BEVERLY HILLS, Fla. – Only after John and Linda Dollar's 16-year-old son was hospitalized with a head wound did investigators find what they say were signs of abuse at the home: a cattle prod, pliers and what appeared to be toenails.
The Dollars — regarded by state social workers a decade ago as model parents — now stand accused of monstrous acts against five of their eight children, including the 16-year-old, who weighed just 60 pounds when he was hospitalized.
The couple appeared briefly in court Sunday in Lecanto, where a judge denied them bail.
"It's a tragedy, and I wish there was something we could've done sooner," said Florida Department of Children & Families (search) spokesman Bill D'Aiuto. "But if we don't know about it, or if the school system doesn't know about it, or if a neighbor doesn't know about it... there's nothing that us or law enforcement or anyone else can do."
The children have told investigators they were starved, shocked with a cattle prod, beaten with a hammer and had toenails yanked out with pliers. Police compared their emaciated bodies to victims of Nazi concentration camps.
But when John, now 57, and Linda Dollar, now 51, sought to adopt more children a decade ago, social workers described them as well-to-do, well-meaning folks who raised their five children with love.
"They feel the more children they have, the merrier they are," dazzled caseworkers wrote.
That image of the Dollars contrasts with what Citrus County Sheriff's Capt. Jim Cernich (search) called perhaps the worst abuse he's ever seen. He said the children were hit on their feet with rubber mallets and canes and made to sleep in a closet.
When the couple were arrested in Utah two weeks ago, it brought more unwanted attention to DCF, an agency already battered by several high-profile scandals. Those include the 2001 disappearance of 5-year-old Rilya Wilson, who was placed in the care of a woman with a lengthy criminal record. The girl's disappearance went unnoticed until April 2002 because caseworkers did not make required checks on her.
State welfare workers stopped monitoring the Dollars after the Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services (search) — the precursor agency to the troubled DCF — determined a decade ago the couple would make suitable parents.
The Dollars seem to want to maintain that image: Charles Vaughn, the couple's attorney, said the Dollars had been unaware of any charges against them and were returning to Florida when they were apprehended. He said the pair would defend themselves against the allegations and would tell their side of the story.
"They're taking the case very seriously," he said Sunday after meeting with the Dollars following the court appearance. "They're tired, and they're fighting off a cold."
The Dollars seemed to have the best of intentions in a 1995 state application to add to their brood of five adopted children by taking in three more.
"Adoption provided my wife and I the opportunity to extend our love to children we were not fortunate enough to have on our own," John Dollar said in the application.
But in six months of home visits, background checks and interviews for the foster parent application, records show Linda Dollar revealed her own stories of abuse. She recounted being verbally and physically abused as a child and said her first marriage ended because her husband abused her, the documents said.
Caseworkers also had concerns the Dollars believed in spanking as a last-resort form of punishment. John Dollar had grown up on a farm where he said his father would spank the children "after giving us several opportunities to straighten up."
But he softened the stance in writing: "Never should a spanking physically harm or hurt a child," he wrote.