Monday, October 2, 2023 Oct 2, 2023
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The Uncertain Fate of Wednesday’s Children

In the wake of an unprecedented lawsuit, a disturbing question has emerged: Are some kids too damaged to be helped by even the most loving family?
By Hollandsworth |

THE FIRST THING A VISITOR SEES WHEN HE enters Jim and Bonnie Harlow’s home are the family portraits. On the wall facing the front door, they depict a family at its grinning, carefully groomed best. Bonnie Harlow, the mother, likes to linger over the photographs, pointing at each child, telling stories. She knows a visitor always looks at her family with more than normal curiosity, for her five adopted children are an unusual collection. One is mentally retarded, born out of an incestuous relationship. One is from a biracial marriage. One did not have a home until he was fifteen. These are the kinds of children known as “Wednesday’s Children,” a name taken from the popular WFAA-TV, Channel 8 series that profiles hard-to-place children who need permanent homes.

Now Bonnie’s finger stops on another photograph. It is a picture of a cute little boy in a cowboy outfit. His name is Chris, and he is the first child the Harlows adopted. At the time, in 1978, the Harlows had decided that their main purpose in life was to give kids a chance to be a part of a family. They put a bumper sticker on the back of their station wagon that read “Adoption: Bridge of Love.” They wanted to become, in effect, a “professional family,” adopting a lot of kids, especially those who had bounced from one foster home to another. Their life would be one of cheerful chaos, their East Dallas home filled with toys, Crayola drawings, unmade beds, and couches that sagged because the kids used them as trampolines.

’”We thought it was an injustice,” says Bonnie, “that every child did not have a family. We knew there would always be parents wanting to adopt newborn infants. But what about the children who had been abandoned?”

When the Harlows first went to the Department of Human Services, the state-run agency that oversees the adoptions of children with special needs, they were told about a four-year-old named Chris. The Harlows read a six-page report that a caseworker had prepared. It said the boy would be a wonderful addition to a family, The only potentially disturbing comment about Chris was that he had not “significantly developed relationships.”

The Harlows jumped at the chance to adopt Chris. Sure, it would be a risk, but what child isn’t? Jim Harlow, a self-employed landscaping contractor, could take all the time off that he needed in order to be the father that Chris could finally trust. Bonnie would stay at home. She had majored in social work at college. She knew how to be a mother.

In June 1978, Chris came to the Harlows’ home, and the trouble started. The first day, when he couldn’t get his toys to work, he began hitting himself. Around other children in the neighborhood, he was a bully. He was so paranoid that when somebody walked by, he thought that person was after him. The Harlows feared that if he were left unsupervised, he’d run away from home. Also, early on, Chris began to fondle himself and others, and he was having bathroom problems-all the classic signs of sexual abuse. But Chris never revealed anything about his past. And no one at DHS would tell the Harlows anything about Chris’s childhood before he came to them. According to the Harlows, the caseworker did say that the boy had been abused once. When they asked what that meant, they were told that he had been hit on the thigh with a belt.

’The DHS kept saying, ’Just show him you love him, and he’ll be better. It’s just taking him time to adjust to a new home,’ ” says Bonnie, staring at Chris’s photograph. “But we already had a feeling that something terrible had gone wrong.”

Playing amateur detective, Bonnie tried to find out what records DHS had on Chris. The boy was born in New York and lived there his first two years, and Bonnie found that she could, with a phone call, get social histories of Chris from the state offices of New York. Bonnie learned from one report that Chris’s parents had been mentally ill. As a toddler, he had been bound and gagged when it was time to go to sleep-which explained why the Harlows would, years later, find him sleeping with his hands straining behind his back. Most damaging, the Harlows learned that Chris had been severely sexually abused as an infant by his biological parents. At the time, Jim and Bonnie Harlow had no idea what sexual abuse could do to a child.

THEY DO NOW. TODAY. AT AGE FOURTEEN, Chris Harlow is in a program for mentally disturbed youth at Terrell State Hospital. He has “acted out” sexually in bizarre ways, attacked his siblings, punched his mother in the face, and threatened others. A psychiatrist has diagnosed him as schizophrenic. The Harlows, along with five other Dallas couples who also adopted special needs children, are suing the state, bitterly claiming they were misled, even lied to. They say their families were nearly destroyed because critically important information about their adopted children was hidden from them.

The parents say the state never warned them of the devastating effects that early mistreatment, especially sexual abuse, could have on a child. And they claim that, because the state withheld the nature of the abuse, they were not given the chance to seek the proper therapeutic treatment early on to try to correct the children’s problems. They learned that after a child was adopted, the state had almost no psychological services or counseling program of its own to help him cope. “Once they gave us a kid, with all his problems,” says Bonnie Harlow, “they wiped their hands clean of him.” As a result, the adoptive parents found themselves alone, horrified, as some of their children, battered and emotionally distraught, began to lose control.

Though the mere existence of the lawsuit has weakened one of the longstanding myths of adoption-that a homeless child, matched with a family, guarantees a happy ending-it has also brought up an even more distressing question, one that has been whispered among child psychology experts for the last couple of years. Are some kids so damaged as to be beyond the help of even the most loving families? As distressing as it is, many adoption experts now say that a child who suffers abuse from his birth parents in his early years may never be able to fit into a family again. And recent studies show that adopted children, who comprise only 2 percent of the children in this country, represent between 15 percent and 40 percent of the children who are in residential treatment of adolescent psychiatric centers.

Even worse, DHS officials admit, the children coming into the adoption system are more severely abused than their counterparts two decades ago. Caseworkers figure that at least 80 percent of the children put up for adoption in the state have been sexually abused. For the first time, the idea that a child has a right to a family, and that every child is adoptable, is up for debate. “We’ve gone from warehousing all the kids years ago,” says Dr. Barbara Rila, a respected Dallas child psychologist who specializes in adoption counseling, “to trying to get them all adopted-and now we should find some middle ground.”

In Dallas County, about 120 special needs children a year are placed into adoption (special needs children are classified as racial minorities, handicapped, abused or severely neglected children, those deemed too old for easy adoption, or sibling groups). On any given day slate agencies have an average of ninety special needs children awaiting adoption in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. The average age for children awaiting adoption here is eight- the highest it has ever been. And though the special needs child is certainly a hard sell to a potential parent, there has always been a rather rosy feeling about special needs adoptions in Dallas, almost entirely because of the image created by the weekly segment of “Wednesday’s Child.”

Filled with tender scenes of anchorman John Criswell talking with a hard-to-place kid, “Wednesday’s Child” cannot help but evoke sympathy from viewers. It is hard to watch one of these vignettes without thinking that a good parent can wipe away a child’s past, however troubled. Indeed, Criswell’s reports continue to help attract potential parents to the adoption system. The number of families looking to adopt special needs children in Dallas has steadily risen from an average of ten a month prior to the summer of 1987 to a high of forty-two families who applied this past May. Criswell’s work is also undeniably effective: 95 percent of the children who appear on “Wednesday’s Child” get adopted. “The important point to remember,” says Linda Fleming, who runs the Dallas-area adoption program for DHS, “is that, by far, most special needs adoptions are successful. We often have families coming back for a second child.”

Though Channel 8’s lawyer would not allow him to be interviewed for this story, fearing possible litigation, John Criswell did say that his “Wednesday’s Child” pieces never try to suggest that a special needs adoption will be easy. He argues that, at least, the stories help some viewers to realize they can make a difference in the life of a disadvantaged kid. Moreover, DHS officials say, for every story like the Harlows’, in which an adoption went wrong, they can point to a dozen that go right.

MARV KOCH, A DALLAS SALESMAN, AND HIS WIFE MARY HAVE adopted two special needs children, one of them through the “Wednesday’s Child” program. The boy, now fourteen-the same age as Chris Harlow-had also been physically abused and neglected before he was adopted. “Now, granted,” says Koch, “the first year we had him, we shook our heads and wondered if we had made a mistake. And over the last fifteen months, we still have had our moments, but guess what? He’s turning out to be an okay kid. I talk all the time to parents who have the same problems with their natural kids that I have with adopted ones.”

Koch argues that “it’s terribly unfair to blame your problems on the state. You know going in that those kids don’t come out of the best households, that they won’t be smooth around the edges, that their IQ will be a little lower. But I didn’t adopt them to turn them back to the state for help. If he were my own natural son, would I turn to the state if he had a mental problem? My wife and I accepted responsibility when we adopted these two children, and that’s where it’s going to stay. This is just a thought, but maybe the problem is not that the DHS picked the wrong children; maybe they picked the wrong families.”

But the Harlows say that’s missing the point. They love Chris and do not want to give him up. They simply want to get him help-which is hard to do when caseworkers won’t say what his most profound problems are and what might be done about them. The families in the lawsuit argue that, regardless of the success stories in special needs adoptions-and most of their own children have, in fact, been success stories-when one adopted child goes through an upheaval due to early childhood abuse, parents must deal with a system that has practically shut its door on them. “The unspoken message from ’Wednesday’s Child,’” says Bonnie Harlow, “is that if these abused kids have loving families, then all will be fine. And likewise, if something goes wrong, it’s the families’ fault. But the truth is that some of them come to us so damaged that no amount of love is going to fix it. They’re not ever going to be normal, and some of the kids are not going to be able ever to function within families.”

This is the new twist in the adoption debate. What do we really know about some of Wednesday’s Children? Do parents get the chance to prepare for a hidden side of them, a rage or guilt generated from years of abuse, that can someday explode and shatter a family’s stability?

It is a tragic predicament for those very people who, ironically, cared enough about the importance of family life for children to do something about it. “What we’re having to face,” says Jim Harlow, “is the fact that Chris might end up on the streets.” Chris must leave Terrell in a few months (Terrell can only keep him a year), and the Harlows, who can’t afford to place him in any other residential treatment, aren’t sure what to do next. “What can I do?” Jim Harlow asks. “Bring him back here to the home, so he can hit, maybe sexually abuse, the other kids and attack my wife?”

Other families have stories that remarkably parallel the travails of the Harlows. Reggie and Susan Griffith, a middle-class couple from Plano, adopted ten special needs children because, says Susan, “we knew that we would discover the best part of human nature in these children. And they would uncover the best part of us.” But now three of their adopted sons, fiercely abused by the natural parents, are in a church-run youth home in Missouri, the only place the Griffiths could afford that would take them as they became more uncontrollable, violent, and sexually abusive. “We had no idea it was coming,” says Susan. For proof, she pulls out the DHS report on the second child they adopted, Geoffrey, who was then three years old. The report said he was “quite alert, intelligent, and curious… a happy child with a loving personality.”

“What we got,” says Susan Griffith, “was an extremely hyperactive child who threw feces on the wall when he didn’t get his way. The first time he threw a temper tantrum it lasted six hours. He masturbated excessively. He tried to have sex with dolls in the house. At night, he almost never slept. When he did, he would sleepwalk and scream out, ’Don’t touch my Mommy.”

The Rev. Bob Chandler, minister at Highlands Christian Church in Dallas, and his wife, Cheryl, adopted a three-year-old girl in July 1979 and did not learn until this past February that the DHS had a forty-eight-page record, with pictures, detailing the girl’s sexual abuse by her natural parents. By then she was thirteen and had grown more violent and destructive. The Chandlers were forced, after going through a number of therapeutic programs, to put her in a special therapy program for youth in Colorado. “She is still a beautiful child, and has so much to offer,” says Chandler, “but how were we to help her when we were never prepared for her needs?”

Mary Ellen Malone, owner of a popular Park Cities boutique, found herself charmed by a freckle-faced ten-year-old featured on “Wednesday’s Child.” Mary Ellen already had six children (two of whom are adopted) and knew she could handle one more. She says the caseworker and the foster mother never gave her a clue as to the boy’s past, and that the boy himself, in their first couple of meetings, was “totally adorable.” But soon afterwards, he refused to obey any authority, stole from students and teachers, ate out of garbage cans at school, and disrupted a classroom so thoroughly that the teacher begged the Malones to take him out of school. When the boy began telling a school counselor that the Malones were sexually abusing him, they knew the adoption wouldn’t work. When they gave him back (adoption procedures cannot begin until after a six-month trial period), the caseworker told them the boy had been rejected by at least sixteen other families who couldn’t deal with him. They also discussed, for the first time, the sexual abuse in his past. The boy is now a ward of the state, and Mary Ellen Malone wonders if he will ever have a home. “I suppose we were fortunate that we saw it all in time,” she says. “But I still wonder what’s going to happen to that kid when he grows up.”

For that child, it doesn’t look encouraging-especially as new research reveals the lasting damage of child abuse. “This is still a relatively new field,” says psychologist Rila. “But we are learning that these kinds of children will come into a new adoptive home only knowing about abusive, sexually exploitative adults. They will not know how to express or take love. They might not ever develop any affection of their own. It’s terrible. You have these highly motivated parents, wanting to build a family, suddenly finding all their efforts to love rebuffed. The parents will feel terribly guilty that they have done something wrong. And soon the parents themselves might come apart.”

Though DHS officials would not comment on the specific families in the lawsuit or say why the adopting parents were not given reports on their children, they do say that almost all the cases happened a decade ago, before anybody really knew what the frightening impact of child sexual abuse could be. All DHS officials and caseworkers interviewed say there is no policy that prevents them from sharing everything they know or suspect about a child (the only provision being that they must keep the names and locations of the birth parents confidential). “We were never told to fudge a report,” says Kathy Todd, a DHS caseworker for five years who resigned this past May, frustrated over the bureaucratic snafus in her department. “Nor did we ever feel a need to. We were just ignorant about how certain things would affect a kid… In our ignorance, we left some things off the report.”

“Back then, we might have been in error, but please, it wasn’t some malicious attempt just to get a kid adopted,” says Cheryl Portele, a DHS caseworker for nine years who also resigned in May, also 6ut of disappointment with the DHS bureaucracy. “We were all in uncharted territory. As odd as it sounds now, until three or four years ago, we didn’t know what a potential nightmare we were dealing with. If a kid was nine months old, and sexually abused, we would think, well, she won’t remember that. And now we know that’s wrong.”

But even if the mistakes of yesterday were made out of inexperience, a parent has little assurance that they won’t happen again. For one thing, there is a better than average chance that a caseworker will never find out everything that happened in a certain child’s past. Sexual abuse is one of the hardest abusive acts to document, and caseworkers have a natural reluctance to tell a new parent that the child has been abused if they’re not certain what happened. “There are things you simply will miss,” says Portele. “I can remember one case, in 1980, when I placed a child with a family. And now, the family’s trying to relinquish him back to the state because he’s so severely damaged, getting thrown out of school and physically threatening others. But back when we presented this child to the family, we didn’t tell them anything about his violent nature. Why? We just didn’t know. No one told us. The foster mother didn’t tell us, and we didn’t hear it from anyone else. Years later. I asked the foster mother about that child, and she said something about his violent temper. And when I asked her why she had never told me before, she said, well, it never really occurred to her.”

Other factors make the portrait even more dismal. Budget cutbacks have so seriously reduced the number of caseworkers in Dallas that they don’t have adequate time to learn about a child or a potential family. In 1981, six workers dealt with potential adoptive parents in Dallas County. Now there are seven workers, but they have to cover Dallas and the surrounding nineteen-county region. “The DHS will say that caseworkers have twenty-nine cases each,” says Portele, “but the reality is that caseloads are much higher. And fifteen cases are as many as you can cover. Otherwise, you don’t have time to sit down and focus attention simply on getting to know one kid. It takes a lot of time to see what the family pattern is, what issues are in a child’s life, and whether there are any services in that child’s life.”

Wayne Hairgrove, lead program director for child protective services with DHS, admits that “everyone is trying to hurry. Workers are fretting over whether to spend an extra hour with a kid or go on to another pressing abuse case.”

Adds Portele, “We’re so far behind now it looks like it’s impossible to catch up, and we’re having to spend most of the time in the office with paperwork, documenting our documentation.”

DHS has a high turnover rate, which means cases are often transferred to new caseworkers who must start all over. Says Portele: “Some key piece of information always gets lost as a child’s case is passed from one caseworker to another.” It is not hard to see how a caseworker might take a shortcut just to get a kid into a new home. “Anything’s better than the hellholes where we find them with their natural parents,” says one caseworker.

And if that’s not enough, consider the parents’ most bitter complaint: that the state offers no services to families once they’ve adopted special needs children. Parents of special needs children can receive a state subsidy of about $230 a month, but that sum doesn’t begin to cover minimum psychological counseling (at least $400 a month) or major psychiatric care (up to $15,000 a month). “We don’t have a lot to offer, to be honest with you,” says DHS’s Linda Fleming. “I’ve got too many kids on the front end, waiting to be adopted and no resources to do anything else, If you’re sitting there with a hundred kids who need placement, and three kids who need services after placement, where are you going to spend the money if you have limited staff and limited budget?”

The lawsuit filed by the Harlows and the other parents asks that the state release all information about special needs children, provide better therapeutic treatment, and pay for therapy for the troubled children who are adopted. And in an odd way, the suit is already having an effect. A woman from a town south of Dallas, who had adopted a “Wednesday’s Child,” recently called the DHS Dallas office and said, “You either do something for us or we’re going to drop this kid on your doorstep.” Ironically, the adoption coordinator she reached, Jim Baldwin, advised that she call Bonnie Harlow. “It wasn’t the first time that happened,” says Bonnie, “and it makes you wonder when you realize that caseworkers are referring parents to the very people who are suing them.”

DHS workers say they have increased their warnings to prospective parents about the dangers of adopting special needs children. “There are times now,” says Fleming, “when we’re going to have to say to a family, ’Look, all you can do is warehouse this child. Maybe that is as much as you can expect. You can’t do everything for him.’”

INEVITABLY, THE STATE WILL HAVE TO figure out how to deal with these troubled children. Should they be cared for through permanent foster care, or a full-time residential program with therapeutic treatment? It is a decision that distresses adoption professionals, many of whom insist that the best solution is still a home and a permanent family. They have seen how quickly neglected kids can improve with the security of knowing that they have a new family that will not abandon them. But Rila tells a story about one of her patients, a seven-year-old boy who had been severely abused. He is now at the Cumberland Presbyterian Home in Denton. “As much as we’ve tried,” she says, “he has shown he just can’t live with a family. Now he’s seven years old, and my God, this shouldn’t be happening to him. But I have to ask, ’Is he any better off with a family?’”

Linda Fleming has a slogan on her wall: “All the love we come to know in life springs from the love we knew as children.” And she believes passionately that such love comes from a family. She says that belonging to a family is “not just a privilege but a right.”

But then she adds, in a quiet voice, that she has some kids in the system who just aren’t getting placed with families-and maybe they shouldn’t be. “They are now fourteen and fifteen, and they are saying, ’I don’t want a family.’ And you have to listen to that. But it hurts my heart to think that those kids have no place to go, even when they’re twenty-five or thirty, you know.”

Fleming pauses, blinking back tears. “Irealize there are some kids who just cannottolerate that kind of family intimacy, whichis sad. But it bothers me to think that if wedon’t do something about it now, they’llnever get better. If you don’t try, then haven’twe lost something forever?”

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