A Washington County couple accused of keeping their autistic daughter in a cage pleaded guilty Thursday to lesser charges and were sentenced to serve probation, largely due to what a prosecutor called an overreaction to how the parents cared for the girl.
Assistant District Attorney General Erin McArdle said while the circumstances at the couple’s 151 Miller Crossing Road home were unkept and seemed “horrific” at the time, the girl in question was not neglected in terms of not being cared for. In fact, a video surveillance camera in the room documented how the girl’s siblings and parents interacted with her on a consistent basis.
Mickey Sparks, 71, and Patricia Laws, 45, were each charged with aggravated child abuse and neglect Feb. 6, 2017, after Washington County deputies were sent to the home on a child welfare check. Sparks and Laws both entered a “best interest” plea to the lesser charge of child neglect, which means they didn’t completely agree with the state’s facts of the case but agreed a jury could likely convict them. They each were sentenced to one year of probation.
Sparks was also eligible for judicial diversion, so if he successfully completes his probation, his charge can be dismissed and expunged from his record.
When deputies went to the residence of Sparks and Laws on the welfare check, the couple consented to a search of the house and officers came to a bedroom that had a wooden cage that had no top but was padlocked.
Inside that area was a girl lying on a small mattress. Deputy Jared Taylor said in a court affidavit that the girl did not appear to be in distress. When he asked Laws about the girl, Laws “explained that the child was autistic and they were able to control the child better by locking her up. She referred to this as a safe room. Patricia (Laws) advised this is also where the child slept at night (and Department of Children’s Services) had approved the caged area.”
The Children Were Removed
But according to McArdle, once the children were taken into DCS custody and placed in the highest level of foster care, it became clear that the autistic girl had more problems than even trained professionals could handle. McArdle said Thursday that the parents didn’t have outside services to help with their daughter, and that Sparks was the primary caregiver of all the kids.
As the case progressed, McArdle made the decision to reduce the charges after DCS implemented a parenting plan that Sparks completed in order to regain custody of his other three children. The autistic child will remain in a facility where she will get the appropriate care she needs, McArdle said. Laws isn’t yet allowed to have unsupervised contact with the children because she has not completed the parenting plan.
As of Thursday, Laws was in jail for violating her bond monitoring, but she was scheduled to be released to start her one year of probation.