Tenn. teen found with teacher was abused by mother, court documents say

Tad Cummins and Elizabeth Thomas.

CBS News

COLUMBIA, Tenn. -- A 15-year-old Tennessee girl who authorities say was kidnapped by her teacher had endured months of abuse at the hands of her mother, according to court documents, making her particularly vulnerable to an adult predator.

Elizabeth Thomas’ mother is scheduled to appear in court next month and has pleaded not guilty to five counts of abuse and neglect involving several of her children. Thomas’ father filed for divorce Monday, citing the alleged abuse. Thomas was found safe last week with the teacher, Tad Cummins, at a cabin in a remote part of Northern California.

Authorities credit Griffin Barry, the caretaker of the remote Northern California property, with helping police find the girl. Barry will get a $10,000 reward Friday, reports CBS Nashville affiliate WTVF-TV, which adds that the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation may give him the $1,000 reward it was offering.

Federal court documents alleged the teacher had been plotting his escape with Thomas after their relationship was discovered and planned to take her to Mexico, possibly by boat.

Her father has said the 50-year-old teacher brainwashed his daughter. In divorce documents, he said the teacher used his position of authority to “prey upon her, groom her, and ultimately entice her into running away with him.”

The teacher, Tad Cummins, faces federal charges of bringing a minor across state lines for sex and state charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor. Cummins’ attorney has said Thomas went with Cummins willingly and wasn’t forced, threatened or coerced.

School records showed Thomas often relied on Cummins “like a friend and a counselor” when she became upset or anxious at school.

A history of abuse at home can make children particularly susceptible to manipulation disguised as help, said David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire.

“They’re very vulnerable to the grooming because this is an adult who seems to care about them and is interested in them, and that’s probably something they’re not getting elsewhere,” he said.

Authorities said Thomas’ mother physically abused several of her children for about a year, beginning in November 2014. Thomas’ father was living at home during that time, but the couple separated in November 2015 and the father took sole custody of the children, according to the divorce filing. The parents have been married for 30 years and have 10 children together, though only four of them are still minors.

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Surveillance images from an Oklahoma City Walmart March 15 show then-missing teen Elizabeth Thomas and the man suspected of abducting her, her teacher, Tad Cummins, according to officials

Tennessee Bureau of Investigation

The mother is accused of hitting her children until they bled, knocking a daughter unconscious with a wooden board and throwing a chair at another daughter, bruising her leg, court documents show. The mother also smacked a child in the head for injecting herself with her brother’s EpiPen.

The mother said she can’t comment about the case. Her attorney has asked for more detail on the allegations and access to the children’s social media accounts.

The mother has been ordered to stay away from the children, court records said.

The mother is alleged to have banged Thomas’ head on a washer, and at another point, she threw Thomas down basement steps and locked her inside, the documents said.

The children wrote letters to the Department of Children’s Services about the abuse before the mother was arrested, according to one of the teen’s relatives.

Department spokesman Rob Johnson said he could not comment on the case.

A relative of Thomas said Cummins knew she had been abused and took advantage of that information.

“We have a 15-year-old girl with a 50-year-old man and he obviously used his power, his authority to, whether it’s groom her or convince her, to do certain things,” Thomas’ sister-in-law said.

In January, another student reported seeing Cummins kissing Thomas on the lips, setting off an investigation into their relationship. The teen and the teacher denied they had kissed, but the investigation found that the teen often relied on Cummins for support.

“She looks at him like a friend and a counselor who knows how to calm her down when she is experiencing anxiety,” school records said.

Cummins described Thomas as “a really good friend” and told school officials the girl did leave her other classes to come see him “when she needs someone to calm her down.”

School administrators told Thomas she needed to go to a school counselor for anxiety issues and ordered the health science teacher to stay away from her. Cummins disobeyed that order a week later and was suspended, the records said.

He wasn’t fired until about a month later - a day after Thomas was reported missing March 13, when the case began to attract national attention.

Abused children are often exploited by teachers, coaches and other people in authority, but what makes the Tennessee case so unusual is that they left the area together, Finkelhor said.

Still, he said, there’s a reason there are laws protecting children from statutory rape or abuse by authority figures.

“And the reason why,” Finkelhor said, “is we want these people to be thinking about the welfare of children without having their own sexual gratification become part of the equation.”