By Andrew Ford and Mackenzie Ryan Published April 1, 2012 by Florida Today
They found the boy curled up on the floor of a bathroom in a house police described as unfit for healthy living.
The bones in his face jutted out. His skin clung to him tightly beneath Spiderman pajamas. The veins were visible in his arms. Police said he was 12 years old, 4-foot-4 and weighed 40 pounds.
His eyes shone like blue topaz in spite of his withered frame. He has eyes like his father’s, but more lucid.
“It’s not a color you associate with natural eyes,” said detective Sarah Kane-Watson, the Titusville officer who found him March 15, leading to the arrest of his father and his father’s live-in girlfriend on multiple felony counts of child abuse and child neglect.
The boy’s voice was soft, but strong. He said he was hungry and wanted to leave.
The boy’s rescue came almost too late for him — 17 months after he was withdrawn from school, effectively removing him from contact with people who had tried to protect him. While other children in the house attended school, investigators believe the boy’s father, Michael Marshall, and Marshall’s girlfriend, Sharon Glass, regularly confined the boy and withheld food as punishment. Another month in those conditions could have killed him, police said.
School staffers repeatedly reported their suspicions of abuse to the Florida Department of Children and Families. “We tried, and we tried, and we begged,” said Ronda Rochon, a teacher who got to know the boy during the brief periods he attended her Titusville school. “I honestly thought the next call that I got about him was that he would be dead.”
Others also said they tried to help. A relative of other children living in the house said he called DCF 12 times starting in 2006 to complain that his children were dirty and lice-infested.
DCF investigators looked into complaints — the last time more than a year ago in August 2010 — but an agency spokeswoman said at the time they did not find enough evidence to justify removing the boy from his father, which is considered an action of last resort.
“Of all the resources we have, the one tool we don’t have is a crystal ball,” DCF spokeswoman Carrie Hoeppner said.
Around the same time as the last DCF investigation, the boy was removed from Apollo Elementary. His father and Glass were angered because he was getting extra food at school, according to a police report.
The family told school staff they would home-school him. About two months later, they notified the district that he would attend a private school — an action that essentially stopped the district’s efforts to keep track of him and his education.
“If a parent withdraws them to private school, there’s not much more we can do as far as tracking them,” said Brevard Public Schools spokeswoman Christine Davis. “There’s no legal requirement to register or send their grades to us, or anything like that.”
Titusville Police believe he never was sent to any private school.
The boy, seemingly, disappeared.
Signs of neglect
It was 6:30 p.m. March 15 when an unidentified woman walked into Titusville Police Department and asked to speak with an officer. Her boyfriend had gone to a friend’s home to cool off after the couple argued. What he saw disturbed him: a boy apparently locked in the bathroom. A boy dangerously too skinny.
Officers responded immediately and, after receiving consent from a man who answered the door, searched the house.
That’s when they found him, his 10-year-old sister — Marshall’s other child — and Glass’ 15-year-old son. Two of Glass’ older children, aged 18 and 20, also lived in the house. FLORIDA TODAY is not identifying any of the children.
The 15-year-old boy also showed signs of neglect, according to police. He had chronic head lice, fell asleep in class at Madison Middle when not being sent home with fevers or vomiting and had become increasingly withdrawn from activities and people, according to school records, cited by police.
But the worst allegations concern the 12-year-old boy and, to a lesser degree, his sister.
According to police, Marshall and Glass locked the boy and his sister in a closet, leaving them with a portable potty. The girl, who was still attending fourth grade at Apollo Elementary, would be allowed out, but had to remain in the bedroom to make sure the boy didn’t escape.
The boy was zip-tied to a bed in a standing position and forced to sleep that way, police said. To stop him from crying, a dirty sock was duct-taped in his mouth.
Glass allegedly made a paper airplane for the boy to play with while he was locked in the bathroom, but that was taken away later as a punishment for lying. So, too, were things such as a bath mat and towel, again as punishment, according to the police report. The punishment toward the boy escalated to denying all food, police said.
Staff members at South Lake Elementary never forgot about the boy, who attended classes at the school briefly in third, fourth and fifth grade.
Rochon, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, said she and other staff members had made numerous reports of suspected abuse.
“We have feared for (the boy’s) life for a long time,” added Betty Bobay, guidance counselor at South Lake.
When they heard a Titusville boy had been found — allegedly locked up in his father’s house — they felt horror. Rochon remembers crying out: “Please God, don’t let it be him. Please God, don’t let it be him.”
“It hurts, because we love these kids,” Rochon said. “We spend as much or more time with them than their parents do.”
There was a wave of relief. Now, after so many years, the boy was safe, they reasoned.
But there was also fury.
“The system had some flaws in it,” Rochon said. “We need to work to fix those flaws.”
DCF didn’t talk in specifics about the case because all DCF records are confidential if a child is still living.
But the agency spokeswoman emphasized that they can only act on the evidence available at the time.
“You can’t remove a child on a hunch,” Hoeppner said.
When someone reports suspected abuse, if the call is deemed valid, a DCF investigator is sent to see the child within 24 hours.
If it is not an emergency, the investigator continues observing, talking to the family and looking for signs of abuse, DCF said. The goal is to offer help that would keep families together. A dirty home or a parent whose temper flared doesn’t necessarily justify removing a child.
“We work with so many families who teeter on that level their whole lives,” Hoeppner said.
Slipped through cracks
The first record of the boy in a Brevard public school came when he was enrolled in third grade at South Lake in 2007.
Since then, he’s never completed a full year at the same school.
He last attended sixth grade at Apollo Elementary in Titusville. But he was there for only 10 days before being withdrawn to be home-schooled, as he had been the previous year.
In Brevard, home-schooled students aren’t entirely out of sight. Annually, they must demonstrate a year’s worth of learning has taken place by allowing district resource officers to see a portfolio of work, or by taking a standardized test. The boy never reached that one-year mark.
In October 2010, he appears to have fallen off the district’s radar when the district was notified in writing that he would enroll in a private school.
District staffers are instructed to ask which school so they can send educational records to the right place. But state law doesn’t require parents to tell them, nor does it require the district to follow-up to see whether the child actually enrolled.
Brevard Public School staffers are reviewing their policies and procedures to determine whether there is anything that would have prevented the boy from apparently falling through the cracks.
“What we’re looking at right now is to see if there was a way or a process or something we could do differently than what we’re doing now,” Davis said.
The district does look at educational files of a withdrawn student that are never requested by another school, public or private, in an attempt to follow up with the family.
But that, in itself, is not a red flag, Davis said. Some private schools never request a child’s file, and Brevard schools have hundreds of such unclaimed files on hand.
Families themselves don’t always know what school a child will attend when they withdraw, Davis said. Plus, following up with families once they’ve withdrawn can be challenging, since contact information such as phone numbers and addresses can change.
It’s unclear whether a loophole exists that is within the district’s power to fix.
When the boy was removed from the public schools, it drastically reduced the number of people who saw him, people who could see if something was wrong and call authorities.
Isolation is a common denominator in many cases of egregious abuse or torture, Hoeppner said.
It’s difficult to say whether this could have been prevented.
“It’s not like there was one act that caused all this to happen,” said the detective Kane-Watson. “It’s definitely a progression.”
School staff weren’t the only ones who had been worried.
Tony Glass’ three children with his ex-wife, Sharon Glass, lived at the house too.
After their divorce, Tony Glass said he became concerned with the living conditions of his children. When they came to visit, they were dirty. They had lice, he said.
He said he called DCF 12 times since 2006.
“I’ve called them so many times because of my concerns with the kids,” Tony Glass said. “They told me to stop calling.”
“If you’re told by DCF to stop calling, what else can you do? Who else can you call?” he asked.
Looking to the future
The boy, now 13, has gained 10 pounds since he was found.
Rochon, who went to visit the boy, said he still has fire in his sparkling blue-green eyes. They looked through a yearbook together. He pointed out people he remembered and had Rochon make a list of those he wanted to contact. He talked about girls he had a crush on. He laughed.
He has a long way to go. Physically, he is still very weak, the detective said.
Authorities are trying to assess how far behind he is in his education. Rochon believes he will make a comeback. He was a gifted student at South Lake and was an avid reader.
DCF is working to find a stable living situation for him. Temporarily, the boy and his sister are living with grandparents. The 15-year-old is with his father. The two oldest remain at the house.
“We’re not going to let him slip through again,” Rochon said. “We’re going to hang on as tight as we can to him.”