Home, hope and heart: The antidote for siblings victimized by brutality and neglect

By Stephanie Earls Updated: May 15, 2017 at 8:58 pm • Published: May 13, 2017 0
photo -  Tavis watches videos on his iPad Tuesday night, May 9, 2107, while sitting through the twice-daily treatment to clear the cronic fluid buildup in his lungs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)
Tavis watches videos on his iPad Tuesday night, May 9, 2107, while sitting through the twice-daily treatment to clear the cronic fluid buildup in his lungs. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

In Autavius Ricks' imagination, he doesn't need the wheelchair or really, even, roads. He wakes in the morning and rises to his feet, dresses and hits a button on his sneakers that triggers the appearance of a special jet-powered hoverboard. It can whisk him from his home in the mountains of Teller County to Colorado Springs at lightning speeds, but first he heads off on a cruise around the country, to burn some time.

"The Goodwill doesn't open 'til 7:30," says Tavis, 21, who speaks in a low, raspy voice and phrases that are hard-won but sometimes tumble out in a breathless stream like a rap song - which, occasionally, it is.

"I'm good at two things: Spinnin' records and getting my groove on," says Tavis, through a smile.

His family and friends will tell you that tally is far too conservative.

Tavis is where "practical meets mythical. He's not just imaginative, he's on the case to succeed," says Bradd Hafer, head of communications for Discover Goodwill of Southern and Western Colorado, where Tavis attends a first-of-its-kind program teaching life skills to people with intellectual and physical challenges. Last year, he was honored as the program's "Achiever of the Year."

"I consider him one of the ultimate Goodwill ambassadors. His outlook on life is almost supernatural to me when you think about all this young man has been through," Hafer says. "Dwelling in the past and feeling sorry for yourself. he has none of that in his DNA."

Tavis was 14 years old and had been starved down to just 32 pounds when child welfare workers removed him and his five younger sisters from their biological parents, whose continuous abuse of their son between 2004 and 2009 left the teen unable to walk, talk or support the weight of his seizure-wracked body. The damage was so extreme that Tavis mostly likely never would walk - or live - without assistance.

Before he began twice-daily treatments to clear the chronic fluid buildup in his lungs, talking left him exhausted, says his foster mom/guardian, Nancy Medlock.

"Now, we wish we could shut you up sometimes, don't we?" jokes Nancy, on a late October afternoon, as her Fedora-sporting son executes sweeping ninja-style moves, on his knees, on the floor of his bedroom, a space filled with toys, games and costumes.

"He's such a great kid if you just get to know him," Nancy says. "He's got a great heart and so much love - for his family, his sisters, everybody."

Nancy knows she and her husband, Gary, can't replace what was taken from Tavis and his sisters as the result of years of daily abuse and neglect by the two people who were supposed to cherish them the most. What the Medlocks can give is everything they have - home, hope and their hearts.

"These are good kids, they just come from bad places," says Nancy, who has become the loving mother the children never had. "This is the hardest thing - and the best thing - I've ever done."

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Tavis was born healthy and spent his early years in the care of his elderly aunts and grandmother in rural Georgia. That happy childhood came to an end when he was six and his parents, Bryan and Tonya Ricks, moved to Colorado Springs. Here, the couple's psychological and intellectual issues were compounded by dwindling finances and a growing family, ultimately leading to a case of such horrifying neglect and abuse the details still haunt those who followed the headlines - or, worse, became personally involved.

An electrician who would testify at the sentencing hearing for the Ricks recounted a 2008 visit to the family apartment in which he unsuspectingly opened the door to the bedroom where Tavis and his five sisters were kept.

"He said the smell just about knocked him over. All the girls ran and hid when he walked in and weren't making a peep. He saw Tavis in a frog position on the floor, covered in his own feces and urine, with flies crawling on him, and he thought he was dead," Nancy says.

Robert Stout retreated outside to call police, then returned to the bedroom, this time noticing that though the child on the floor was utterly motionless - even when a fly landed on his cheek - his eyes were half-open and tracking movement.

"I know if that were my son on the floor, I would pray that somebody would call," Stout told the court.

By the time authorities arrived that day, though, Tavis had been cleaned up and moved to a separate bedroom - within earshot but a world away from his beloved sisters - where he remained until the Colorado Department of Human Services investigated a second alert from a family friend, in 2009. That call set in motion the wheels that ultimately brought Tavis and his sisters to the Medlock's care, and led to criminal charges for Bryan and Tonya Ricks, who in September 2011 pleaded guilty to child abuse resulting in serious bodily injury and were sentenced to 25 years in prison.

"When the police finally came and found Tavis and flew him to Children's Hospital in Denver, he was near death," Nancy says, her voice strengthening with outrage. "They said he would not have lasted another week. Thank the Lord they found him."

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Nancy's childhood dream was to run an orphanage, so she and Gary, an optimistic Mr. Rogers-type who loved kids, made a perfect team. Together, they raised five boys and two girls, but in 2009, with only two high school-aged teens still living at home, the couple decided they weren't ready for an empty nest. A friend told them about the desperate need for foster homes and encouraged them to become certified, so they did. Soon after, Nancy even left her job as a mortgage broker, and the family's primary breadwinner, so she could devote her life full-time to helping vulnerable children.

Nancy and the youngest of her biological children, Stephen, then 15, were shopping for clothes for two boys the family recently had taken in, on a respite care basis, when she got the call: five sisters, infant to age 10, had been removed from their abusive parents. The sisters' older brother already was in foster care in a therapeutic home certified for the medically fragile, and now the girls needed immediate, emergency placement.

"They said, 'We've got 10 minutes before we have to start splitting them up,'" says Nancy. She tried to reach her millworker husband on his cell phone; when Gary didn't answer, she made the decision for them both.

"I know my husband's heart. When he called back, I said 'Guess who's coming to dinner?'" says Nancy, who headed home to prepare room for five more in the house where the family lived at the time - an abode with four bedrooms and 1,600 square feet in northeast Colorado Springs.

The girls arrived in January 2010, with nothing but the clothes on their backs and teddy bears given to them by police. All were severely malnourished, scared, sick and suffering from a host of ailments including untreated dental issues and severe allergies, bladder, ear and respiratory infections.

"Anyone entering the house needed to wear a mask and gloves. We had the nebulizer going 24/7," Nancy says.

The oldest, 10-year-old Shykira, had tried to teach her sisters to read and write, but the girls had a vocabulary that could fit on an index card. Their muscles were so weak they couldn't hold a pencil. The baby, Rayna Joy, didn't make a sound. In 6-and-a-half-months on the planet, she'd learned crying did no good.

"She was in survival mode. They all were," says Nancy.

A family friend who was a nurse helped stabilize the girls enough so that they could attend school. But in addition to their medical needs, each child, each week, needed multiple sessions of physical therapy, as well as occupational and play therapy. The routine was rigorous, and round-the-clock.

"We had 40 appointments a week at one point. We'd be doing speech therapy in the car on the way to another therapy appointment," says Gary.

Tears of exhaustion were a not-uncommon prelude to brief, fitful nights of sleep in those early months, says Nancy, who credits the family's success to support provided by her friends and older children, as well as the faith, medical and child welfare communities, including El Paso County foster care and adoption placement agency Hope and Home.

"Nancy has been very wise about how she's done this. She's like, I know I can't do this on my own so I'm going to get as much help as I can," says Heather Thompson, of A Safe Place to Grow Counseling, who meets with the girls weekly, for play therapy, on a pro bono basis.

As their physical health improved and they began to grow more comfortable, the children opened up to their counselors and foster parents about parts of a life Nancy shudders to imagine.

"They talk about the time at the house the cat came to the window," she says. "How can you understand that kind of deficit?"

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Foster parents caring for children who've been raised in a culture of abuse face challenges unlike parents whose children have been reared, in love, since birth, says licensed professional counselor Linda Klein, of A Children's Counseling Center in Colorado Springs.

"With these kids, it takes a different parenting style. Consequences - the if-then - don't work," Klein says.

With her own child, for instance, Klein's stance of authority might mean acting "bigger and stronger" and elevating her voice. With children who've been brought up to expect "worst-of-the-worst" outcomes, a threatening stance doesn't work.

"For my kid, the worst-of-the-worst is maybe an hour less screen time. For these kids, the worst-of-the-worst could be a blow to the head. It's really scary, dark stuff," Klein says.

Counseling and caring for sibling groups from abusive situations requires an understanding that even children raised in the same home, by the same people, may have had an entirely different experience - emotionally, physically and psychologically.

For some, healing means finding a way to exorcise survivor's guilt, Klein says.

For Tavis, it meant accepting that love doesn't have to make sense.

Despite the prolonged abuse he suffered at their hands, Tavis was the only one of his siblings to form an emotional connection with his parents, says Nancy.

"One of the hardest parts is knowing that he was old enough to understand that how his parents treated him was not right," she says. "Tavis loves them and he's prayed for them before and asked for them to be forgiven, but he knows it was wrong, what happened."

Soon after she started working with Tavis, Klein began helping him assemble a "Life book," to tell the story that he cannot.

"For Tavis, there are all kinds of deficits he would not have had had he not been neglected," says Klein, who typed down Tavis' story as he dictated. "His mind is fine, but he has difficulty expressing that, so he just needed an outlet to tell his story in his own way. I thought he was very brave to be willing to sit down and do that."

Tavis knows the story of his life is unique, and not his alone. As the oldest, he is the keeper - and corrector - of memories.

"He'll bring the book out and show the girls, like, 'No, that's wrong. This is what really happened," Nancy says.

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For about four years after the Medlocks took in his sisters, Tavis continued to live in a different therapeutic foster home. Once the Rickses parental rights officially were terminated and the Medlocks adoption of the girls finalized in 2011, Nancy and Gary called a family meeting to decide how to spend the federal adoption tax credits.

"All of the girls wanted to use it to find a home where they could live together, with their big brother," says Nancy, who by then was a certified nursing assistant qualified to provide the level of therapeutic care Tavis required.

The mountain compound with the bunkhouse and rambling main home, on almost 20 acres southeast of Woodland Park, was perfect - and well beyond the Medlock's financial reach.

"This is one of the first houses we looked at, and after that we compared every house to it. It had been empty for a while, and needed lots of work, but it was so incredible," says Nancy, who needed a home not only large enough for all the kids but with a layout that worked for Tavis and could be modified for wheelchair access.

The girls immediately named the home "Fancy Pants Dude Ranch" and the Medlocks put in an offer. They knew investors with much bigger coffers were competing for the property, so tried not to get their hopes up. Months later, they still hadn't found a place that met both needs and budget. When Nancy's biological son, Ryan, now 38, called to say they'd gotten the house, she wasn't sure what he meant.

"I asked, 'What house?' and he said 'The house,'" says Nancy, whose son flipped houses for a living and, unknown to her, had put up his home for cash and used the money to buy the Woodland Park property.

"These kids went from looking out the window to see a cat, to picture windows with a view of forest and mountains," says Nancy.

The family moved into the ranch in the fall of 2012, and the following year - just in time for his 18th birthday - Tavis joined them.

Since being laid-off from his job in late 2016, Gary has taken over primary care duties for Tavis. While Nancy focuses on the girls, Gary gets Tavis up and dressed in the morning, bathes and prepares him for bed at night and, four days a week, drives him 25 miles to the Possibilities program in the Springs, Tavis' "home away from home."

Nancy is 58 and Gary, 63. They know they can't keep up this level of parenting forever, and it's an eventuality they've already begun planning for. Three of the Medlocks' biological children, Lewie, Patricia and Stephen, also have become certified nursing assistants and intend to take over as caregivers when their parents no longer can handle the responsibilities.

It takes a village, and there's room for it at the Fancy Pants Dude Ranch: A place for Patricia, 24, who moved home to help out last year, and a turret bedroom for Shykira, who will be getting her driver's license soon. There's a wide open living room, where Tavis and his sisters do in-home physical and speech therapy, comfy furniture that doesn't look at all second-hand, and a cozy nook with a fireplace where the family plays Uno. There's a wide back deck where they sit, all together, to watch sunsets and carve Halloween pumpkins, and a yard big enough to toss a football and keep baby chickens in a coop.

Tavis has his own room and bath at the back of the big house, at the base of a long ramp and across the hall from his parents. Each of the girls has her own space on the second level, but Nancy and Gary still often climb the stairs in the morning to find them nestled together, like puppies, in the same room.

"They're all still afraid to be away from each other," Nancy says.

Her job now is to prepare the sisters - and their big brother - for a future where that is not the case.

Shykira, 18, wants to be a chef, and 14-year-old Gavriella, a nurse and foster mom. Hannah, 13, and Eliana, 11, are learning French, and 7-year-old Rayna Joy, just wants to be in Nancy's arms.

Tavis wants to defy the odds and someday walk, without assistance. To do that he knows he first needs to grow strong, like Stephen - and like that guy on the poster in the fitness room at the Possibilities headquarters off Garden of the Gods Road.

"See that man up there? I want to have arms like boulders," Tavis says. "I'll get there."

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