Adoptive mother denies she abused missing boy
BY TIM POTTER
The Wichita Eagle
Adam Herrman's adoptive mother Tuesday denied allegations by relatives who say they saw her abuse the boy over the years before he disappeared.
"They make it sound like I tortured him, but I loved him," Valerie Herrman said in an interview with The Eagle.
She said Adam ran away from their Towanda home nearly 10 years ago when he was 11, after she spanked him with a belt. She was upset but can't remember why, she said.
Adam's disappearance -- discovered by Butler County investigators only recently after a tip to the Wichita-Sedgwick County Exploited and Missing Child Unit -- has triggered an intense investigation that has drawn national attention. Butler County Sheriff Craig Murphy said Monday that investigators are treating the disappearance as a death but haven't ruled out that Adam is alive.
Herrman said she and her husband, Doug, never reported Adam missing because they feared the spanking would lead authorities to take Adam and his two younger siblings away. They told relatives that Adam, whom the couple had adopted when he was a little over 2, had gone back to state custody.
The Herrmans said they had lived a lie and regret it.
In court documents, they continued to list Adam as a son in 2003, more than four years after he disappeared. If they had not, it would have drawn scrutiny that also could have led to their children being taken away, Doug Herrman said in the interview.
For the same reason, they continued to accept state adoption subsidy payments for Adam until his 18th birthday, Valerie Herrman said. She said she sent back a check she received after his 18th birthday.
"I feel very guilty about stealing that money," she said tearfully.
"It was $700 a month. I kept hoping he was going to come back, though."
The 52-year-old woman, who now lives in Derby, said she regrets lying to relatives for almost a decade by saying Adam was returned to state custody. "But I didn't know anything else to do," she said.
She and her 54-year-old husband, who held her hand during the interview, said Adam's disappearance has weighed on them since that day in May 1999 when they say Adam ran out the front door of their Towanda home and never came back.
Valerie Herrman said that at times she has lain awake, crying and wondering and worrying about what happened to her oldest adoptive son.
"I just wish I'd turned back the clock and called now" to report him missing, she said.
She was tearful during most of the more than two-hour interview.
"We love him, and we made a terrible mistake" by not reporting him missing, Doug Herrman said.
'They weren't there'
She denied allegations, from her sister and two biological children that she punched and kicked Adam over the years, beat him with a belt buckle and kept him chained to the bathtub faucet in the home.
She also denied that she withheld food from Adam. Sometimes, she said, he would overeat to the point of getting sick.
She said that at times she kept Adam locked in the bathroom at night under the advice of a psychiatrist after they found two knives under Adam's pillow when he was about 8, when they lived in Derby.
"He said he was going to kill us," she said.
They turned around the bathroom doorknob so it could be locked from the outside, she said.
"He slept in the bathtub," she said, with a sleeping bag, sheet, pillow and blanket. He was locked in only at night, and it was for his and their protection, she said.
"There was no chains, no handcuffs."
At another point, she said, "The ones who are saying he was mistreated, they weren't there."
Asked how long he was kept in the bathroom at night, she said it occurred possibly over a two- to three-month period, although she couldn't remember exactly how long.
The Herrmans said Adam was their most difficult child. "But that sure as heck doesn't mean that we loved him any less," Doug Herrman said.
Valerie Herrman said they provided Adam a bicycle, Rollerblades, Nintendo and art supplies. "He loved to draw," she said.
Psychiatrists said Adam was either bipolar or schizophrenic or suffering from attachment disorder, they said.
Past foster parents
At times, the Herrmans were foster parents for several of Adam's siblings. He was born in Wichita on June 8, 1987, and was adopted by the Herrmans a couple of years later. They also adopted two of his younger siblings.
The Herrmans have two biological children who are older than Adam, but Valerie Herrman said she was not able to have any more biological children. They wanted a large family, Doug Herrman said. They said they also wanted to keep Adam and his biological siblings together.
At one point when Adam was younger, around 1990 or 1991, the Herrmans said they lost their foster care license after an investigation, which they declined to discuss in detail. They said authorities removed one of Adam's younger sisters, then about 2, but said she was not removed because of child abuse.
They said they had bonded with the girl and hoped to adopt her also and were devastated that she was taken from them.
Valerie Herrman said that she remembers the girl trying to cling to her as authorities took her away. "I still think about that child," she said.
The trauma of that experience would later figure heavily in their decision not to report Adam missing, fearing that it would bring investigators back and that they could lose their remaining children, Valerie Herrman said.
She described Adam as "shy, bashful, quiet, smart, sweet. But he also had problems."
She said he got into trouble at school, sometimes by stealing.
Around 1996, she said, she spanked Adam with a belt, and his psychological counselor saw bruises and called police. "That's her job. I don't hold that against anybody," she said.
"I hated myself for it," she said of the spanking. She said she had been spanked with a belt as a child and vowed she would not do that to her children.
Adam went to the Wichita Children's Home for two days, then came home, she said.
Doug Herrman said: "I don't think they felt he was in any danger. They just told us we couldn't discipline him with a belt."
Valerie Herrman said: "After that, I was too scared to spank him. He hardly ever got a spanking after that.
"I was afraid to lose the kids."
Because Adam had problems at school, she homeschooled him after they had moved from Derby to Towanda, she said. He attended public school in Towanda for a short time, she said.
"He hated school" but was a "very smart kid," she said.
"He liked being home with me, and he got a lot of one-on- one attention."
She said his younger siblings attended public school in Towanda.
Searching for Adam
During the first week of May 1999, possibly on the weekend, she said, she spanked Adam with a belt one afternoon.
"He got mad, and he said he's going to run away," Doug Herrman said. "He ran out the front door."
Valerie Herrman was the manager of their mobile home park on the south side of Towanda.
Doug Herrman said, "I waited probably 30 minutes for him (Adam) to calm down" before starting to look for the boy around some sheds and a storm shelter.
Adam had run away several times before, once when he was around 8 while they were camping in Council Grove, Valerie Herrman said. They said they found him at a convenience store.
Asked why he ran away, Valerie Herrman said, "I think it was for attention."
That May night in 1999, when it started to turn dark, Doug Herrman said he drove through the mobile home park, got out several times to see if Adam was hiding and drove toward town, searching.
"We thought surely he's going to show up," Doug Herrman said.
By around midnight, he said, "I was really getting scared... because he didn't come home yet."
"I spent all night driving around," he continued, thinking that Adam, in an attempt to hide, had possibly crawled in somewhere and gone to sleep.
The next morning, he said, the whole family drove around, looking for Adam. They looked again on a second day, including along a nearby creek or river.
He said his wife dropped him off, and he walked down a tree line, looking.
"Then we came to the conclusion that the police probably have him, and they're coming to us, probably to get us in trouble," Doug Herrman said.
They went home and waited, but the "police never came," he said.
They said they also feared getting into trouble if they contacted police a few days after Adam disappeared.
"Then," Valerie said, "after two weeks, I was going to call, picked up the phone" -- to report Adam missing. But she said she put the phone down. "All I could think about was losing more kids," she said.
"We never stopped praying for him.
"People think I just went on with my life. I didn't."
Doug Herrman added: "We have never forgot him."
Asked if they know what happened to Adam, Doug said, "I think he's out there.
"I feel that he went on. He changed his name. He's a very tough kid."
About a year ago, he said he saw a young man --"what Adam would look like to me" -- walking near Murdock and Washington. By the time he drove back to look closer, the young man was gone.
Reach Tim Potter at 316-268-6684 or firstname.lastname@example.org.