His mother wants the adoption dissolved, saying the state forced the relationship.

Adopted teen accused of rape

By COLLEEN JENKINS, Times Staff Writer
Published January 9, 2008


TAMPA - That 14-year-old Hershel Jackson is accused of raping a 66-year-old relative last month is an awful thing.

But his adoptive mother thought long ago that the boy wasn't quite right.

She says he grew angry and manipulative when he didn't get his way. He was arrested on a battery charge in August. And soon after Rhonda Gary-Jackson adopted him in 2001, she says he made clear that he didn't want to be part of her family.

"They forced us into a relationship he didn't want to be in," she said of the state on Tuesday.

Temple Terrace police arrested Hershel on Dec. 10. The eighth-grader had been home on his first weekend pass after many months in an inpatient psychiatric facility.

His mother said she left for about 20 minutes to go shopping. When she got back, Hershel was sitting at the kitchen table holding a knife.

She would later hear that he had punched the mentally incapacitated relative in her face before sexually battering her.

Gary-Jackson recalls how Hershel waved goodbye and wished the bruised and bleeding family member to "feel better" as they left for the hospital.

"No emotions whatsoever," she said. "No remorse."

Hershel was supposed to be arraigned in court Tuesday on charges that together carry a maximum of 65 years in prison: sexual battery on a mentally defective person, lewd and lascivious battery and lewd and lascivious molestation on an elderly person, and adult abuse.

The hearing got postponed because Gary-Jackson no longer wants to serve as his guardian.

Instead, she wants the adoption dissolved on the basis that social workers didn't fully disclose Hershel's mental health history. Gary-Jackson already failed once to convince a judge to undo the adoption.

Adoptive parents assume the same responsibilities as a biological parent, said Andy Ritter, the Department of Children and Families' spokesman in Tampa.

To break ties with an adopted child in Florida, a parent must legally abandon a child. That puts the parent at risk for being criminally investigated or not allowed to adopt again.

Gary-Jackson, 43, is a registered nurse. A documented finding of child abuse under her name in the state registry would ruin her career, said attorney Clay Oberhausen.

Oberhausen represents Gary-Jackson and the victim. Until spring, he was general counsel for Hillsborough Kids Inc., which handles adoptions for the county. The DCF handled adoptions at the time Hershel's went through.

DCF caseworkers were aware of Hershel's mental health issues, Oberhausen said. They recommended that he be committed for the highest level of treatment available, and Gary-Jackson agreed.

After his arrest, Hershel was held in juvenile detention. He moved to a county jail after being charged as an adult on Dec. 28.

But the damage is already done, says Gary-Jackson.


Overwhelmed families dissolve adoptions

More American parents find they can't cope with troubled Russian children

Monday, August 14, 2000

By Cindi Lash, Post-Gazette Staff Writer


In the early 1990s, Russia opened its orphanages to Westerners looking to adopt. The experience has been painful for some parents; as a result, Russia has suspended international adoptions. This is the second in a two-part special report on the issue.

Physicians, counselors and adoption advocates say they are troubled to see a small but growing number of families taking the once unthinkable step of dissolving adoptions of severely disturbed children from Russia or Eastern Europe.

No federal agency or private organization keeps statistics on how many of the 120,000 adoptions in the United States each year are dissolved. But Dr. Ronald S. Federici, an internationally known developmental neuropsychologist, said he was seeing "a much higher incidence of problem cases" that lead to failed adoptions among Russian and Eastern European children he treats.

 Federici, of Alexandria, Va., is noted for his work with disturbed, formerly institutionalized children. He often is the doctor of last resort for families who have been unable to find appropriate psychological help for their children.

"The number is on the rise rapidly," said Federici, whose practice handles three or four cases each month that end in disruption, the term professionals use for terminated adoptions. "It's so sad."

Some of those cases have attracted international attention.

In February, a Georgia couple was featured on the CBS news magazine show "48 Hours" as they took their 9-year-old adopted daughter back to Russia, saying they couldn't find the psychological help they needed in the United States. They later dissolved the adoption.

In July, Denise K. Thomas, 42, of Littleton, Colo., pleaded guilty to misdemeanor charges of child abuse and seeking unlawful compensation for adoption after being accused of trying to sell her 8-year-old Russian-born daughter on the Internet. Thomas contended she was trying to find a new home for the girl after making the decision to disrupt and wanted to recoup some of the costs of the girl's adoption and medical care.

These and similar cases enrage many families, adoption agencies and support groups that, over the past nine years, have been involved in thousands of adoptions of Russian-born children.

They contend the media have blown a few cases out of proportion while disregarding the successes they've had with healthy, thriving children. They also worry that prospective parents who hear about those cases may be dissuaded from adopting.

Doctors and advocates calling attention to the failures respond that they are trying to improve, not destroy, the international adoption process.

That attention helped to prompt the Russian government earlier this year to overhaul its adoption system.

"Adoption is a wonderful thing. I would never say to anyone, 'Don't adopt,' " said Barbara Holtan, director of adoption services for Tressler Lutheran Services, an agency that finds homes for hard-to-place children in Pennsylvania, Maryland and Delaware.

 "Nobody's saying curb the flow [of foreign-born children]," said Holtan, herself an adoptive mother of Vietnamese and Korean children. "But there has to be growing understanding of this problem we're facing and more resources put toward specialized training to stop it."

Swelling numbers

Dissolving an adoption is neither new nor limited to foreign-born children. Numerous researchers have studied it and have reached differing conclusions about how often it occurs.

One study by Case Western Reserve University associate professor Victor Groza suggests that fewer than 2 percent of all adoptions fail. Other studies indicate that the risk may be as high as 10 percent to 20 percent for children who are older, have health problems or come from foster care or institutions.

Those criteria apply to many of more than 1 million children who are eligible for adoption in hundreds of orphanages in Russia and former Soviet bloc nations. Also, Russia's approach to operating orphanages differs from that of China, Korea and other popular destinations for would-be parents from the United States.

While some Russian orphanages in poorer regions are shabby and inadequately supplied, others in Moscow and St. Petersburg are clean and well outfitted. But generally, orphanage officials rely on strict routine to run their facilities.

There is high turnover among orphanage workers, who have so many demands on their time that they often spend no more than a few minutes each day touching, feeding or talking to each child.

Lack of interaction and stimulation often results in children who are developmentally delayed, who never learn to bond with others and who are seriously depressed or schizophrenic. And many of those children ended up in orphanages after being subjected to prenatal drug or alcohol abuse, sexual abuse or abandonment by birth parents.

After the fall of the former Soviet Union, Russia in 1991 began allowing outsiders to adopt its orphans. Russia also allowed parents to finalize adoptions before leaving the country, unlike nations that required parents to first serve as guardians and to be monitored for a period of time.

Offering white children whose birth parents could not reclaim them, Russia quickly became the top provider of children for adoptive U.S. families.

"Those children often were placed at a very young age in institutions," said Madelyn Freundlich, who, until recently, was executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York City think tank. "They are clearly at greater risk because of their early life experiences."

About three years after Russia opened its doors, Holtan said, Tressler Lutheran Services began getting telephone calls from families that, after adopting in Russia, had been unable to find effective treatment for their troubled or violent children.

"It was like nothing we'd ever seen before," Holtan said. "By the time we got eight or nine of these calls, I thought, 'Oh, my God, what is going on here?' And it hasn't let up at all."

Since 1994, Tressler has been asked to find new homes for 103 children -- about 17 each year -- whose adoptive families said they no longer could keep them. Most were from Russia; the rest were from Romania or former Soviet nations.

Tressler workers also were alarmed to see that children whose adoptions were dissolving were young, sometimes no older than 4. Usually, adoptions are more at risk when the children are older.

Holtan's observations are "the prevailing sense in the field" of agencies and doctors specializing in adoption issues, Freundlich said.

Dr. Jerri A. Jenista, an Ann Arbor, Mich., pediatrician who, in 1982, became one of the first U.S. doctors to specialize in adoption issues, said in her first 15 years of practice she needed one file drawer to hold records for difficult cases.

In the past 3 1/2 years, Jenista said, those files require 250 storage boxes or drawers which contain records for 7,800 children. The majority were from Russia, followed by other countries in Eastern Europe.

Jenista said she had one case end in disruption in her first 15 years of practice; she's had at least five in the past three years. She can't be sure how many more adoptions have failed, because parents may not decide to terminate the adoption until after consulting her.

Also noticing an increase of inquiries about disruptions is Thais Tepper of Washington, Pa., who operates the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child, an internationally recognized support and advocacy group.

In the first 10 days of July, five families planning to dissolve adoptions sought her advice. Of those families, Tepper said, three adopted from Russia, one adopted from the Republic of Georgia and one adopted from Romania.

One family was seeking to terminate their adoptions of three Russian siblings.

Some of the families had been unable to help their adopted children curb violent or destructive impulses. Others had exhausted health-insurance coverage and savings and could not obtain subsidized health care because they'd signed pledges to financially support the children in obtaining visas for them.

Limited options

After parents make the painful decision to dissolve an adoption, there are a handful of places around the country that provide guidance.

In Pittsburgh, some turn either to Project Star or Every Child Inc., both of which handle adoptions as part of their work with at-risk families. Elsewhere, they turn to agencies such as Tressler Lutheran Services that try to find new homes for their children from a pool of volunteer families that have undergone intensive training.

But those agencies never have enough trained volunteers. Holtan said between 50 and 60 of the 103 families who sought help from Tressler in recent years still are waiting for new placements for their children.

Still others turn to their pediatricians or other specialists who've treated their children. Federici and other doctors who specialize in adoption medicine also maintain contacts with volunteers who'll take children, but they, too, say volunteers are in short supply.

Adoption professionals often try to persuade families to change their minds by offering to link them with specialists or treatment centers that might help their child. By the time they've contacted a doctor or agency about disrupting, however, most families already have made up their minds, Holtan said.

If a private placement can't be arranged, some parents relinquish their children to already-overburdened child-welfare agencies. By doing so, they run the risk of being charged with child abandonment, and they almost certainly will be required to pay child support until the child is adopted again or turns 18.

Between eight and 10 children now are in the custody of Allegheny County's Children, Youth and Families agency because their adoptive parents have relinquished them, agency spokeswoman Karen Blumen said. Although that's an average number of children, in recent years more of them have been from Russia or elsewhere in Eastern Europe, she said.

As in most states, Pennsylvania's Department of Public Welfare does not track disrupted adoptions. But during the past four or five years, child-welfare workers and foster parents nationwide have handled increasing numbers of Russian and Eastern European children whose adoptive parents have given them up, said Judy Howell, president of the National Foster Parent Association.

"This is coming at a time when the numbers of American-born kids in foster care is huge, beyond management," Holtan said. "It puts another added burden on our local systems."

Tepper said she even knew of families that, after exhausting other remedies, boarded planes to Russia and left their children at the orphanages from which they were adopted.

Expanded oversight

To stem failed adoptions, experts and adoption supporters agree, several things must happen.

Foremost, they back legislation requiring federal oversight of international adoption. The U.S. Senate unanimously approved that legislation July 27; the House of Representatives, which had approved an earlier version, is expected to pass the Senate's version in September.

They also agree that:

Agencies must require more exhaustive screening and parents must take a harder look at their own motivations before they adopt overseas. International adoption has become so expensive -- up to $30,000 plus travel costs -- that only more affluent families can afford it.

Those folks are likely to be well-educated achievers who want their children to grow up to be like them.

They shouldn't adopt, or be permitted by an agency to adopt, if they can't accept a child who, with help, could become a loving member of their family but will never be admitted to Harvard.

Adoption agencies must be required to uncover and provide families with all available information about their children's health and emotional disorders and must be frank about the possible effects of those disorders.

While some agencies offer decent pre-adoptive classes, others skim over potential problems or don't address them at all. Many adoptive parents have accused agencies of deliberately withholding information.

"Preparation ahead of time is absolutely the way to prevent [disruption]. When parents have been prepared and know what resources are there to help, they deal with problems beautifully and their kids are coming along nicely," said Dr. Sarah H. Springer, a pediatrician at Mercy Children's Medical Center. As medical director of the hospital's International Adoption Resource Center, she treats about 300 foreign-born adoptees, about half of them Russian.

Springer and Jenista, both of whom are adoptive parents, suggest that parents who adopt overseas should be required to attend classes like those required of parents who adopt special-needs children in the United States. That's also recommended by the Joint Council on International Children's Services, the world's largest coalition of licensed, nonprofit international adoption agencies and advocacy groups.

Parents should demand that agencies provide them with detailed records about their children before they travel to Russia.

"I would never adopt a child without an independent translation [of medical records.]. You have to ask questions," said Dawn Davies of Families for Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, a Virginia-based support group for adoptees and parents.

"You have to view it like a consumer. [Adopting] is not a commercial transaction, but it is for the rest of your life and the rest of this other person's life."

Agencies should be required to provide more extensive advice, referrals and services to families that experience problems after adopting. While the JCICS recommends its agencies provide those services, no entity requires agencies to do so.

"I can't vilify anyone who comes to that point [of disrupting]. It's an agonizing decision and often it comes down to the safety of other people in the family," said Springer, who's treated two families that later dissolved their adoptions and has consulted on other cases.

"But when difficulties come, it's about knowing where to find a psychologist or therapist who can make the difference. If you find them, you don't have to end up in disruption.

"Disruption is a hundred times worse than divorce. It's divorcing your child. But if families know ahead of time what they're dealing with and they find the resources to deal with their kids' really major issues, their circumstances are more manageable."

So much for permanency...

Posted 1/18/2006 12:22 AM     Updated 1/18/2006 12:30 AM

Underground network moves children from home to home

TRENTON, Tenn. — At the end of a long tree-lined driveway, amid 18 acres that include a greenhouse and gazebo, sits a historic plantation home where, a state indictment says, children were beaten and forced to sleep in a totally enclosed baby crib.

Tennessee is charging the owners, Debra and Tom Schmitz, with abusing some of their 18 children, most of them disabled. The state says Debra Schmitz threw a knife at one child, held two children underwater for punishment and forced five to dig holes in the ground that would be their graves.

The couple, whose trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 30, are also charged with child trafficking for moving a girl to Arizona without permission from state child-welfare officials.

The Schmitzes strongly deny the charges, which stemmed from complaints by the children and nurses who worked in their house. "The children were our entire life. They were our everything," Debra Schmitz says.

What they don't deny, and what the trial may help spotlight, is their role in a largely unknown aspect of the nation's beleaguered child-welfare system: an underground network of families that takes in children others do not want. Some families do so legally, and eventually adopt the children, but others may violate child-welfare laws by failing to notify authorities, according to interviews by USA TODAY with families, officials and child-welfare experts. (Related story: No state fully compliant with welfare)

"There are homes all across the United States that transfer kids from one place to another. No one's keeping tabs on this. ... These kids just come and go," says Sheriff Joe Shepard of Gibson County in rural northwest Tennessee, where the Schmitzes live.

"Dump and run — it happens all the time," says Ronald Federici, a neuropsychologist in Alexandria, Va., and author of Help for the Hopeless Children who has adopted seven children. He says one adoptive family abandoned a child in his office. He says there are hundreds of e-mail chat rooms in which people who adopted children are trying to find new homes for them outside the public system.

"They don't want to sell the kids. They just want to get rid of them," he says, explaining the children may have health problems the adoptive parents never expected. "It's not the merchandise they bought." He says many of these parents are looking for the cheapest and fastest placement.

Yet, many couples who take in large numbers of children "are incredibly well-motivated," says Kent Markus, director of the National Center for Adoption Law & Policy. He says many view caring for special-needs kids as a "calling."

Some of these families know each other because they practice so-called attachment therapy (AT), a controversial regimen of discipline. Adherents such as the Schmitzes say attachment therapy helps kids develop bonds with their new parents, but one critic describes the techniques as "fairly brutal." If one family has trouble with a child, it sends him to another home practicing this therapy.

Debra Schmitz says 80% to 90% of her Internet network revolved around attachment therapy. Other self-described practitioners include Michael and Sharen Gravelle, an Ohio couple who, a judge ruled in a custody hearing last month, had abused their 11 adoptive kids by making some of them sleep in cagelike bunk beds.

The Gravelles face a hearing today that could determine custody of the kids, now in foster care. (Related story: Enclosed beds cause controversy)

"A lot of people do it (take in children) for the money," says Federici, referring to government subsidies that can exceed $1,100 monthly for a child with disabilities. "Others collect kids."

Yet many of the families in this private network say they don't do it for the money but to save the children, especially those with special needs, from bouncing around the public system. "These kids will rot in the foster-care system," says Charlene Stockton, a Tennessee adoptive mom of 17 children, several of whom have Down syndrome, congestive heart failure and dementia. She adopted a girl from Vietnam via "someone who knew someone who knew someone."

The Schmitz network

State officials say the Schmitzes lacked legal custody of at least seven of the 18 kids in their care, who ranged in age from 1 to 17, says Didi Christie, an attorney with the Tennessee Department of Children Services. "They were operating under the radar. No one would know what was happening" to these kids, says Christie, adding that some of them were home-schooled. A Tennessee law requires all parents or guardians to notify authorities if they place children with a non-relative for more than 30 days.

A biological daughter, Melanie Schmitz, recalls the family piling into a motor home to pick up a child at a truck stop in Illinois about five years ago, one year before they moved from Wisconsin to Tennessee. "It was kind of a secretive thing," Melanie, now 21, told The Jackson (Tenn.) Sun, a Gannett paper that has tracked the case.

Debra Schmitz denies she picked up a child at a truck stop. She says Melanie, from whom she's estranged, was an "angry teenager" who wanted to run away from home. Her attorney, Barney Witherington, says the Schmitzes notified state authorities when they took each child and retained an attorney to adopt each one.

The children, removed from the Schmitzes' home in June 2004, are now in foster care. District Attorney Garry Brown says some may testify against the Schmitzes, who were accused of child abuse in 2000 when they lived in Wisconsin. An extensive investigation followed, but no charges were filed then.

Also testifying will be Brenda Filkel and Sherry Dvorak, licensed practical nurses who worked at the Schmitz home, Dvorak says. In an affidavit attached to a search warrant, they say Debra Schmitz was often drunk "by suppertime." They also say they saw six children — ranging in age from 8 to 14 — being thrown into "the cage" by older kids at the Schmitzes' instructions and that, as punishment, kids were deprived of leg braces, eyeglasses and a walker.

Filkel says she saw "records of swapped, traded and interchanged children" in the Schmitz home and that Debra Schmitz told her she could get a child through a website within three weeks without having to go through the Department of Children Services. Filkel and Dvorak took in some of the children after they were removed from the Schmitzes' home.

Children may testify

Five of the children will be subpoenaed to testify for the defense, says Tom Schmitz's attorney, Frank Deslauriers. He says he'll also seek testimony from the two nurses and neuropsychologist Federici, who says he was initially hired by the prosecution to examine the kids.

Federici says seven kids say nothing bad happened at the Schmitzes' and they want to return. He says the others talked about being spanked and about Debra Schmitz's drinking.

Federici, who has reviewed the Schmitzes' financial records, says the couple eventually received subsidies for each child, taking in $8,000 to $9,000 monthly. The monthly subsidies ranged from $364 to $817 for nine of the children, Christie says. She says one adoptive family helped pay for an addition to the Schmitzes' home after they took in a child and another paid child support.

Karen Sue Tolin, an adoptive mom in Michigan, says she didn't pay the Schmitzes for taking her daughter Erin but only provided supplies for incontinence as well as other materials. "This is not a money thing," Tolin says. "They had resources we didn't," she says, including mental health care that Erin, who has fetal alcohol syndrome, needed.

Debra Schmitz, a stay-at-home mom, says she didn't receive a penny for the last seven kids she took and spent everything on the children. "I wore rags, but my kids always looked wonderful," she says. Tom Schmitz works for a firm that rents and sells portable bathrooms.

No data exist on how many children are moved from family to family outside the public child-welfare system. Yet the Schmitzes, who took in children from at least seven states, are not the only people in this private network:

• In 2000, Denise Thomas of Littleton, Colo., was put on probation for a year after attempting to sell her daughter, adopted from Russia, on the Internet. She has said she was simply trying to recoup some of her adoption costs.

• In February 2004, Diana Groves of Bloomington, Ind., a single woman who had taken in 13 children, was charged with child abuse, in part for duct-taping some of the kids to a wall and hitting them with a tennis racket. Brad Swain, a detective in the Monroe County Sheriff's department, says Groves acquired the kids by "loose word-of-mouth" and received financial support from private individuals. Groves, who has three separate, unrelated felony convictions, has pleaded innocent and is free on bond while awaiting trial.

• In December 2004, Frances Ellen Matthews of Kenton, Tenn., was found guilty of a child-abuse charge. She says she took in children through private arrangements. She was caring for 16 children, many with severe disabilities, at the time of her arrest. Ten have been returned to her home.

Disrupted adoptions

Like many large adoptive families, the Schmitzes took in children adopted abroad by other people. Parents who no longer want an adopted child may seek a word-of-mouth placement because they may not get placement help from adoption agencies or they may want to avoid paying child support, which may be necessary if a child enters the foster-care system.

"Most agencies in the U.S. won't take a child from overseas, so families are stuck on their own," says Susan Meyer, a Florida adoptive mom of 28 children and founder of the Foundation for Large Families. She says states, burdened with U.S.-born children, also don't want to take these children into the public foster-care system.

Meyer adopted an autistic girl from the Ukraine, whom she found "through friends" after the child had moved from family to family following a disrupted adoption.

Similarly, Madeline Lynch, an adoptive mother in Auburn, Mich., has taken in four girls from Russia, the fourth of whom she heard about "through a friend of a friend." She took the girl more than a year ago and plans to adopt her.

Deslauriers, Tom Schmitz's attorney, says his client took in two Chinese children unwanted by the adoptive father — an attorney — who said they were not smart enough. The Schmitzes had four other foreign-born children — two from Russia, one from Vietnam and one from Mexico, state officials say.

Therapy is debated

The Schmitzes also took in kids from families sharing their interest in attachment therapy, which may include extensive chores, strict discipline and holding kids while looking into their eyes and feeding them chocolate and other treats.

The Schmitzes advertised themselves online as AT experts, says Christie, a state attorney.

"There was a support group," Debra Schmitz says. "It was not anything untoward or illegal. We just all talked." She says parents asked: "Can you take my child for a week? Pretty soon, they can't handle them at all, and the kids stay."

Many of the websites she used disappeared after her arrest in June 2004, says Shepard, the sheriff.

Debra Schmitz says many of her kids had reactive attachment disorder, an inability to trust, empathize or bond. Federici says only two or three do. He says most suffer from severe brain damage or psychiatric disorders that make them inappropriate court witnesses.

Federici says Schmitz's "overzealous discipline" was not formal AT, but he argues most of the criminal charges against the couple are false. "It was a zoo there, but the state of Tennessee allowed it," says Federici, citing the numerous home studies state officials had done.

Twice, for short periods, the Schmitzes took in Marianna, an adopted girl from Matthews, who also espoused AT. Matthews also took care of at least one Schmitz child. "We help each other out," Matthews says. "I've had quite a few people say: 'If you don't take this child, I'm going to kill her. You're my last resort.' "

Theresa Showell of Phoenix, who's studying to become an attachment therapist, took in a girl, Bethany, from the Schmitzes because they had trouble dealing with her. She plans to adopt Bethany. She's also taken in four children from Russia and a fifth child who initially came for a two-week stay. She believes AT's cuddling and intensive structure help her children.

Critics say some AT techniques amount to child abuse. "It's fairly brutal. It's like turning a home into a boot camp," says Larry Sarner, legislative director of the non-profit Advocates for Children in Therapy. His group says some families "swap" children in part to keep them "off-balance."

"Attachment therapy is a young and diverse field," says a new report by a task force of the American Professional Society on the Abuse of Children, a non-profit group based in Charleston, S.C. "The benefits and risks of many treatments remain scientifically undetermined."

Markus says children with severe behavior problems may cause some families to cross the line of acceptable parenting. "I've heard lots and lots of cases where parents have to take extraordinary steps just to (physically) protect them selves," Markus says.

o/t, but not really...

Earlier this year, I wrote about some of the problems adoptive parents - and adopted children - are experiencing, all because very little time goes into proper parent-preparation, before and after the adopted child arrives and begins to let a few roots to grow.

You can find it here:  http://poundpuplegacy.org/node/13644



I really wish I knew where most of these poor children were placed like Marianna. Such a sweet girl going through that trauma. Where is her biological family??

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