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Blaze News investigates: Michigan foster parents accused of child abuse and the adult children who have come to their defense
Photo shared with Blaze News

Blaze News investigates: Michigan foster parents accused of child abuse and the adult children who have come to their defense

On December 4, 2023, Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel announced that her office had charged two sets of foster and adoptive parents — Jerry and Tam'al Flore and Joel and Tammy Brown — with various crimes related to child abuse, as Blaze News previously reported. The charges against the defendants are so serious in nature that all four face life in prison if convicted.

While Michiganders of goodwill reeled with shock over the alleged crimes, some members of the Flore family and their friends reeled with shock that Jerry and Tam'al, of all people, had been accused of them. Four of the Flores' adult children, one of their sons-in-law, and several family friends spoke with Blaze News, and without exception, all came to the Flores' defense and vehemently repudiated all accusations of criminal or ethical wrongdoing in their case.

Blaze News also spoke with one relative of the Browns who similarly denied all accusations against them and who implored us to take a closer look at the Browns' and Flores' cases. However, on the advice of counsel, Joel and Tammy Brown opted not to speak with us other than to say that they both had "passed 3 polygraphs at the beginning of the case." Messages left with the Browns' attorneys were not returned.

'Doing what God has called them to do': The Flores' large family

In many ways, Jerry and Tam'al Flore are living the American dream. They are both in their 50s, have been married for 37 years, and have spent most of that time living in a large, beautiful home on 15 acres in DeWitt, Michigan, a quiet, rural city of nearly 5,000 residents just north of Lansing.

They also have 18 — that's right, 18 — children, only two of whom came into the family the old-fashioned way. The other 16 were welcomed into the family by way of adoption, mostly because the Flores wanted to keep biological siblings together.

Over a 20-year period, the Flores also opened their home to more than 40 other foster children, bringing the total number of children who were placed in their care at one point or another to nearly 60. The Flores told Blaze News that they are just as surprised as anyone at the way their family grew.

"We never purposed to have that many, but we did feel that we were called to do this," insisted Tam'al. Tam'al is an adopted child, and several of Jerry's cousins are adopted as well, so adoption always seemed natural and appealing to them.

The Flores are also devout Christians, and they see adoption as a means of living out their faith. "Scripture talks about taking care of the widows and the orphans," Tam'al explained, "and we have taken that very seriously."

Neighbor Roberta Pennock, who attends the same church as the Flores, expressed a similar idea. "From what I know of them as people and as Christians," Pennock said, "I believe that they've been doing what God has called them to do, and they've been praying about it."

Joshua Flore, the Flores' 33-year-old biological son, an open and affable man with some cognitive disabilities who has held a steady job for more than a decade, told Blaze News that his adopted brothers and sisters have all been "wonderful" answers to his prayers. "It was almost like we were supposed to have them," he said.

The entire Flore family, circa 2019. (Featured: Jerry Flore, Tam'al Flore, Shamber Brown, Sierra Flore, Christian Flore, and Josh Flore. The other faces have been obscured to protect their privacy.)Family photo shared with Blaze News

'Under the guise of discipline': Accusations of child abuse

In her December 4 press conference, Nessel, flanked by a team of female assistants, alleged that the Browns and Flores, longtime friends who live just down the street from one another, had subjected their adopted children to "routine and systemic mental and physical abuse under the guise of discipline." For this reason, Nessel's office has issued 36 total charges against the four defendants, though the vast majority of the charges have been issued against the Flores.

Jerry Flore has been charged with six counts of first-degree child abuse and one count of first-degree child abuse in the presence of another child, each of which carries a life sentence, two counts of second-degree child abuse, one count of conspiracy to commit second-degree child abuse, and misdemeanor interfering with a police report. Tam'al Flore faces all those charges plus an additional six counts of third-degree child abuse, bringing her total number of charges to a staggering 17.

The Flores' five minor children were removed from their home in July 2021 after a complaint from an in-law of Natiana Castillo, the Flores' 22-year-old adult adoptive daughter. In addition to Castillo and her in-law, five other adult Flore children — including their 30-year-old biological daughter, Mariah "Ryah" Wideman — have accused the Flores of abuse.

Neither Wideman nor Castillo responded to Blaze News' request for comment. Castillo is now believed to be divorced, reportedly on account of domestic violence.

Both the Flores and Browns had also already been charged with abuse at the local level in connection with one of the Browns' then-adopted daughters, who was sent to the Flores for respite care before she was 13 years old because of her severe, sometimes even violent, behaviors related to mental illness. The Flores were charged for allegedly abusing the girl, while the Browns were accused of keeping their daughter in an allegedly abusive environment.

In July 2022, a judge dismissed the case against the Browns because of insufficient evidence, and the following spring, a prosecutor dropped the charges against the Flores. The Browns have since relinquished parental rights over the girl, and she is now reportedly in a residential foster care facility.

'Personal, financial gain': The Flores' alleged motive

During her speech, AG Nessel repeatedly indicated that the Flores and Browns were motivated to foster and adopt so many children because of the subsidies given to foster parents to offset the cost of care. "The Flore and Brown defendants were easily able to manipulate the system to receive over $1 million tax-free," she said. The scheme was "all for personal, financial gain," she added elsewhere.

In their communications with Blaze News, the Flores said that they had received just over $562,000 in foster-related subsidies since 2007 but noted that they had also assisted a total of 59 children and adopted 16 of them during that time. The couple claimed that they regularly spent between $2,500 and $3,000 a month on food alone.

They also added that they didn't just feed their kids. They claimed they also provided them with "clothing, sports, pets, taekwondo, vacations every year, classes/tutors, acting lessons, horses, music lessons, row boat, jet-ski, kayaks, canoes, paddle boat, pontoon, vacation home, camps, curriculum, braces ... [and] cars."

Josh Nunez, who has known the Flores for at least a decade and has spent a significant amount of time with them at their home and on family trips together, also told Blaze News that the Flores spared no expense when it came to their children. "The amount of generosity that they [show] towards others" and "the things they've done for their kids ... put me to shame," Nunez said.

Josh and Jerry FlorePhoto shared with Blaze News

'A reaction to the action': The Flores and corporal punishment

Perhaps the most controversial aspect of the Flores' approach to parenting is the fact that they spanked their biological and adopted children when they were little. Though Michigan foster parents are prohibited from exacting any form of corporal punishment on any child living in their home, once the Flores adopted the children, they were able to incorporate spanking into their discipline regimen.

Until recently, spanking, sometimes referred to as paddling, did not raise many eyebrows since it was such a common practice. In fact, at least 15 states still allow teachers and staff in public schools to use corporal punishment, and a district in Missouri recently reintroduced the practice in certain circumstances, reportedly at the behest of local parents.

Michigan law does not permit corporal punishment in public schools. Private schools in the state can use it in theory, though it is unclear whether any of them still do.

All four adult Flore children who spoke with Blaze News confirmed that they had been spanked as children, but all of them claimed that the spankings were always proportional to their misbehavior and short in duration. They also stated that they were no longer spanked by the time they reached middle school.

"I never got a consequence not knowing why I was getting a consequence or not knowing I'd done something wrong," said Christian Flore, a 22-year-old online content creator and business owner who now shares an apartment with his 23-year-old biological sister, Sierra Flore. "There [was] always a reaction to the action."

Some Flore children claimed they had been spanked with a soup ladle. Others said their parents had used a decorative paddle. All of them insisted that their punishment was just.

"Kids aren't perfect," Sierra claimed. "They're going to get in trouble; they're going to get spanked."

"I feel like almost all the spankings I got, I deserved," Christian added. He likewise stated that he intends to discipline his future children in a similar manner.

"What my parents did, what they instilled in us was something I want to translate into my own kids in the future because they held us to such high standards," he said. He also admitted that he sometimes thinks kids in other families "get away with so much [because] they don't have self-control."

Christian and Sierra's 26-year-old biological sister, Shamber — a photographer who married Ramon Brown, one of the Browns' adopted sons, to become Shamber Brown — can still recall the physical and sexual abuse she endured at the hands of her biological family.

"I know what an unsafe setting looks like," Shamber told Blaze News, and "nothing [in the Flore home] made me feel leery or unsafe."

From left to right: Joel Brown, Tammy Brown, Ramon Brown, Shamber Brown, Tam'al Flore, Jerry FloreWedding photo shared with Blaze News

'The square': The Flores put a new twist on an old consequence

As the Flore children got older, spankings and paddlings became less and less effective. Plus, when fostering, Jerry and Tam'al had to enforce house rules in ways that did not involve corporal punishment but that would nonetheless have an impact on vulnerable minors who had often already suffered abuse from biological relatives.

One such discipline technique they used was referred to as "the square," and it can best be understood as a form of time-out. Despite reports claiming that the square was a clearly delineated location in the Flore home, the square was actually an undefined space near one of the Flore parents.

While in the square, children could not interact playfully with their siblings. However, they could do their homework or assigned chores, use the bathroom as necessary, and even play with Legos or read books, the Flores and their adult children told Blaze News.

"It's equivalent to being grounded to your room except you're in front of the supervision of the parents," Shamber said.

According to an adoption home assessment conducted on the Flores by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services in June 2014, children in the square were occasionally instructed to engage temporarily in "strong sitting" "with their legs crossed and their hands on their knees," an additional element that gave at least one family reference pause. But the Flores insisted that the purpose of this "strong posture" was simply to help a child "calm down."

In one particularly protracted punishment, one of the Flores' adopted daughters was grounded to the square for four straight weeks. However, Jerry and Tam'al claimed that the girl, who had allegedly engaged in "compulsive lying," remained in the square by choice. Rather than quickly complete her assigned tasks, the Flores said, the girl "was incredibly stubborn and chose to just sit there." She even later bragged to a Children's Protective Services staff member that "she purposely dragged it out," they said.

Missed meals, a flight of stairs, locked bedrooms: Other accusations

Nessel has divulged very little about the allegations against the Flores, claiming only that they committed "heinous and egregious" mental and physical abuse. According to the Flores, she has even yet to provide a bill of particulars that would give them better insight into the accusations against them.

They are thus left to speculate based on previous investigations conducted by CPS and Clinton County detectives. One possible accusation is that the children were sometimes deprived of food for misbehaving. The Flores insist that their children were always given food but added that wayward behavior sometimes resulted in missing a family meal.

"Our known household policy was if a child refused to do a chore, they were then choosing the possible consequence of missing the next yummy meal, but would instead have a piece of bread with butter and a glass of milk," the Flores told Blaze News in an email.

As evidence that their children were always fed appropriately, they pointed to their 2014 adoption home study, which stated that based on the observations of multiple family references, all the Flore children "are well cared for," "have their physical needs met," and "seem to be eating a nutritious diet."

Screenshot of Flores' adoptive family assessment

Another accusation against them relates to locking some of the children's bedrooms from the outside. The Flores admit that for a short period of time, they did lock some of the boys in at night — but for good reason: the boys had been secretly "acting out sexually" by taking off their clothes and lying naked with their younger sisters.

On one occasion at the Flore home, two minor children were caught naked together in a top bunk bed. In her haste to separate them, Tam'al pulled the male child, who was then 13 and estimated to be 5'10" tall, down "three or four" bunk-bed stairs to the floor, Shamber Brown told Blaze News.

One of the Flore boys later told CPS that he had been "smacked down" some garage stairs, though whether he is the same boy from the bunk-bed incident could not be confirmed.

In any case, in an effort to protect the girls from further sexual encounters with their brothers, who are all older than they are and one of whom is their biological sibling, the Flores decided to switch the knobs on the boys' bedroom doors so that they could be locked from the outside.

"Ring videos prove boy's [sic] bedroom doors were locked ONLY AT NIGHT for our daughter's [sic] safety," the Flores wrote in an email to Blaze News.

"We needed to put systems in place so we were not guilty of 'failure to protect.'"

Christian Flore claimed that the unforeseen sexual behaviors put his parents in a "we're damned if we do, we're damned if we don't" kind of situation wherein they tried to balance protecting the girls while also recognizing that "these kids are all minors" with a history of trauma. Locking the boys in their bedroom at night so that the rest of the house could get some sleep was always meant to be a temporary solution that ended even more quickly than expected when all five minor children were removed from the home just a few weeks later.

Among the kids involved in the sexual behavior were three boys and two girls from two different biological families. Before entering the Flore home, the two girls and their biological brother had endured horrendous sexual abuse at the hands of their biological family, as documented in the 2014 adoptive home study. The two other boys had reportedly suffered neglect.

'Just heartbreaking': Important facts surrounding the Flore case

There are several ancillary aspects of this case that may affect the way some view the allegations against the Flores. The first is that Ryah Wideman, the Flores' biological daughter and one of the accusers against them, used to place her children in her parents' care on a regular basis.

"[Ryah] wanted my wife to come down once a week to watch [her two kids]," Jerry Flore said. "... So she would go down and clean their house. ... [We sometimes] would bring the kids up and we would take them for a night or two and watch them so that her and her husband could get out on a date or take a long weekend away."

In fact, Sierra Flore even alleged that Ryah once admitted to deliberately using her children to "manipulate" their mother. "So my mom was kind of always like walking on eggshells with Ryah, thinking, 'OK, I want to be involved in my grandkids' life,'" Sierra said. However, Sierra also noted that she has not spoken to Ryah in years and does not know Ryah's current view on the charges against their parents.

Ryah did not respond to repeated requests for comment from Blaze News.

Another noteworthy fact is that one of the Flores' minor daughters, now 13, has repeatedly attempted to return to the Flore home. Family friend Josh Nunez even recalled a night a few months ago when the girl, who has reportedly had nearly two dozen different foster placements since she was removed from the Flores, ran away from her caretaker and headed for the Flore home on foot in the dead of winter. As the Flores have released their parental rights and could go to jail for interacting with any of the minor children, Nunez was called to ensure that the girl was safe and warm until police arrived.

"[The girl was] crying outside the house," Nunez told Blaze News, "and my wife and I waited there until the police got there and made sure that she was safe and warm inside the garage. The garage is heated, but it's just heartbreaking."

"She wanted to be with her mom and dad."

The girl's older biological brother, who will soon turn 18 and has reportedly been living on the streets, also previously admitted to officials that he felt safe in the Flore home. On one such occasion, approximately six months before he was permanently removed from the home, the boy ran away. He was found soon afterward and transported to an area hospital for examination following a possible suicide attempt. There, he told hospital staff that the Flores hadn't harmed him; he just didn't like their "views."

"Has a good social structure," the attending physician wrote. "... He reports that he ran away due to stressors at home including having different ideological views from parents. Denies any abuse at home."

Screenshot of hospital report shared with Blaze News

A medical resident likewise wrote that the boy had "good social structure at home." In consultation with the attending physician, the resident eventually discharged the boy to the Flores' care.

Screenshot of hospital report shared with Blaze News

After running away on a separate occasion, the same boy told police he had done so because he didn't like the Flores' rules. "When asked why he had run away from the home, he stated that he was tired of being told what to do," a detective wrote in a report viewed by Blaze News. "He did not like being home schooled and wished to attend public school and wanted to be out on his own."

Like the Flore teen, Dana Nessel appears to take issue with the Flores' preference for homeschooling, claiming that "one reason while why this abuse was able to go undetected in the Flore home, the home of the most significant and apparent abuse, was due to the fact that all the children were homeschooled.

"School is often a safe place for children," she continued, "where such abuse is discovered either by the school, by the teachers or the staff, or by the child being away from abusers long enough to be able to disclose what's happening inside their home."

While Nessel is right that the Flores often homeschooled their children, they did not homeschool exclusively. The adult Flore children told Blaze News that they had been enrolled in private and public schools at various times and that they had also received help from private tutors. One tutor, Linda Rice, told Blaze News that in the five years she worked with the Flore children, she "never" witnessed any abusive incidents or received any reports of possible abuse.

A 'targeted attack': Nessel's legal history with the Flore family

These latest charges filed against Jerry and Tam'al Flore are not the Flore family's first legal run-in with Attorney General Dana Nessel. A few years before Nessel took office, the LGBTQ-affiliated plaintiffs in Dumont et al. v. Gordon et al.sued the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services for discrimination because it partnered with co-defendant St. Vincent Catholic Charities, an organization that adheres to biblical teaching about marriage, for foster and adoption placements.

For many years, the Flores had worked with St. Vincent's to foster and adopt children, including their daughter Shamber and her biological siblings. Shamber and another adoptive couple working with St. Vincent's were eventually named as intervenor defendants in the suit.

St. Vincent's was represented in the case by Becket, a legal nonprofit dedicated to religious freedom. Its webpage about the case includes a feature image of Jerry and Tam'al Flore with Shamber.

Screenshot of Becket website, used with permission

In 2019, Nessel's first year in office, the parties settled, prompting St. Vincent's then to turn around and sue the state for religious discrimination. Nessel attempted to have that suit dismissed, but U.S. District Court Judge Robert Jonker refused, slamming the state for engaging in a "targeted attack" on St. Vincent's for its "sincerely held religious belief" regarding marriage.

At the time, Nessel averred that she would "fight to support the constitutional precepts of separation of church and state and equal protection under the law for all Michigan residents and all Americans."

Three years later, the state reversed course and decided to re-establish partnerships with Christian organizations like St. Vincent's after the Supreme Court ruled that the City of Philadelphia had violated the First Amendment when it discriminated against a Catholic foster agency that refused to place children with LGBTQ+ couples.

'Never seen a case this messy': A problematic investigation

The original investigation into alleged child abuse in the Flore home also seems to have been bungled from the start, and Nessel admitted as much in her press conference. "The initial investigation needed more work," she said, "and the initial CPS investigation could have had better documentation and more accurate notes."

When the Detroit News looked into the CPS and police reports about the Flore case and compared those reports with videos and transcripts of witness interviews, the outlet reported finding "dozens of" "inaccuracies and false statements." In one instance, a child had been quoted as saying that Tam'al "used to use the spatula but that left too many bruises," even though transcripts reportedly showed that the child made no mention of a spatula or being bruised, the outlet said.

In another case, a Flore daughter was documented as saying to CPS that her sister Shamber Brown had been "beaten" so "severely" when she was a little girl that she had bruises "from the thighs up to her back" and couldn't sit down for weeks after she threw away silverware rather than wash it properly. However, a transcript of the interview revealed that the daughter made no mention of bruises "from the thighs up to her back" or that Shamber was unable to sit for weeks afterward, though the daughter told the Detroit News that the CPS report still had not misrepresented her overall point.

Shamber denied that she even received a spanking for throwing away expensive silverware, which was eventually recovered. Instead, she was forced to eat with her fingers for a short time, the Flores told Blaze News.

Despite these and other errors, the CPS reports were then copied and pasted directly into police reports, thereby replicating the same inaccuracies. "This is such an inept job of investigating capital crime," said the Flores' attorney, David Carter. "I've never seen a case this messy in my life."

Nessel asserted that these documentation issues did not "affect the actual disclosures of abuse or the substance of the case."

In addition to the documentation errors, it also seems that reports on the case may be incomplete, as investigators have not consulted several people with firsthand knowledge of the Flores' home life in general and Jerry and Tam'al's parenting styles in particular. The four friends and neighbors who spoke with Blaze News, all of whom have known the family for years, say that to date, they have never been interviewed by any CPS or law enforcement officials about the allegations against the Flores.

Sean Dush, one of the detectives assigned to the Flore case back in 2021, has since been named interim sheriff of Clinton County and is up for election this year. He appeared with Nessel at the December press conference, where he suggested that some of the problems in the investigation were due to staffing issues in his department.

Neither Dush nor Nessel's office responded to Blaze News' request for comment.

'We are the evidence': Some children and friends stand by the Flores

Overall, the Flore children and friends who spoke with Blaze News believe that the accusations against Jerry and Tam'al are a miscarriage of justice wrought by bitter or jealous children and facilitated by agenda-driven investigators who believed the complaints against the Flores without an open mind or an appropriate degree of skepticism. As such, many of these loved ones vowed to stand by the Flores' side.
"My parents advocated for us," Sierra Flore told us. "... Here's my chance to return that favor. Here's my chance to advocate for them because they are being falsely accused of so much."
"If anything, we are the evidence."
Her brother Josh expressed a similar sentiment. "They're my responsibility. I'm gonna take care of my family," he said.
"I'm not gonna let them down."

Jerry and Tam'al FlorePhoto shared with Blaze News

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