Last Saturday, about a 10-minute drive up the road from where I live, law enforcement responded to a 9-1-1 call in a quiet, middle class neighborhood. Someone had reported that a girl had climbed over their fence and entered their screened-in patio. The child was non-verbal. Authorities would later learn she is autistic.
Responding officers were able to learn from the child that she lived next door. When they knocked, a woman spoke from the other side of the door but would not open it. After some time had passed, officers saw the woman climb over the backyard fence and come around the side of the house to meet them at the front door.
She told them she had been asleep and had not realized the child had escaped the home. When officers asked if they could check inside the home for “environmental hazards,” she denied them entry.
Later in the day, the police were called again to the same residence. The child had once more fled to the neighbor’s house. Officers spoke once more with the child’s caregiver and were again denied entry into the home. According to Wesh2 News, police said that this time the woman told them that she was “at the end of her rope.” That if they were to see inside the house, they would call DCF.
The following day, an investigator from the Florida Department of Children and Families did indeed show up to the home. Entering the home through the back door, what the investigator found inside was horrifying — and tragic.
According to police records, “the immediate smell of feces and urine was strongly present.” Trash littered the floor to the point that the floor was no longer visible. There were no working bathrooms — no running water at all. The woman, Melissa Doss, 43, told officers that they had been using a bucket and would “throw the waste in the backyard.” There were bugs of all types everywhere, including spiders and flies. Mold permeated the entire home. Parts of the roof had caved in or collapsed. There was no “access to food” in the home.
Most disturbing and heartbreaking of all, officers discovered in the woman’s bedroom, beside her bed, a large homemade cage. Made of wood and a metal like chicken wire, the cage was tall, almost to the ceiling, and with enough space to accommodate a twin bed. Inside the cage was a blanket and pillow. Investigators said Doss told them that she used the cage to lock the child up during the night “to keep her inside the house.” That every morning, the little girl would scream until Doss let her out. Doss said that due to the girl’s severe autism, locking her in the cage at night was her attempt to keep the girl from escaping the home — that she was trying to keep her safe.
There was at least one other child in the home besides the girl who scaled the fence, possibly two others. Reports vary, but at least one other child shared the bed beside the cage with Doss.
Officials took the children into custody and arrested Doss. The Monday following the discovery of the condition of the home, Doss appeared before a judge and was charged with three felony counts of child neglect without bodily harm and aggravated child abuse as aggravated assault. According to county records, bond was set at $22,500.
How did this happen?
This story makes me sick to write. This series is called “true crime,” but this crime doesn’t feel like the others I cover — senseless murders committed by blood-thirsty psychopaths. This just feels sad. Part of me wants to condemn this woman for hurting these children in this incomprehensible way, especially a child who is autistic and needs and deserves the very best love and care we can offer. But another part of me also wants to know what this woman was struggling with that led her to a path where she basically just … gave up. Why didn’t she ask for help? Did she know she could have?
In a crumbling home with no running water (and I’m assuming no electricity given the other details, which means inside the home was likely at least 85 degrees), during a pandemic and a sweltering Florida summer with no school-provided services to help her manage a child who surely requires devoted round-the-clock care … Did Melissa Doss suffer from mental illness? Addiction? Police reports did not indicate any signs of drug use in the home. How long were she and these kids living like this? What led her to spiral to this point?
I’m not suggesting we excuse this woman’s behavior, no matter what the cause – not in the least. The children need to come first in this situation. But as a parent of two relatively “easy” children and with plenty of support systems in place, I myself have occasionally felt at the “end of my rope.” I can’t help but wonder what it must be like to be a single caregiver of two or three children, one of whom is autistic and nonverbal who apparently has a propensity to escape the house at night. If a person doesn’t feel they have the resources to help themself, if their house is crumbling around them and they don’t have the money to fix it, if they’re dealing with a host of other variables that worsen existing issues … how long would it take for a person to completely give up hope?
Looking at the pictures of the interior of Melissa Doss’s home, it’s impossible not to conclude that there was some sort of mental illness at play. Nobody who lives in that kind of filth can be mentally healthy.
Maybe she was simply an awful person who abused or neglected the children who were in her care (reports were unclear as to whether the children were hers). But maybe Melissa Doss really was a person at the end of her rope who believed there was no one who could, or would, help her.
It is a crime to neglect children, as it should be. These children need to be put first — they need to be loved and cared for. It makes me physically ill to think of a child being locked in a literal cage, especially when that child lacks the ability to verbally express her needs. It’s horrific.
But I also hope that the police and social workers who showed up to take those children approach Melissa Doss from a place of trying to help and heal her, as clearly she was struggling too.