Former teacher, cleared in abuse case, tries to rebuild

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A Citrus County teacher who once faced child abuse allegations has been cleared by the State Attorney's Office.

Denise Hallowell was arrested in September, 2015. On the surface, it all sounded terrible. 

There were accusations of physical abuse, locking her adopted child inside his room and not feeding him. However, the State Attorney's Office soon found evidence, or rather, a lack of evidence to back up those claims.

"Situations are not always what they seem," Denise Hallowell said.

For five months, her life has been in limbo.

"She will never be the same person because, in the back of her mind, we have rattled this woman and this family's foundation," her attorney, Bill Grant said.

It all started with a 911 call. Her youngest of two adopted sons was missing. Citrus County deputies later found the 12-year-old hiding in a neighbor's shed.

"He begins to make this story up," Grant said. "He begins to tell them how he didn't eat, punished with food, he's abused by his mother, locked in his room for hours on end. These things are patently false."

Deputies arrested her, calling it one of the worst cases of child abuse they'd seen in a very long time.

At face value, it sounded awful. Both of her children were taken. She lost her job as a teacher, all the while, trying to explain her son suffered from behavioral and anger issues. She said, sometimes, a lock was the only thing keeping him from running away.

"He is troubled," Hallowell said. "I had logged three years worth of behavior on my youngest son, trying to manage this and take notes. I offered it immediately on that day. That was ignored."

She said her 14-year-old son also tried to back her up.

"He immediately refuted everything his younger brother had said. They talked to teachers. Teachers knew my youngest son through years of school here. They were also in agreement with me," she said.

The accusing child was placed in foster care, but soon came reports of "violent outbursts" and reports he "struck the foster parent" and threatened "to accuse him of child abuse."
Assistant State Attorney Brian Trehy said, given the child's "problems in foster care, his willingness to make false accusations against the foster parent, and the behaviors he exhibited both in foster care" and at home, "it is unlikely that a jury would find the defendant guilty beyond a reasonable doubt."

"The government didn't nolle pros or drop the case," Grant said. "They never filed it."

With that, Hallowell was in the clear, at least in the legal sense.

"It has been a total of five months and a nightmare for five months," Hallowell said. "I am just now trying to get beyond that and pick up the pieces."

Pictures of Hallowell and her sons tell a very different story. There were fishing trips, Rays games and vacations. Each picture shows two happy young boys with beaming smiles.

Hallowell adopted her younger son from Honduras and her older son from Guatemala. She was also adopted as a child, and knows the journey is not always easy.

"There are conditions that some of these children have that they actually grow further away from you," Hallowell said. "Some of that is because of those experiences they had in the past that we don't know anything about."

Despite a tumultuous situation, she said, "I am a forever mom. Many children need good homes, forever homes."

While her legal troubles have faded, she faces a new battle. Google the name "Denise Hallowell" and you'll see the damaging headlines.

For now, she carries a court document containing the words "evidence legally insufficient to prove guilt." For her, it's proof that accusations don't always mean guilt.

"Please give people a chance to explain and families a chance to be together," Hallowell said. "Don't be quick to judge and that is exactly what happened here. It got completely out of control."

The Citrus County Sheriff's Office maintains its deputies "did a complete and thorough investigation and presented the facts of the case to the State Attorney's Office."

Hallowell has her older son back, while her younger son gets the help he needs. Moving forward, she's doing all she can to get herself back into the classroom and back to her passion of teaching.