PLANO — There's hardly a moment when laughter doesn't fill the air at Motus Digital in Plano. They create video games and animated projects that wow people with their complexity and entertain them with their humor.
For Christmas, they came up with an animated Elf named Herby. Via Skype, Herby talked live with patients in hospitals and families at home, making even the sickest kids smile.
But what happened on December 6 sickened the entire studio.
"I stood there and froze, because I was a cartoon elf at the time," recalled Kyle Blietz, senior producer at Motus,
A little boy who was Skyping with Herby the Elf was screaming repeatedly as he was being hit. Blietz saw a man with a belt in his hand strike the young man.
Motus Digital did not regularly record its Skype sessions, but Blietz and his general manager and art director Michael Daubert grabbed their cell phones and recorded violent screams. The audio is difficult to hear.
"You're hearing what we saw," said Daubert. "It's a scream that's not just a scream of, 'Please, stop'; it's a scream of terror and pain."
The boy called the studio, asking to Skype several times within an hour, and each time the calls ended in screams. Daubert and Blietz didn't initially believe what they saw, and wondered if they were witnessing a parent just disciplining his child.
But when the belt appeared, they felt they were witnessing abuse.
Because parents have to fill out an online permission slip to interact with Herby, Motus Digital knew the boy's name and his town. They called 911 in Plano and were transferred to the city and state where the child lived.
Police there took a report and went to investigate, but filed no charges.
"They interviewed the gentleman," Daubert said. "He said, yes, he was disciplining the boy for being on the computer. The boy said he was on computer when he shouldn't have been, and said he deserved to be punished, and it was left at that."
But for Daubert, that wasn't enough.
The child in the cell phone video kept reaching out to Herby the Elf, and Daubert thinks that is a sign.
"What we saw with Herby the Elf is that the children can connect," he said. "They can connect with this cartoon elf faster than they did to an adult."
So Motus Digital is now brainstorming ideas, and talking to experts in the field of child abuse. They are considering creating a new character which agencies could use to comfort abused kids and educate all kids.
They brought in the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center for an eye-opening seminar in their office. The startling statistics — that abuse is reported within each zip code in Dallas County, and that only one in 10 children actually tell about abuse — made them mad enough to make a difference.
"That's the only way anything ever gets done," said Lynn Davis of the Dallas Children's Advocacy Center. "Somebody is finally tired of it and stands up and says, 'I am gonna do something about it.'"
Blietz and Daubert say they are both forever changed, and they hope people realize reporting abuse is always the right thing to do — even if it doesn't result in charges being filed.
"If you see something, say something," Daubert said.
"There's a lot that can be done, which means there's a lot we can do," Blietz added.