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Tenn. Couple Charged in Abuse Case

December 17, 1997

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (AP) _ Forced to forage through trash cans for food and drink from a toilet, a 5-year-old boy weighed just 20 pounds when welfare workers took him from his parents.

Donald and Kimberly Higbee, who were investigated for child abuse in California and Houston before they moved their family to Gray, Tenn., in 1996, worked in fast-food restaurants and kept food in the house. But it was locked away, forcing their 5-year-old son to scrounge for scraps.

The couple were charged Monday with one count each of felony aggravated child abuse and neglect. Each was jailed on $75,000 bond and could face up to 60 years in jail if convicted.

The boy, his 4-year-old brother and 7-month-old sister were removed from their home in August and placed in foster care.

The boy, who has since gained 9 pounds, was ``stoic, reserved, intimidated and very fearful of all things″ when he was found, said Sgt. Tom Frayer of the Washington County Sheriff’s Department.

``He looked like someone who had been starved,″ Frayer said.

His brother and sister were in much better shape.

``The parents have really said very little,″ Frayer said. ``We have never been able to determine a motive″ for why the oldest child was targeted.

The children sometimes were left home alone while their parents worked and were not regularly in day care, said Sheriff Fred Phillips. He said it was one of the worst cases of child abuse he had seen in 20 years.

Higbee, 27, and his 25-year-old wife were ``lower middle-class. (But) they’re not destitute,″ Frayer said.

The state Department of Children’s Services received an anonymous tip and began an investigation in October 1996, three weeks after the family moved from Houston to Gray, a small community in northeastern Tennessee. No charges had been filed in California and the case is still open in Houston.

An unidentified witness in Gray saw the boy ``eating food from the trash can and drinking water from the bathroom toilet,″ according to an affidavit.

The sheriff’s department opened a criminal investigation last month.

``This abuse and neglect consisted of depriving the child of food to the point of starvation, locking the child in his room, and both mental and physical abuse causing the child to develop far below his normal rate,″ Frayer wrote.

A teacher with a Head Start program once noticed that the 5-year-old boy was mesmerized by an apple he saw on her desk, so she gave it to him.

``He was so engrossed with that apple, he had to get a bite of it,″ Frayer said.

Now that he’s putting on weight, the boy is showing other signs of improvement.

``He’s in good care and he’s thriving,″ Frayer said.

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