Girl with autism found locked in cage; 2 charged with abuse, neglect

by: Crystal Bonvillian, Cox Media Group National Content Desk Updated:

Michey James Sparks, left, and Patricia Scarlett Laws.
Washington County Sheriff's Office

JONESBOROUGH, Tenn. - A Tennessee couple was arrested Monday night after authorities found their 10-year-old daughter locked in a cage.

Mickey James Sparks, 69, and Patricia Scarlett Laws, 43, both of Jonesborough, are charged with aggravated child abuse and child neglect, according to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office. They are being held in the county jail in lieu of $50,000 bond each.

Washington County Sheriff Ed Graybeal said in a news release that deputies went to the couple’s home Monday evening for a welfare check after receiving a tip that a child with autism was being kept in a cage.

The deputies found the girl inside a locked wooden cage in one of the bedrooms, Graybeal said. A mattress was also in the cage, which deputies reported smelled of urine and feces.

Three other children also lived in the home. All four children were removed by the Department of Children’s Services (DCS).

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WBIR TV-10 in Knoxville reported that Laws, the girl’s stepmother, told deputies they could control the girl better by locking her in the cage, which she described as a “safe room.” Sparks told them he had surveillance cameras throughout their home, including one trained on the girl’s cage.

Sparks also told investigators that DCS knew about the “safe room,” but they could not find evidence to confirm his claim.

A spokesman for DCS told the news station he could not talk about a specific case, but that the method of confinement described in the criminal case is inappropriate.

“In general, confining a child in the way it described in the affidavit is not an appropriate method of restraining a child,” spokesman Rob Johnson told WBIR TV-10. “If anyone, including our staff, discovered such a confinement arrangement, it would require a child abuse referral in itself, absent any other forms of alleged abuse or neglect.”

The news station reported that Sparks, the girl’s biological father, and Laws both disagreed with the charges in court. Laws, who hid her face while in court, mumbled to the judge that she’s been “nothing but good” to their children.