THE NASONS' `CELEBRATION FAMILY' -- ITS RISE, FALL
Author: GORDON OLIVER - of the Oregonian Staff
Summary: After 25 years and 82 children, allegations of child abuse bring about a disintegration
Dennis and Diane Nason created Oregon's largest family, with more children than perhaps any parents could manage, with the assistance of countless institutions as well as the lax regulations that make Oregon a wide open state for private adoptions.
The self-described ``Celebration Family'' -- which during 25 years numbered 82 children and once included 64 at home -- fell apart in January amid allegations of child abuse.
The children, many of them foreign-born, split into feuding camps to testify in Juvenile Court for or against the parents who raised them. The Nasons viewed the custody hearing as a family ``civil war,'' said their attorney, Tim Vanagas. Some children received death threats.
The bitter court sessions involving the status of 12 Nason children ended 11 days ago, midway through the state's case against the Nasons and before the couple had presented their defense.
Deschutes County Circuit Judge Thomas Mosgrove announced that lawyers had reached a voluntary settlement, but he ordered that the terms remain secret.
Sources close to the case, however, said Thursday that two teen-agers who have lived with their parents while in CSD protective custody would remain in the family home. Both are biological children of the Nasons. Another Nason biological son, age 12, and a 2-year-old adopted grandson have not returned home, as requested by the Nasons. Eight adopted children who were taken from the Nasons in January will remain in foster care, according to the sources.
Other children who lived with the Nasons during the last 25 years have been adopted by other families or are living in group homes or institutions. Some are adults. Nine of the children have died over the years, either under the Nasons' care or after leaving their home. Not all the children were legally adopted -- due to inadequate paperwork in their birth countries, according to the Nasons' lawyer -- and many were seriously ill when they arrived.
In court testimony, one Nason child said his parents had failed to get medical care for two children who died years ago of a rare childhood disease. Deschutes County District Attorney Mike Dugan said he would investigate those deaths.
The story of the rise and fall of the Nason family is a troubling one.
``It's a heartbreaking human interest story that we all hope does not recur in the state of Oregon,'' said David Beebe, regional director for the Immigration and Naturalization Service. ``It's like an airliner going down. They don't go down very often, but when they do it makes you forget about all the deaths of one or two people on the highway.''
In the family's heyday, the Nasons could turn to many people and institutions for help. Sen. Mark Hatfield and other politicians cut paperwork and even passed legislation to help the Nasons bring in more foreign-born chldren. Some were ``throwaways'' who had no homes and came without paperwork necessary to complete adoptions. They stayed with the Nasons anyway.
- Assistance plentiful
Supporters, including many affiliated with churches that shared the Nasons' religious values, sent money, food and clothing for the children. Assistance was plentiful enough to allow Dennis Nason to quit his job as Sisters postmaster.
Adoption agencies in the United States and overseas were willing to fill the couple's boundless desire for children. Children adopted abroad simply entered the country with their new parents, without legal involvement of U.S. courts. As the Nasons adopted dozens of ildren through U.S. agencies or private arrangements with lawyers or birth mothers, the state Children's Services Division hewed to its standard practice of allowing private social workers to inspect the Nason home.
In every case, the social workers wrote positive reports about the Nasons. CSD sometimes waived its required home investigations, said Karen Pierson, CSD's adoptions manager. Local judges in Jackson and Deschutes counties, where the Nasons lived as their family grew, gave their legal blessings.
News outlets ranging from ``60 Minutes'' to The Oregonian and the Bend Bulletin pictured the home as a bastion of love. The Nasons courted Christian broadcasters who reached people with the religious values they espoused.
- Show lends clout
``The whole thing escalated when they were on `60 Minutes,' '' said Brad Mulvihill, director of the Deschutes County Juvenile Department. ``They gathered a lot of clout. Any time CSD would make inquiries, the Nasons would go on the offense, and that caused (CSD) to back off.''
The Nasons, whose brood included six biological children, say they adopted children out of a religious zeal to help the world's needy. Both have lived in Oregon most of their lives, and the state was the right place for carrying out their vision. ``Oregon is considered one of the wide-open states,'' said Pierson of the CSD.
The state requires that CSD and local judges review and approve private adoptions, but only after paperwork is completed and the children already are in their new homes.reject a private adoption after a positive home study, since such a rejection would obviously disrupt the adoptive family, Pierson said.
The Nasons ran into few stumbling blocks as their family expanded to the size of some neighborhoods. By 1975, the Nason family had grown to eight children - three biological and five adopted, three of those placed by CSD. But, at that point, CSD stopped placing kids with the Nasons because it judged the family large enough.
The couple turned to Catholic Services for help in obtaining two sisters from New York City, according to a book about the family co-written by Diane Nason. A social worker opposed the placement, despite her respect for the family, because the Nasons already had so many children. But the agency's board overruled the decision and allowed the Nasons to adopt because of the positive attributes cited by the caseworker.
Two years later, the Nasons sought to adopt a disabled Salvadoran boy. Federal law then allowed only two foreign adoptions per family, and the Nasons already had two children from Vietnam. Hatfield, Sen. Bob Packwood and former U.S. Rep. Jim Weaver introduced special legislation to end the two-child limit. Hatfield smoothed the way for the Salvadoran adoption, and the two-child limit was lifted in 1980.
- Obstacles ignored
Such obstacles barely slowed the Nasons. For the most part, they were able to expand their family with little official challenge. No flags went up.
The family reached peak size in the late 1980s, when 64 children lived in the Nasons' 33-bedroom house and filled their own private school. But a combination of marital problems, a drop in donations and Diane Nason's health problems caused the couple to take stock of their situation. In 1991, they kept 12 of their children and arranged other placements for the rest. They were preparing to move to Toutle, Wash., when CSD removed the children on abuse allegations.
The Nasons, who have not been charged with any crime, maintained their innocence during the custody hearing. They say they are victims of excessive CSD scrutiny and a pressure campaign by the state to get their chldren to testify against them.
But wherever the truth lies in this family's failure, dozens of children were lost in the middle of a storm that never flew gale warnings. And nothing today in state or federal laws would prevent a repeat ``Celebration Family'' if another couple surfaced like the Nasons. Oregon does not limit the size of anyone's family, and CSD's proposals to restrict private adoptions stalled in the 1991 Legislature. A proposal to require home inspections and interviews before adoption, rather than after, died in committee.
Nationally, Pierson says, eight states prohibit private adoptions and 13 require an adoptive home to be studied before a child may be placed through private adoption. Pierson would like Oregon to follow those states in requiring a pre-adoption assessment.
Beebe, however, thinks current regulations work most of the time.
``There are checks and balances in the system,'' he said. ``How many Nason family scenarios do we ever see out there in the community?''