A girl beaten and tied to her bed, sometimes for weeks at a time, won freedom for herself and her siblings by emailing a teacher at her online school to plead for help.
The email late last month led the teacher to call 911 and after an investigation involving police and children's services authorities led to the arrests of the girl's mother, grandmother and stepfather, police said on Wednesday (local time).
The children all were beaten and tied to their beds, and the 44-year-old man arrested in the case also is charged with repeatedly raping his stepdaughters, ages 9 and 11, and abusing their 8-year-old brother, police said.
The girl and her siblings now are in foster care, attend a bricks-and-mortar public school and seem to be doing well, said Scioto County Sheriff's Office Captain David Hall, who didn't know which of the two girls sent the email.
"I'm sure like most kids she trusted in her teacher that she would get her help," Hall said. "We don't know if the opportunity was there that maybe no adults were around. Or maybe she just had enough."
He called the case "a horrific situation for the children in this house".
The girl sent the email to her teacher at the Toledo-based Ohio Virtual Academy on January 30, Hall said. She asked the teacher to call 911 because she and her siblings were being "tied to the beds and beat", authorities said.
The children later told deputies that they were restrained with ropes and chains for weeks at a time, sometimes longer, and only occasionally were untied to do schoolwork. They also described being forced to take their clothes off to be beaten with belts and paddles, and they had marks and scars to match their stories, Hall said.
Though the children said they were only sometimes allowed to eat and were "very hungry," they didn't appear overly malnourished, he said.
A school administrator said she was proud of the teacher and all the staff at the online school.
"We care deeply about the welfare and needs of all our students," senior head of school Kristin Stewart said in a statement. "Our teachers are extraordinarily dedicated, highly trained, and have special relationships with their students."
At the request of the sheriff's office, the school declined to make the teacher available, saying she was a potential witness in the investigation.
The children's stepfather, originally from the Virgin Islands, has denied the accusations and wasn't co-operating with investigators, Hall said. He's the father of one child in the home, a 2-year-old girl, who was not believed to have been harmed.
Hall said one of the other adults is co-operating and told deputies the children were tied up as punishment "because they were stealing food" at the home in Wheelersburg, a town across the Ohio River from Kentucky, about 90 miles south of Columbus in Appalachian country.
The Associated Press is not naming the suspects to protect the children's identities. All three suspects had their first court appearance on Wednesday, when pleas of not guilty were entered for them. The stepfather is being held on a US$1 million (NZ$1.2m) bond, while the mother and grandmother are being held on US$150,000 bonds.
All are being charged with child endangerment, but Hall said he expects more charges to be filed after a grand jury considers the case.
Hall said the children have been placed in "a very good home with a good family" in southern Ohio.
"They're getting to eat now. They have loving people around them," he said. "They're just little kids. They like to love and be loved, and they deserve all that."