Underground network moves children from home to home
By Wendy Koch
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.
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.