CLARENCE SHUFORD's prison was one without bars. There was no escape from the hands of his "caretaker."

Whenever the frail and timid Shuford, who is intellectually disabled, tried to leave — once by trying to jump out a second-floor window — Barbara Floods allegedly beat him with belts, sticks, electrical cords or her bare fists.

For years, Floods, 48, not only controlled Shuford, 47, she controlled his money. Because Social Security had named Floods as Shuford's "representative payee," she collected Shuford's monthly disability benefits.

Neighbors in the North Philadelphia neighborhood where Shuford lived with Floods said they saw his battered, bruised face and heard his screams after what sounded like a stick striking flesh.

Yet no one wanted to get involved until a late afternoon in November when a caller, who asked to remain anonymous, contacted the Daily News describing Shuford's life of torture.

"Seeing him like that every day, I couldn't go on no more," the caller said.

After checking on Shuford, the Daily News alerted the State Department of Public Welfare and then a detective with the Philadelphia Police Department.

But the very institutions and public agencies that were supposed to protect Clarence Shuford repeatedly "dropped the ball," putting him in harm's way, according to police Detective Margarita Moreno-Nix.

At one point, Moreno-Nix, who works in the Special Victims Unit, feared he was dead.

It didn't feel right

On Monday, Nov. 25, soon after the Daily News received the call about Shuford, two reporters knocked on the door of Floods' home on Park Avenue near Cambria Street.

Floods invited the reporters up to her second-floor apartment, where a barefoot Shuford, dressed in a plaid shirt and gray denim pants, sat meekly on a leather sofa next to a table covered with dusty prescription-pill bottles and an open bag of adult diapers.

His eyes were bloodshot and puffy, rimmed underneath with inky black circles. His bottom lip appeared swollen. He looked unkempt, with bits of white lint stuck to his closely cropped hair. Small flies circled his head.

Floods said she had been teaching Shuford how to count, regularly took him to his "seizure doctor," and planned to take him to a surgeon to restore the use of his lame right hand.

"They gonna fix it. They gonna break it," she said.

Floods said she was a teenager when she met Shuford while dating his cousin. She said that in 2009, she worked seven days a week at a personal-care home, the name of which she didn't remember.

She said she has taken care of Shuford since 2005 after his brother tossed him out.

She manages Shuford's $730 monthly disability payments, she said, and cooks him three meals a day, with a snack at night.

Floods said she has no income and has applied for Social Security disability herself. Social Security denied her benefits for reasons she didn't explain, but she said she plans to appeal. She said that cataracts have left her legally blind.

Floods agreed to give a reporter a tour of the apartment. In the kitchen, the fridge was clean and stocked with a turkey, two cartons of eggs, two pineapples, milk and cereal. The burners to the gas stove were lit and the oven door was open to generate extra heat, Floods said.

Down the hall from the kitchen was a dark room with a splintered wood floor and a piece of thin cloth covering the window. The room was empty except for a small radio/CD player and what looked like a makeshift bed of grungy throw pillows and a man's winter jacket.

Floods first said that this was Shuford's room, then said it was hers.

Down the hall, Shuford told another reporter that he was happy with Floods, whom he referred to as his sister.

"I would never turn my back on her," he said. "She's the only one I got."

When asked about the dark marks under his eyes, he first said he slept funny on his eye. He appeared nervous, glancing wide-eyed toward the hallway to see if Floods was approaching.

Minutes later, he said that he bruised his eyes after a recent fall from a seizure.

Floods had a different explanation:

"His eyes always been dark like that," she said. "He always had darker skin around his eyes. Some people, you know - they're born like that."

The reporters emerged from the apartment unsettled. Something didn't feel right.

A group of men stood on a nearby street corner. In hushed tones, without giving their names, they said that Floods repeatedly beat Shuford. It was no secret - she treated him like "a punching bag," one man said.

"You gotta get him outta there," he said, stealing a look at Floods' house.

'She hits me'

The next day, the Daily News called a state-run hotline that takes reports of abused or neglected people, ages 18 to 59, with physical or mental disabilities.

Within 24 hours, a state investigator working for the Department of Public Welfare's Adult Protective Services program knocked on Floods' door.

Roughly a half hour later, the investigator emerged alone.

Officials for the State Department of Public Welfare said they couldn't comment on what happened, citing privacy concerns.

But speaking generally, a state official explained that an alleged victim has a right to refuse services.

Moreno-Nix, of the police SVU, first learned about Shuford from a Daily News reporter as they discussed an unrelated case of alleged abuse and fraud. Moreno-Nix specializes in cases in which the alleged victim is elderly or disabled.

She checked on Shuford with her partner on Dec. 3.

The two officers separated Shuford and Floods so they could talk to each alone.

Moreno-Nix immediately sensed that Shuford was terrified of Floods.

"When I asked if he was being hurt, he shook his head 'yes,' " Moreno-Nix said.

Then he whispered, "She hits me," motioning with his fist to his mouth as he began to tear up, Moreno-Nix said.

She asked Shuford to lift his shirt and he agreed, revealing a "whip mark on his stomach," possibly inflicted with a belt.

She noted another scar on his back. An imprint of a metal belt buckle, she suspected.

The bare room that earlier had pillows on the floor now had a cot with a flimsy mattress.

Moreno-Nix said, in her job, she wants to believe that there are more good people than bad. This was not one of those instances; she knew she needed to remove Shuford from Floods' care.

But where? A perennial problem in Philadelphia: too few beds for too many in need of emergency shelter.

The next morning, Moreno-Nix planned to return to Floods' apartment with Ana Guzman, a social worker with the city's Office of Supportive Housing where she finds emergency placements for people with special needs.

"Once I get him out of the house and place him somewhere safe, I will interview him concerning the assault, and do a search warrant in search of the belt, and then obtain an arrest warrant for her arrest," Moreno-Nix said.

"I pray we can find a place for him by Christmas because it would be a nice gift for him to wake up somewhere safe," she said.

It would not be simple.

Belt, bat and cord

Shuford told Moreno-Nix that after she left the day before, Floods assaulted him.

Moreno-Nix knew she had to get him out immediately.

As Moreno-Nix escorted Shuford to the door, Floods became angry and desperate.

"Her paycheck is leaving. So now she's really upset. She was sobbing and trying to hold onto him and screaming," Moreno-Nix said. "She was [hanging] out the window cursing and carrying on."

Word spread quickly on the street.

"Everybody in the neighborhood knew they got him out," the initial anonymous caller noted when contacted. "Everybody was happy. It was all about the paycheck . . . She didn't care about that man."

Social worker Guzman placed Shuford in Fernwood, an emergency homeless shelter on State Road, until she could find him a spot at a personal-care home.

During an interview at the shelter, Shuford told Moreno-Nix that Floods subjected him to daily beatings with a belt, baseball bat, stick and electrical cord. He could count up to 30 but could not read or write, and he took medicine to prevent seizures. He acknowledged that he slept on the floor, using pillows and a coat as a bed, Moreno-Nix said.

It was the first time Shuford had been apart from Floods in years. He was scared. He told Moreno-Nix that he wanted to go back to Floods, she said.

"That's very typical, very normal, for someone who has been abused like him," Moreno-Nix said. "That's all he knows."

Fortunately, she said, Shuford did not have Floods' phone number and Floods did not know his whereabouts.

Meanwhile, Moreno-Nix was working with the Social Security's Office of Inspector General to cut off Floods' access to Shuford's monthly disability benefits, which totaled $919, including food stamps.

A long criminal record

Barbara Floods, who had her first child at 14 and uses several aliases - Flood, Mickens and Gary - has a long, and in some cases violent, criminal record. She'd been arrested at least seven times in Philadelphia between 1996 and 2011, when she was found guilty of possession of crack cocaine.

In 1998, she pleaded guilty to carjacking and terroristic threats, and was sentenced to a maximum of 23 months in prison. In that case, she claimed that she had a gun and threatened to blow the victim's head off, according to a court transcript.

Two of Floods' three children were raised in foster care. Her eldest son, who has Down syndrome and seizures, remains in a personal-care home, according to Moreno-Nix.

Moreno-Nix said she was baffled as to why Social Security would allow Floods to become Shuford's payee when she couldn't take care of her own disabled son and was not his payee.

Nine days after Moreno-Nix removed Shuford from Floods' home, she interviewed Floods.

During the three-hour interview, Floods said she did not know how Shuford got six whip marks on his back. She said the belt mark happened when she struck him by accident, Moreno-Nix said.

At the time of the Dec. 13 interview, Moreno-Nix thought Shuford was safe at Fernwood shelter.

He wasn't.

She feared the worst

Shuford had been at the Fernwood shelter six days when he suffered a seizure on Dec. 10. Paramedics took him to Aria Health's Torresdale Hospital.

The next day, hospital personnel released Shuford with a cab voucher. The only address for Shuford was on his identification card: the Park Avenue apartment of Barbara Floods.

The cab driver dropped him off there and drove away.

Neither the shelter nor the hospital alerted Moreno-Nix or Guzman.

Fernwood director Julius Jackson declined to comment.

An Aria Health spokeswoman would not discuss Shuford's case, citing patient confidentiality.

It wasn't until Dec. 18, a week after the cab driver dropped Shuford at Floods' door, that Moreno-Nix learned he'd disappeared from the hospital.

Guzman had gone to Fernwood to pick Shuford up for a doctor's appointment and discovered he was gone, even though shelter records showed that he was there, according to Moreno-Nix.

"I'm going to scream, I'm so angry," Moreno-Nix said when she found out. Both the shelter and hospital "dropped the ball," she said.

She tried to call Floods, but there was no answer.

"We don't know what she's done to him. This is a really serious situation," Moreno-Nix said.

Moreno-Nix got an expedited arrest warrant. Cops arrested Floods that night, and she was charged with aggravated assault, possession of an instrument of crime, terroristic threats and recklessly endangering another person.

Moreno-Nix searched Floods' apartment for Shuford. Nothing.

She feared the worst.

'I can't go back'

For days, police searched alleyways and vacant property for Shuford. They put out a "missing person/endangered" alert with Shuford's photo.

As each day passed, Moreno-Nix grew more frantic. She approached Floods' neighbors, knocked on doors, called hospitals and shelters. She left a note at the house of Shuford's brother. She contacted the city morgue. Still nothing.

Two days after Christmas, Moreno-Nix texted that she was headed back to Floods' apartment and worried she might need "a cadaver dog out there."

Later that afternoon, 16 days after Shuford disappeared, Moreno-Nix texted a reporter, "Guess who we got. W/brother, gained like 15 lbs."

After Shuford stepped out of the cab outside Floods' house that cold December morning, he walked the mile or so to his brother's house on 23rd Street, near Indiana Avenue. Shuford knew the address well. It was his childhood home, where he had lived with his grandmother.

Anthony Shuford, 51, said his baby brother showed up, looking "bony," with a hospital band still around his wrist.

"I was shocked," Anthony Shuford said. "He was real thin. He had an appetite when he got here."

Anthony Shuford said he had been his brother's representative payee prior to Floods. But they argued over Anthony Shuford's "strict" house rules; he chided his brother for drinking alcohol while on seizure medicine.

"He got mad at me and he said, 'Well, a man got to do what a man got to do,' " Anthony Shuford said. "Once he said that, I was like, 'OK, let you see what's going on out in the world.' "

After that, Clarence Shuford went with Barbara Floods to the Social Security office on Broad Street and designated her as his payee. She gave him only $20 a month, which he used to treat himself to a cheesesteak, fries and a soda. If he left, Floods threatened to withhold all his money, Clarence Shuford said in a recent interview.

"She kept hitting me and beating me up and stuff and I said, 'uh-uh, I'm gonna leave here.' She told me that she ain't going to give me nothing out of my check," he said. "So I came back to my brother and told him, I said, 'I can't go back to her no more. She's using me. She's using me. I want to be with you.' "

They walked to the Social Security office and Shuford said he wanted to make his brother payee. But new Social Security protocols barred Anthony Shuford from becoming a payee because he had a criminal record.

So the brothers returned to Social Security the next day with Anthony Shuford's wife, Sylvia, and she stepped in as payee.

"You can take anybody down there and get it switched over," Anthony Shuford said.

"I went there two days in a row, with him. With him!" he marveled. "Sat in there. I couldn't get it in my name so I said, 'All right, put it on pending, I'm going to bring somebody else.' And I went and got my wife and put it in her name."

Clarence Shuford said he feels safe now, for the first time in a long time.

"I was afraid," he said. "I was glad to get out of there."

On Twitter: @wendyruderman