What started as a search for a runaway boy ended with the discovery of cell-like living conditions inside an Inverness home and the arrest Monday of a teacher on child-abuse charges.
Citrus County Sheriff’s Office authorities were told about the runaway preteen Saturday evening. The boy was found four hours later by Denise Elaine Hallowell, 54, but allegations about Hallowell’s treatment of the boy caught the attention of investigators.
“What looked like a typical runaway case turned into a horrible child-abuse case,” said Capt. Dave DeCarlo with the sheriff’s office’s Criminal Investigation Division said.
The boy told police Hallowell had locked him in his room several times, with his door bolted from the outside and windows nailed shut, sometimes while Hallowell and another person went away to social events, Hallowell’s arrest report states.
He said he was also given a bucket to be used as a bathroom.
As a recent punishment, the boy was not fed for two days, the report states. When he did get food, it was different and less substantial than what Hallowell ate. Hallowell also allegedly forced the boy to clean the bathroom naked numerous times.
Hallowell, aided by another person, would often punch, slap, throw or kick the boy in the groin prior to locking him in his room, according to the arrest report. On Sunday, investigators could still see a 3-inch bruise on the boy’s hips and arms, along with scratch marks from a previous incident.
The boy said he was able to escape in 2012, but was found later by deputies.
DeCarlo said the boy was also suffering from some malnutrition.
Police said his bedroom was very bare, except for photos, books and a metal-frame mattress. There also appeared to be a latch recently removed from the outside of the door.
“It was very different from other children’s bedrooms,” DeCarlo said. “It was pretty much like a military cot.”
A bucket was also found and turned in as evidence.
Hallowell, who knew about the allegations, told investigators Monday neither she nor the other person named by the boy hit or kicked him, but said the boy did receive spankings as discipline. She also denied the claim that she made the boy do chores naked.
Hallowell did admit to locking the boy in his room because she did not want him to run away again, and the bucket was placed there in case he could not make it to the bathroom in time.
She said nailing the windows shut, using a chain lock and locking the door from the outside were mistakes. Hallowell said the bedroom’s condition had been as it was for months.
Another person was also aware of the boy’s locks, and admitted to restraining the child during while physical discipline was administered.
Hallowell was arrested and charged with child abuse without causing great bodily harm, along with aggravated child abuse. No bond was set due.
The Department of Children and Families took the boy and another person in the home into its care.
“He’s doing so far, so good,” DeCarlo said about the boy. “From what he’s been through, he’s holding up remarkably well.”
Hallowell was also placed on administrative leave Sunday, pending investigation, as an instructor from MYcroSchool Citrus in Lecanto, Principal Danita Eatman said in an email.
She was hired Aug. 3, 2015, for MYcroSchool Citrus, a public-charter learning program for at-risk students seeking a high school diploma.
“MYcroSchool Citrus was shocked to learn of the allegations against Denise Hallowell,” Eatman said.
According to Chronicle records, Hallowell was hired by the Citrus County School District in 2010 to teach fifth grade at Rock Crusher Elementary School. Citrus County School District Assistant Superintendent of School Operations Mike Mullen confirmed Tuesday that Hallowell was employed by the district as of last year at the school, but was unable to provide full details of her employment history in Citrus schools. Further attempts to obtain that information by deadline Tuesday were unsuccessful.
Bay News 9 contributed to this report. Contact Chronicle reporter Buster Thompson at 352-564-2916 or email@example.com.