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Parents sentenced to 25 years in child abuse of son

October 24, 2011

The parents of a Colorado Springs teenager who was starved until he weighed less than 50 pounds were sentenced Monday to 25 years in prison.

In handing down the penalties, 4th Judicial District Judge Scott Sells said evidence introduced at Tonya and Bryan Ricks’ sentencing reflected “continuous and daily abuse” of their son between 2004 and 2009.

“Every day for four or five years, (the boy) lay in his own squalor,” Sells said, addressing the pair. “You didn’t care to call a doctor.”

The couple also failed to get medical treatment for the boy’s seizure disorder, leaving him to suffer through as many as 12 seizures a day. Doctors said their cumulative effect, combined with the malnutrition, left the child bedridden at 14 — unable to speak, walk or even support his own body weight.

Bryan Ricks, 38, and Tonya Ricks, 34, had each faced 10 to 32 years in prison. They pleaded guilty in September to child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury.

The boy and his five sisters were placed in foster care late in 2009 and early 2010, after a report to the Colorado Department of Human Services triggered a criminal investigation, authorities said. The girls were in poor physical condition and struggled to read and write.

Although home-schooled, they arrived barely able to grip a pencil, and had never been shown how to use a toothbrush.

Defense attorneys said the couple loved their children – but were poor, uneducated and too proud to ask for help.

Public defender Amanda Philipps raised questions about Tonya Ricks’ psychiatric health and her ability to understand the criminal proceedings against her. Bryan Ricks was also slow, and learned to live without during a rough upbringing in rural Georgia, according to his defense attorney, Terry Rector.

Tonya Ricks served in the Air Force until 2004 or 2005. Bryan Ricks worked odd jobs.

Prosecutor Donna Billek said the couple ignored offers of help – from their church, their son’s school and the Colorado Department of Human Services.

“This isn’t about the system failing them,” Billek said. “They turned the system away.”

Educators at Pine Valley Elementary School set up the boy with a home tutor in 2005 because they believed his health was too fragile to stay in school. Within a month, however, the Tonya and Bryan Ricks said they were moving to Denver, ending the school’s involvement with the Ricks family.

The Ricks family never left. Instead, they withdrew the rest of their children from public schools, in what Billek attributed to an effort to escape scrutiny.

A school social worker testified that he alerted DHS to the boy’s worsening condition in 2005, but it’s unclear what, if anything, was done to follow up on his complaint.

Billek said the couple were hostile and uncooperative with the agency’s workers, and had rebuffed offers of help from DHS in the early 2000s.

The children remained with their parents until 2009, when authorities received back-to-back reports of possible neglect.

Colorado Springs police officers inspected the family’s apartment after receiving a 911 call from an electrician, but found no grounds for a follow-up investigation. The second call — from a church worker who alerted DHS after seeing conditions in the home while delivering food — triggered the children’s removal.

Philipps said Tonya Ricks voluntarily gave up custody of the boy because she knew a different family could give him a better life.

Described by friends as reserved and soft-spoken, the woman sobbed violently while professing her love for the children.

“If I could go back and change it, I would,” Tonya Ricks said, as Bryan Ricks buried his face into his arms at the defense table. Both said they never meant to harm the children.

Now 16, the boy is struggling to reclaim skills he learned as a child, beginning efforts to crawl rather than rely on a wheelchair.

Despite his progress – and rapid weight gain – it is unlikely he will be able to live independently, his foster mother testified.

The other girls received dental care and other medical help under the supervision of their foster family. Their foster mother is planning to adopt them, and is looking into adopting the boy as well, to make sure the children stay together.

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