tampabay.com

Abused kids on way to recovery

Seven children taken from abuse suspects John and Linda Dollar are regaining their health and are enrolled in public school.

By JUSTIN GEORGE
Published February 15, 2005


INVERNESS - Seven children removed from a Citrus County home amid allegations of torture are enrolled in public schools and adjusting to foster care, officials say.

They even have grown a little and gained a substantial amount of weight, Citrus County Sheriff's Office spokeswoman Gail Tierney said.

The children's health has rebounded since Jan. 27, when they were placed in foster homes in groups of two or three, Tierney said.

They have received medical checkups and detectives check daily on their welfare. The children began attending area schools last week. Their schoolmates are aware of the circumstances and have been protective of them, Tierney said.

The children, ages 12 to 17, have been in state custody since late last month. Authorities say their parents, John and Linda Dollar, abused at least five of them, beating them, shocking them, yanking their nails out, confining them and leaving them malnourished.

The couple each face charges of aggravated child abuse and more charges are pending, officials said. They are being extradited from Utah, where authorities said they fled fearing arrest.

Today, the Dollar children's adopted adult sister will ask a Citrus County magistrate to let her visit her siblings.

Shanda Rae Shelton, now married and living in Pasco County, said the Dollars abused her, too. But she has been estranged from her parents the past three years, and said she believes the treatment of her siblings deteriorated during that time, according to her attorneys.

When the investigation began, the 16-year-old boy weighed just 59 pounds and twin 14-year-old boys weighed 36 and 38 pounds, respectively. A pediatrics professor said the latter weights are typical of children 31/2 years old. Shelton, 25, said the children weighed at least that much when she left the Dollar home.

Shelton said clothing is all that she has been able to provide her siblings through DCF, according to one of her lawyers, Bill Grant. The Department of Children and Families has not permitted Shanda Shelton to visit her younger siblings. The children even had to call their oldest sister covertly.

"I love my brothers and sisters dearly," Shelton said in a statement, "and I miss them terribly. I think of them every waking moment. Not a minute goes by that I do not long to see my brothers and sisters. I plea with DCF to allow me to visit with my brothers and sisters."

At 2 p.m., she will petition Citrus County Magistrate Keith Schenck to let her see her siblings. She has said she wants to take them to the movies, a park or a restaurant to help give them a normal life.

Shelton has also asked that the Dollar children be placed in Pasco County foster care, so they can be near her home. She has asked the court to study her background and her two-bedroom, one-bathroom New Port Richey home to determine if she might someday gain custody.

All eight Dollar children are adopted. Shelton, the oldest, was born in Indiana and adopted when she was 4 months old by Linda Dollar, who at the time was married to another man. John Dollar, now 58, became her legal father after marrying Linda.

She lived with the Dollars in Tennessee and Hillsborough County, Tierney said, and she has corroborated many of the children's stories about their alleged torture. The family didn't move to Citrus until last year, when Shelton no longer lived with them.

"Shanda was a victim," Grant said. "She suffered many of the mental abuses and physical abuse and neglect that these children suffered."

Shelton never considered calling authorities about the abuse because she was being mentally controlled, her attorneys said. She sneaked food to her starved siblings when she could.

About three years ago, after enrolling in a Tampa community college and after she no longer lived with the Dollars, Shelton began to realize just what John and Linda Dollar were doing, and she began to worry, her attorney said.

But Linda Dollar, now 51, didn't allow Shelton to visit the children because she did not approve of her husband, Eric, 22. She spoke to her brothers and sisters over the phone, and Linda Dollar assuaged her concerns whenever she brought up the children, Shelton's lawyer said.

In reality, Shelton's attorneys said, the children's conditions worsened.

Questions remain about why school officials didn't suspect something was wrong.

The Dollars schooled their children at home. Barbara Dunlop tested the children as administrator of Tampa Educational Academy of Christian Heritage, based in Dunlop's home. The school has been incorporated since 1992 and is registered with the Florida Department of Education.

But Dunlop's home, in a middle-class neighborhood in Lutz, is for sale, with no outward trappings of a school there.

In a statement last week, Dunlop said the Tampa Educational Academy had been "in service to homeschooling families for over 12 years."

She said the Dollars registered their seven children at the start of the 2001-02 school year. Their health and immunization records and all required reports and forms were submitted, Dunlop said.

She also said Linda Dollar expressed concern in April 2002 that some of the children may test poorly, especially in math. Mrs. Dollar said she would work with them. "Each successive year their test scores showed academic progress," Dunlop wrote.

--Times staff writers Bill Coats and Jennifer Orsi contributed to this report.