Starved Teen Found Caged in Florida Home, Police Say

March 9, 2005 -- -- A Jacksonville, Fla., couple who allegedly starved their adopted teenage son and kept him in a diaper, locked up in a crib that police compared to a cage, have been charged with child neglect.

Wilson Sullivan, 55, and his wife, Brenda, 48, were ordered held on $200,003 bond at their appearance today in Duval County Court, following a six-week investigation into the case by police and children's protective service workers.

"Just because a child is alleged to have a certain condition doesn't mean his parents are responsible for it," the Sullivans' lawyer, Lee Lockett, said today after their court appearance.

Steve Weintraub, chief of investigations at the Jacksonville Sheriff's Office, said Tuesday that an anonymous tip to authorities in January led them to the home. The first officers on the scene found the teen and two other adopted children, both aged 10, and immediately called the Department of Children and Family Services, shocked at what they found.

"They noticed that the children, particularly a 17-year-old, looked to be frail, looked to be undernourished. In fact, he was a 17-year-old weighing 49 pounds, which conceivably is the weight of a 6½-year-old," Weintraub said.

The teen, who was less than 4 feet, 6 inches tall -- the height of a child 9 to 10 years old -- was wearing a diaper and was kept in an enclosed crib "similar to a cage" that had a chain and padlock, he said.

The Sullivans told investigators they kept the boy inside the locked crib because he was gorging himself on food at night, Weintraub said.

The 17-year-old was hospitalized, and the two other children were immediately taken into protective custody by the DCF, Weintraub said. All three children have physical or mental disabilities.

"We were disgusted and outraged by the condition of the children at that time," DCF spokesman John Harrell said in statement released by the agency. "DCF has been working with law enforcement on this tragic case. We are pleased to report that the children are now safe and improving."

In the six weeks since he was removed from the home, the 17-year-old has put on nearly 30 pounds, according to the agency statement.

But Ordrianne Sullivan, Wilson Sullivan's sister, told ABC News affiliate WJXX-TV in Jacksonville that what police found was not neglect.

"I know that there's medical documentation stating why -- whatever they're trying to accuse them of -- why the child may be small," she said.

The arrest report quotes one local doctor who said the boy suffered from "psycho-social dwarfism."

"There's documentation why that child is the size that he is," Ordrianne Sullivan said. "There's something medically wrong with him. There's nothing that my sister did to him to cause what they're accusing them of."

Weintraub said that Ordrianne Sullivan was misunderstanding the meaning of psycho-social dwarfism, "which is nutritional and emotional starvation of the child," he said.

According to the arrest report, "the investigation further revealed that this child had to sleep in a large crib with a wood framed top locked down with a chain and padlock on one side."

Despite the police account, the Sullivans' family said the children were loved and well cared for.

"Those children have been out in our family for eight years," Ordrianne Sullivan said. "They're not weekend foster kids whose mom doesn't want to be bothered with them for the weekend. These kids are our family. It's wrong. I'm telling you it's wrong. They're [Wilson and Brenda] being railroaded. They're being lied on."

If the Sullivans are found guilty of child neglect, a second-degree felony, they could face a prison sentence of up to 15 years.

ABC News affiliate WJXX-TV in Jacksonville contributed to this report.

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