."
The charges against the Fergusons are unfathomable to those who know the couple.
Mr. Ferguson, a former Marine, was a two-sport star at Xenia High School and a former lay minister and church trustee who has worked on the assembly line at Honda for years.
Mrs. Ferguson, an A student and cheerleader at Springfield South High School, planned in recent years to attend college in hopes of becoming a social worker.
Mr. Ferguson?s attorney, Kerry Donahue, of Dublin, says the couple has been victimized by their children?s behavioral and psychological problems.
"These children learned from each other to lie, fantasize and abuse each other," he wrote in court motions alleging that some children might be recalling abuse prior to their adoptions.
The competency of the children to testify against their parents is to be examined at a hearing this week in Union County Common Pleas Court.
The couple face separate trials beginning late this year. Each is charged with 20 counts of child endangerment, five counts of permitting child abuse and five counts of felonious assault. Mrs. Ferguson also faces an additional assault count and the two rape counts.