The 15-year-old Tennessee girl who police say was kidnapped by her teacher was subjected to severe physical abuse at the hands of her mother, according to court documents.
Elizabeth Thomas was reunited with members of her family on April 21 after disappearing with her former teacher, 50-year-old Tad Cummins, for a period of five weeks.
The two were found in a cabin in a remote area of Northern California, putting an end to a weeks-long, nationwide search. Cummins was arrested and remains in police custody. He faces a federal charge of transportation of a minor across state lines for the purpose of criminal sexual intercourse, as well as state charges of aggravated kidnapping and sexual contact with a minor.
The Associated Press reports that Elizabeth's mother, 48-year-old Kimberly Thomas, is due to appear in court in May to face charges of child abuse and neglect. She has pleaded not guilty. Her husband, Anthony Thomas, filed for divorce on April 24, citing the abuse as the reason.
The abuse allegedly began in November 2014 and lasted for about a year. Anthony lived in the home with his wife until they split in November 2015, at which point he took sole custody of the children. The couple has been married for 30 years and has 10 children, four of whom are minors.
Court documents indicate that Kimberly hit her children until they bled. She allegedly knocked one daughter unconscious with a wooden board and bruised another's leg by throwing a chair at her. She is also accused of hitting a child in the head after she injected herself with her brother's EpiPen.
At one point Kimberly allegedly banged Elizabeth's head against a washer. On another occasion, she allegedly threw the teen down the stairs before locking her in the basement.
The children penned letters to the Department of Children's Services in which they detailed the alleged abuse. Their mother was arrested shortly after.
David Finkelhor, director of the Crimes Against Children Research Center at the University of New Hampshire, said children who are abused at home are especially vulnerable to predatory adults.
"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 told the AP.
School administrators began investigating Cummins in January after a student reported seeing him kiss Elizabeth on the mouth. They had also reportedly exchanged love letters, according to Radar Online. When questioned, both of them denied having kissed, but administrators concluded that Elizabeth had become dependent on Cummins.
"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 was suspended in February when he defied an order to stay away from the teen. The two disappeared on March 13, at which point Cummins was fired.
Court documents indicate that Cummins devised a plan to escape with the teen after the nature of their relationship was discovered. He reportedly planned to take her to Mexico.
Speaking to WKRN, Elizabeth's sister, Kat Bozeman, said the past week had been extremely emotional for everyone involved.
"What do you say in these circumstances?" Bozeman said. "You want to ask so many things, but then you know that’s not what she needs. You’re speechless. You see them and you don’t know what to say, because she’s been through something very traumatic."
She explained that Elizabeth is currently receiving treatment in a mental health facility.
"It’s a roller coaster," she said. "Some days are good [and] you see her more, some days are bad [and] you see her less. So it’s a long, long road ahead of us."