- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 30, 2004

TRENTON, Tenn. (AP) — A little more than a year after Tom and Debbie Schmitz were profiled in news stories as religious, caring foster parents, 18 children have been removed from their home amid charges of abuse and neglect.

Police say some of the children — including those with physical disabilities and special behavioral needs — were beaten, left for hours in a dark cellar and locked in a metal cage.

The Schmitzes stood silently at their first court appearance on Tuesday. An attorney for Mrs. Schmitz said she is not guilty and will fight for the return of the children.

“She’s not guilty of abuse as the law would define that,” lawyer Michael Robbins said as the Schmitzes and a handful of supporters arrived at court.

Judge James Webb set a preliminary hearing for Aug. 17 and allowed the couple to remain free on bond of $50,000 for Mrs. Schmitz, 44, and $25,000 for Mr. Schmitz, 45.

The Schmitzes, who had a reputation for taking in hard-to-place children in need, came to this town four years ago. The children in their care range in age from infant to 17 years.

Sheriff Joe Shepard said that was shortly after they were investigated on child-abuse accusations in the Green Bay, Wis., area, where they had 11 children in their home. No criminal charges were filed in Wisconsin.

The accusations in Wisconsin were similar to the new ones, including that Debbie Schmitz drank heavily and that most of the care for the younger children was provided by the older ones.

Sheriff Shepard said the new accusations came from several of the children, as well as two nurses who worked at the home.

Defense attorney Frank Deslauriers, who represents Mr. Schmitz, said the home was investigated by a private social-services agency in December and no serious problems were found.

“It was at the request of our clients for adoption purposes,” Mr. Deslauriers said.

Mr. Robbins said Mrs. Schmitz has adopted 11 of the children and two are her biological children. He said he was unsure about the custody status of the others.

The Schmitzes refused to discuss the charges on the advice of their attorneys.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, which took custody of the children last week, said it was not involved in the initial placements and suspected they were handled through other states and private adoption agencies.

Last year, several news organizations, including the Associated Press, produced feature stories about the couple. Mrs. Schmitz stayed at home with the children, while Mr. Schmitz worked as a salesman for a company that rents portable toilets.

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