updated 7/9/2004 9:51:38 AM ET 2004-07-09T13:51:38

A couple facing criminal abuse charges forced some of their 18 foster and adopted children — many of them disabled — to dig their own graves, warning the youngsters they could be killed and nobody would care, according to investigative documents.

A search warrant affidavit released in the case against Thomas and Debra Schmitz also alleges that the children were beaten, locked in a cage and punished by having their eyeglasses, leg braces or crutches taken away.

A home care nurse told authorities the “children were forced to dig their own graves” and told by the couple “they could be killed and buried in the back yard and no one will care,” according to the affidavit.

The nurse said she saw two children, ages 8 and 10, forced to sleep in a locked metal cage without a mattress or blankets. The youngsters were “curled in a fetal position in the cage,” the affidavit said.

Charges and past allegations
Debra Schmitz, 44, was charged on June 22 with three counts of aggravated child abuse and one count of child abuse; Thomas Schmitz, 45, was charged with one count of aggravated child abuse and one count of child abuse.

The Schmitzes, who were investigated on similar accusations four years ago in the Green Bay, Wis., area, moved to this town 85 miles northeast of Memphis in 2000. They were not charged in that case.

They have denied wrongdoing and, on legal advice, have refused interview requests since their arrest.

Children in the home ranged from 13 months to 17 years old. Nine of the youngsters are the Schmitzes’ adopted children, one was in the process of being adopted and another was their biological child.

The Tennessee Department of Children’s Services took custody of the children June 21, but it is still unclear why some of them were with the Schmitzes. Authorities were unsure who has legal custody of the seven other youngsters, who may be special needs children adopted by families in other states.

Adoptive parents of special needs children are allowed to put youngsters in the care of others in times of family troubles. That so-called “respite care” is designed to be temporary.

The home-care nurse told investigators that Debra Schmitz used the Internet to keep in touch with guardians of special-needs children across the country.

The nurse was told “she could get a child through this Web site within three weeks and would not have to go through (Tennessee’s) Department of Children’s Services,” said the affidavit filed by the Gibson County Sheriff’s Department.

Nine separate witnesses
Sheriff Joe Shepard said three nurses and a half-dozen children have given reports of abuse. Investigators have found four places where they believe children were forced to dig mock graves, he said.

The investigation could be forwarded to a grand jury following a court hearing Aug. 17.

“I’m positive there will be more state charges,” Shepard said Thursday.

One nurse who said children were strictly disciplined refused to return to work at the Schmitzes’ home.

“Two nights were as much as she could handle,” Shepard said. “One girl had to sit on the floor with her nose up against the wall. We found that’s pretty much a standard thing out there. But she sat there from the time she got home from school until past 10:30 at night.”

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