A 5-year-old developmentally challenged Rhea County, Tenn., boy was being alternately locked in a room and harnessed to a bolt in the floor of a home in Evensville, Tenn., over the last several months, investigators said Tuesday.
The discovery landed the boy's mother and her boyfriend behind bars on child abuse charges.
Monica Hall, 39, and Dennis Couch, 42, Hall's boyfriend of four or five years, were charged Monday afternoon with aggravated child abuse, neglect and endangerment in connection with the investigation, Rhea County Sheriff's Office investigator Rocky Potter said.
Couch also is charged with initiation of the manufacture of methamphetamine and unlawful drug paraphernalia uses and activities. The drug-related items were found in a well house where Couch sometimes slept, Potter said.
The detective said Tuesday the situation at the Evensville home was unlike anything he had ever seen.
"In all the years I worked child abuse, I thought I'd seen and heard of every crime, and then this," said Potter, who heads the department's Family Violence Task Force.
"This is the first one that had a restraint device," he added.
The investigation was triggered by a report from a family member or friend who had been in the home and a hotline referral "of a 5-year-old mentally challenged boy being harnessed to a bolt in the middle of the floor," Potter said.
"The room consisted of no carpet and just a small mattress," Potter said. A hasp was installed on the outside of the door to padlock it shut.
The detective said Hall allowed deputies inside the home and told them the harness was in a hallway of the home.
According to the arrest report, officers could hear the boy yelling "out, out" and "hungry, hungry," and when the door was unlocked, a little boy ran out of the room to the refrigerator.
"Ms. Hall put her head down and said she knew why I was there," the arrest report states.
"The harness was fashioned from a medium-size dog harness and Couch's belt with some electrical tape," Potter said. It was made to fit around the boy's chest and used to connect the boy to a bolt in the floor in the center of a room in the home.
The room otherwise contained only a small mattress and no bathroom facilities of any kind, Potter said.
"For several hours, off and on throughout the past couple or three months, sometimes overnight, they advised that they fastened him to that," he said.
A 3-foot-long cable restrained the boy to the floor when he was attached to the bolt there, Potter said.
He said the boy is unable to communicate much because of his disability. He had a split lip and some bruises on his face, but the boy appeared to have been eating and was otherwise in good health, Potter said.
The boy and two other children in the home were removed and placed with other family members until more permanent arrangements are made, officials said.relatedarticlethumb
The Tennessee Department of Children's Services had contact with Hall in the past about the same boy, Potter said. He said Couch was not involved on the previous occasions Children's Services officials had contact with Hall.
The boy was sent to a medical facility Tuesday for a wellness check, part of the routine treatment of children in such situations, the detective said.
Hall and Couch are charged under the 2005 Tennessee statute known as Haley's Law, said Potter and 12th Judicial District Attorney General Mike Taylor.
Haley's law stiffens punishment for certain child abuse defendants if convicted, Taylor said.
Under the law, the charge of aggravated child abuse and aggravated child neglect or endangerment becomes a Class A felony when it involves a victim 8 years old or younger or one who is "mentally defective, mentally incapacitated or suffers from a physical disability," the law states.
Class A felonies in Tennessee carry a penalty of 15 to 60 years in prison and a fine of up to $50,000, according to state law.
Hall was jailed on a $100,000 bond at the Rhea County Jail. Couch was issued a $125,000 bond, slightly higher than Hall's because of the additional charges.
Both are scheduled to appear in Rhea County General Sessions Court for an initial appearance next Monday.
Monday's arrests accounted for the second time this year child abuse charges were leveled in Rhea County under Haley's Law.
Cumberland County resident Jesse Lynn Wyatt, 24 when he was arrested by Rhea County authorities in March, was charged with aggravated child abuse and aggravated child neglect or endangerment as Class A felonies under Haley's Law. The charges were filed in a suspected "shaken baby syndrome" case that left a then-7-month-old girl with serious brain injuries.
Potter said Tuesday the little girl in that case is improving now and is living with family. Wyatt is awaiting a trial date, officials said.
Potter said the child abuse case that haunts him still is the 2013 incident that left Spring City 5-year-old Landon Robbins dead from being beaten and forced to eat dish soap and cigarette butts for not going to sleep.
Landon Robbins' mother, Jessica Robbins, and her boyfriend, Bradley Adcox, are serving lengthy prison terms after entering guilty pleas in the case.
Contact staff writer Ben Benton at email@example.com or 423-757-6569.