Author: GORDON OLIVER - of the Oregonian Staff
Summary: Once praised for adopting scores of children, Dennis and Diane Nason must answer charges of abuse
Dennis and Diane Nason knew that if they waited one more day, their children would be gone.
They figured the Oregon Children's Services Division was on their trail and was out to take their 12 kids.
``I'm not stupid,'' Diane Nason, who looked pale and thin in the bright February sun. ``I know how they work.''
So at 10 p.m. Jan. 23, the Nasons loaded up their 12 youngsters and an 18-year-old, their puppies Gidget and Gizmo, a few clothes and medication some of the kids needed to survive. They piled into cars and headed north from their new home in Toutle, Wash., to Canada.
Their journey through the years had taken them to exhilarating highs and disappointing lows. The family eventually ballooned to 84 members, mostly through private adoptions of foreign children, and 62 once lived together at one time.
Now, the remaining members of what was once Oregon's largest family were on the run from troubling questions about what had taken place in the huge Nason household during those years.
The Nasons were the ``Celebration Family,'' winning national fame on ``60 Minutes'' and the ``700 Club.'' A television movie featured a fictionalized story of their family. The money and praise flowed in, their home grew to 34 rooms and the wash grew to 15 loads a day.
Their story became an elixir for Christians and others who shared the couple's expressed dream of giving love and hope to disabled kids who came from the most destitute corners of the world.
But late last month they were on the run. On Monday, they face the first custody hearing in Deschutes County Juvenile Court on allegations that abuse occurred against some of the children.
Dennis Nason, 49, and Diane Nason, 48, were married in 1960, at the end of their junior year of high school in Ashland. They had three children in six years and then began adopting. Eventually, they started bringing in children from around the world, in one case working directly with Mother Teresa on a child from India. Diane also gave birth to three more children.
The Nasons moved their family from Southern Oregon to Sisters in 1979 so Dennis Nason could take a job as postmaster. He quit the job five years later to meet the increasing demands of family life.
The household peaked at 62 when Dennis and Diane began suffering physical, emotional and financial problems. Loyal supporters began to back off, worried that the Nasons had become ``good people who had more good than they could handle,'' in the words of the Rev. Harold Gott, pastor of the Church of Christ in Sisters.
The state had investigated the family 10 times in a decade and once put two children temporarily in foster care. They were returned home because of conflicting information. Other complaints never provided grounds for removing children.
``Most did not fall into reportable child abuse and neglect case but that things were not going well, that kids were not getting needs met, that they were not getting attention, that they were leaving the home,'' said Karen Pierson, CSD's adoption manager in Salem. ``There wouldn't have been a legal way to intervene.''
Almost a year ago, in April, the agency descended on the Nason home with 12 cars of caseworkers and police officers for an unannounced visit. They were looking into an allegation that the Nasons had used a cattle prod to discipline one of their children. The Nasons said they didn't even own a cattle prod.
When the investigation ended, the Nasons said, they were told they had been cleared of the charge. But Don Probasco, CSD's branch manager in Deschutes County, says only that the agency was unable to determine if the abuse took place.
Last year, the Nasons found new homes for nearly 50 children, placing some with new adoptive parents and others with temporary guardians. They moved to Toutle and lived there only briefly before their night ride to Canada.
And even as they headed north, the Nasons knew they couldn't run forever.
``We wanted time to be able to gather our thoughts and to talk to the children,'' said Diane Nason. ``We wanted to tell them what was happening. Tell them that we loved them, and tell them to be strong. That we were going to fight them.''
After three days in Canada, the family returned to Central Oregon.
The Children's Services Division says six Nason children have made allegations of abuse. The agency won a court order and removed all remaining children, who it believes are in danger of abuse.
``I feel like we have a very strong case,'' Probasco said. ``I don't think there will be much question once everything comes out.''
The Nasons have mortgaged their two properties, hired a lawyer and prayed. They say they are going to fight the allegations.
``There are no winners,'' said Dennis Nason. ``We have to fight for our lives, for our children, to clear our name. And it will never be cleared. Because there will always be that group out there that will wonder. They will never be satisfied. CSD won't be satisfied.''
The Nasons say they know little about the accusations. Court records indicate that the allegations involve physical abuse, mental injury, neglect, sexual abuse among siblings and sexual abuse by Dennis Nason. No allegations are listed against Diane Nason, and neither parent faces criminal charges.
The state says none of the alleged abuse involved those children removed last month.
Rumors about family problems have long circulated in Sisters, five miles west of the 30-acre Nason farm that once had its own Christian school. The rumor mill has grown much busier lately, especially among the conservative Christians who once heavily supported the Nasons.
``Some of the things they're saying are ludicrous,'' said Katie Nason, a 21-year-old premedical student at Stanford University who is in regular contact with her parents. ``It just baffles me that people would come up with these things. I think that Sisters is a really small town full of really small people who like to gossip a lot.''
But Eric Dolson, co-publisher and co-editor of the weekly Nugget newspaper in Sisters, said several people familiar with the family had come to him with concerns about the Nasons in recent years. ``I would look at details, and they would come close enough to checking out,'' Dolson said. But they never made it into the paper because his sources always wanted to remain anonymous.
CSD's move against the Nasons was not the first example of state action against a large adoptive family. Last year, the agency removed 27 birth and adopted children from Sherry Scott, formerly of Cornelius, after people came forward to verify complaints the agency had heard for years.
In light of the two cases, CSD Administrator Bill Carey has ordered a study of whether the state should try to limit the size of all adoptive families. Already, the state is imposing a new eight-child limit on families who adopt through CSD. But that limit does not apply to families that grow through private or agency adoptions.
The Nason children would have trouble imagining a home with only seven siblings.
``I don't regret growing up in big family at all,'' Katie Nason said. ``It was a different experience, but it was the only thing I knew. By the time I was 9 there were 20 of us. The people across the street had 15, so I thought it was normal.''
Some of the children's stories didn't have happy endings. One boy caused trouble at home and in town and was told to leave, said Lorna Dale of Bend, the Nasons' attorney. Katie Nason said some of the children adopted in recent years by the Nasons were older street kids whose behavior problems didn't end after they joined the family.
Diane Nason, who co-authored a book about her family in 1983, thrived on the successes of children who arrived without hope. Like the girl she had stumbled over one dark night in a gutter in Mexico City. Nearly every bone in the child's 3-year-old body was broken.
Diane Nason took the girl to an orphanage and then a hospital, where she spent a year. The Nasons arranged to adopt her and moved the girl to another hospital. Just a week later, an earthquake destroyed the first hospital.
The family still has its supporters. Richard Patterson, a llama breeder who lives on 360 acres adjoining Sisters, once served on the board of their ``Great Expectations'' school and preschool.
``I want to look at the forgotten good the Nasons did,'' Patterson said, with emotion bursting from his pink face. ``They gave out of love.''
Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, another supporter, sometimes intervened to cut red tape on foreign adoptions. On Feb. 2, he called the Nasons from Washington to offer his thoughts and prayers.
As the family grew, so did concerns about the children.
Mary Anne Fullerton taught at the school for three years after it opened in 1985. She later adopted one of the Nason children and worked through Diane Nason to adopt four other children. Fullerton says problems began as the family's fame and size expanded.
``It started to change, and that's one reason why I left,'' she said. She added that she never saw evidence of abuse.
Another former teacher, Sharon Knox, said ``a lot will be revealed'' if the Nason children decide to talk. She makes no specific accusations, however.
``My opinion isn't going to amount to a hill of beans,'' said Knox, who left when the school closed last spring. ``It's going to depend on what the kids say.''
Through the years, CSD implicitly supported the dozens of private Nason adoptions. The Deschutes County Court approved the adoptions, except for the many completed in foreign countries that were unregulated by the state. CSD had the legal ability to conduct studies of the Nason home and comment on the adoptions, but it never did.
Instead, it followed its standard practice of delegating home studies to private agencies. And sometimes, CSD didn't even require studies, allowing the adoptions to go to court without comment.
The Nasons stopped adopting children 20 months ago, long after some of their friends had started warning them that the ``Nation of Nasons'' was falling apart. Diane Nason kept wanting more children, but her husband told friends he was ready to stop at 40.
Their marriage became strained, and Dennis left to spend a month away. He says he even considered suicide before regaining his focus.
``He went out and prayed and got real close to God,'' said Ed Beacham, a local clockmaker and nondenominational minister who is a friend.
Local churchgoers and wealthy contributors cut off or cut back their financial support. The Nasons blamed the recession, the death of one supporter and the divorce of another. But some in Sisters say that former supporters were questioning the family's size, the shortage of adult supervision and the limited accountability for how money was spent.
The crisis worsened when Diane Nason suffered internal bleeding in late 1990 that led to a hysterectomy last fall. She said the illness forced her and others to question the couple's ability to continue.
Then, last spring, the school that was a central part of the family fell apart. The school was threatened with the loss of about $5,000 per month in state mental health funds due to Ballot Measure 5. The school's board decided it was time to quit.
The Nasons quietly, but desperately, turned to old friends. Finally, they decided they could no longer care for their huge family and began making arrangements to find new homes for most of the children.
``We thought up to that time it was the worst thing that had ever happened to us,'' Diane Nason said. ``It was very, very difficult, but when you love somebody enough you can do it.''
Diane Nason arranged adoptions and guardianships all over the country, near hospitals for children with severe medical needs.
Probasco, the CSD Deschutes County branch manager, said he would like the Nasons to explain where all of the children have gone.
The Nasons began looking for a smaller home. They found a farm in Toutle, in an area with relatively low taxes and good schools.
They are back in Deschutes County now and promise to stay until the case is settled.
``I'm tired of waiting here every day, wanting to know if they're going to come and take the kids,'' Dennis Nason said. ``You can't live like that. This has been a nightmare for the last five years.''
The Nasons will be allowed supervised visits with their children, now in foster care in two counties. Two Nason children, both legal adults at age 18, live with their parents.