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Adoptive Parents Charged With Murder After North Carolina Boy Dies During Supposed Exorcism

Joseph and Jodi Wilson reportedly used "attachment therapies" on their son — controversial practices that sometimes use restraint and starvation to treat supposed attachment disorders. 

By Jax Miller
Tragic and Disturbing Cases of Child Abuse

A 4-year-old boy is dead, allegedly at the hands of his adopted parents who were practicing a controversial "therapy" on him.

Joseph Paul Wilson, 41, and his wife, Jodi Ann Wilson, 38, were arrested on Jan. 13 for the murder of their adoptive son, Skyler Wilson, according to the Surry County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina. The victim died during what one witness called an “exorcism” performed at the Wilsons' Mount Airy home — about 60 miles northwest of Greensboro and just south of the Virginia state line — according to charging documents reviewed by Fox Greensboro affiliate WGHP.

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"This is a tragic event that resulted in the death of a precious child way too soon,” said Surry County Sheriff Steve C. Hiatt when announcing the couple’s arrest. “Please remember the other siblings involved in this situation — as well as the investigators who worked tirelessly on this case — in your thoughts and prayers.”

The Wilsons’ three biological children and Skyler’s brother, whom the married couple had also adopted, have since been removed from the home and remain in the state’s care, according to WGHP.

Police handouts of Jodi and Joseph Wilson

The criminal investigation began when Child Protective Services contacted the Surry County Sheriff’s Office on Jan. 6, one day after the 4-year-old victim was transported to a local children’s hospital, according to officials.

“Skyler Wilson succumbed to injuries he sustained on Jan. 5, 2023, and passed away on Jan. 9, 2023,” according to the sheriff’s office.

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The county’s Criminal Investigative Division, joined by the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation, determined Skyler’s injuries were “related to the abuse sustained by his parents,” and ultimately classified his death as a homicide.

A post-mortem examination revealed the child died of a hypoxic brain injury, which forms when a person is deprived of oxygen.

On Jan. 5, Mr. Wilson allegedly told medical professionals that Mrs. Wilson had texted him at around 5:30 p.m., claiming “something had happened” during a “swaddling” session. Swaddling is normally the practice of safely wrapping a newborn’s body in a blanket to form a sense of security, according to one of two warrants; it is not generally used on children who can roll over on their own.

The second warrant stated that Mrs. Wilson allegedly sent her husband a photo of the boy, face down, wrapped in a sheet or blanket and secured to the living room floor by duct tape. 

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A medical professional told detectives the boy’s injuries were consistent with undergoing “too much restriction” during the supposed “swaddling,” according to WGHP.

Mr. Wilson claimed they put Skyler into his bed — which he referred to as a “wagon” — at around 6:45 p.m. that evening, according to WGHP. At some point, the parents then allegedly placed the child on the couch, where he was reportedly “rigid and semi-responsive,” according to the charging documents.

The parents allegedly tried giving the boy water but, when he did not drink it, they “attempted to pour the water in Skyler’s mouth.”

When responders arrived at the home following reports that Skyler sustained a seizure, he was unable to breathe independently, according to one warrant.

A later search of the home unveiled wrist and ankle restraints, which Mr. Wilson reportedly claimed were used for swaddling. Surveillance cameras and other electronic devices were also gathered as evidence.

One of Skyler’s former foster parents — who had filed a complaint with children’s protective services on Dec. 7 about his current treatment — told authorities that “Jodi Wilson had told her about the ‘pouching,’ swaddling, food restriction, refusal of [Skyler’s brother] to walk by himself, the gating of Skyler in a room for excessive 'alone’ time, and the exorcisms of both children,” according to the second warrant.

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The warrants didn’t elaborate on why the witness referred to the acts as an exorcism, nor was it stated that the incidents were founded on personal religious beliefs.

Mr. Wilson claimed he and his wife had learned the “swaddling” method from Nancy Thomas, whose controversial parenting techniques — including the pseudoscientific “rage reduction therapy” — were featured in the 1990 HBO documentary “Child of Rage.”

Nancy Thomas is a proponent for “attachment therapy,” an umbrella term encompassing many controversial techniques designed to establish attachments between (often adopted) children and their caregivers, according to Advocates for Children in Therapy (ACT).

Attachment therapy — not to be confused with attachment-based therapy — has been largely discredited by the scientific community.

“Adopted children, many from overseas or minority groups in the U.S.A., are often the targets of Attachment Therapists,” according to a publication on the ACT website. “Using scare tactics, these therapists offer parents their unvalidated, abusive, and potentially dangerous therapy for [attachment disorders] — practices distinguished by the use of coercive restraint, boundary violations and hard parenting techniques. A number of deaths, cases of near-starvation, and breakups of families have been linked to [attachment therapy/parenting].”

Nancy Thomas continues to teach attachment therapy at seminars and “family bonding camps,” though she admits she is not a medical professional and describes herself only as a “professional therapeutic parent,” according to her website.

Witnesses told detectives Mr. Wilson allegedly participated in Zoom sessions with Thomas, according to the local newspaper, The Elkin Tribune, though it is unclear if the online sessions included direct corntact between the two.

“I am shocked and saddened to hear the sad news of this little one passing away,” Nancy Thomas said in a response to WGHP. “Since I have no knowledge of the incident, I am unable to give a comment. I am willing to assist law enforcement if they have any questions."

Loved ones, including Skyler’s former foster mother, told WGHP that Skyler was a loving kid.

“He was so tiny and small, but had a heart three times bigger than he was,” said the foster parent, whose name was not released. “I know that I can’t change a lot, but if I could rewind time knowing what I know now, it would be a very different story.”

Skyler and his brother were first placed with the Wilsons in September 2021.

The Wilsons are scheduled to appear before a judge on Feb. 2, the Elkin Tribune reports.

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