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Pace Case Puts Spotlight On Child Abuse

Airman Shawna Keyes / Public domain

A Pace woman was booked into the Santa Rosa County Jail May 8 on child cruelty charges, accused of years of severe abuse involving her 14-year-old adopted son. 

The case has put a spotlight on child abuse and the recent trend in Santa Rosa.

“I’m in year 38 of law enforcement and I’ve seen a lot of bad things, but this is pretty bad,” proclaimed Santa Rosa County Sheriff Bob Johnson on Monday.

He announced the arrest of 47-year-old Patricia Hyler, who lives on Chalet Circle with her husband, and four adopted children.

Officials believe all of the children suffered abuse.

But, according to the sheriff, the Florida Department of Children and Families referred to her 14-year-old as a ‘target’ child, who suffered the most mistreatment.

“She kept him at home. She cut him on the arms, the head, made him sleep on a concrete floor, a dirty floor,” Johnson began. “And, when she bathed him, she would make him get naked, get out in the front yard, and would spray him off with a hose.”

Credit Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office
Santa Rosa County Sheriff's Office
Santa Rosa Sheriff Bob Johnson holds a news conference Monday to announce the arrest of a Pace mother for aggravated child abuse.

Hyler reportedly abused her son for years, with her acts of violence to include punching him, beating him with a dog chain, and even chipping his teeth with pliers.

“You know, I’m not making this up,” said the sheriff of the shocking details. “It’s incredible what people can do to other people, it really is. It’s so disturbing.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, Hyler was being held on $100,000 bond. More charges are pending.

During the month of April, Santa Rosa County documented a little less than 300 reported cases of maltreatment or abuse, including the Hyler case.

The number is down slightly for a typical month, but Kelly Sanders, a victim advocate with Santa Rosa Kids’ House, says the cases reported have been more severe.

“With the new trends and people being home with COVID-19, we’re seeing a lot of egregious abuse,” said Sanders. “We’re seeing a decline in reported cases due to children not being visible in the community, but the cases that are coming in seem to be more egregious, more serious cases (more physical).”

In the Hyler case, the child abuse was able to go undetected for so long, in part, because the child was home-schooled for two years.

It makes sense that fewer cases were reported for the month of April, because coronavirus has forced kids to do their schoolwork at home and out of view of teachers and other school staff, who frequently make those calls.

“They are often times reporters, because those are the people, who spend time with children. It’s also neighbors and people who deal with kids in extracurricular activities, basically, anyone who sees a child on a frequent basis,” Sanders said.

With that said, Sanders makes it clear that everyone is a mandated reporter in the state of Florida. If you see abuse, you’re mandated to report it.

Credit Santa Rosa County Jail
Santa Rosa County Jail
Patricia Hyler, 47, was booked into the Santa Rosa County Jail on a child cruelty charge. She was being held on $100,000 bond.

In the recent case involving Patricia Hyler, there were four adopted children living in the home, and two additional individuals previously adopted, who had since left.

Sanders says vetting of adoptive parents is the responsibility of adoption agencies in the state, and after about six months of post-adoption monitoring, the cases are closed. From that point on, allegations of abuse would be handled like those involving any other family.

Another issue is the matter of responsibility to ensure the well-being of children who are home-schooled. Sanders concedes that not all homeschooling is done properly and some kids fall under the radar.

However, she adds that keeping track of such children, in general, does not fall under state jurisdiction.

“Florida does not have educational neglect. We don’t have that as a maltreatment in Florida,” Sanders explained. “So, the Department of Children and Families does not investigate kids missing school. That’s not in their wheelhouse. Truancy and things like that are totally separate.”

According to Sheriff Johnson, the abused child lived in the home with Patricia Hyler and her husband for seven and a half years, and the abuse went on for years.

In terms of how such abuse could continue for so long, Sanders said cases first have to be reported before they can be investigated. Secondly, the abused person has to have someone they can trust that they can tell. They have to feel safe.

“That’s something we often see, children report later, especially when we’re talking about sexual abuse and things of that nature,” the victim advocate said of the fact that children typically disclose later when they feel safe to do so.

“That’s something the public has a hard time understanding, ‘Why didn’t they tell somebody? Why didn’t they speak up?’ But, when a child doesn’t feel safe, they don’t typically speak up about such things.”

When it comes to reporting a potential case of child abuse, Sanders says there are certain red flags that people should look for that go beyond the common marks and bruises that kids get as a part of growing up.

“We often explain to teachers and school staff that in order to make an abuse report, you need to suspect abuse or neglect,” she said explaining that it’s not necessarily about the mark.

“It’s not, ‘Hey, a child has a mark on them, so they’ve been abused.’ We all have accidents. We all get marks and bruises on our body. You have to suspect abuse. It has to be something suspicious.”

Credit Santa Rosa Kids' House
Santa Rosa Kids' House

For example, there might be cause for concern if a child’s explanation doesn’t match the injury, or if a young child has bruises around the inside of their upper arms. Children who appear to be neglected, malnourished, dirty, and reclusive from other people, are warning signs as well.

“People say, ‘Well, I thought something was wrong, but I didn’t want to get in the middle of it,’” Sanders said.

“I would encourage any person who sees a child being mistreated or feels like a child may be mistreated to report that to the Abuse Hotline. It’s not your job to investigate. You don’t have to go into details, but if you see something that’s not right, please report that to the abuse hotline.”

The hotline number in Florida is 800-962-2873.

Sanders says anyone who’s experiencing hesitation or has questions about whether to report a suspected abuse is encouraged to call the Santa Rosa Kids’ House at 623-1112 and discuss the matter with their team of child advocates.

“And, I’ll tell you, if your gut feels like something’s wrong, I would always tell you to report it.”

Sandra Averhart has been News Director at WUWF since 1996. Her first job in broadcasting was with (then) Pensacola radio station WOWW107-FM, where she worked 11 years. Sandra, who is a native of Pensacola, earned her B.S. in Communication from Florida State University.