Author: GORDON OLIVER - of the Oregonian Staff
Summary: The state and the court may give Sherry Scott of Cornelius a second chance
Sherry Scott was always helping children, especially the ones no one else wanted.
Twelve years ago, Scott and her husband, Carl, began adopting mentally and physically handicapped children from agencies. They took other emotionally disturbed children into their Cornelius home temporarily, to give their parents a break. Sometimes the childrens stayed for months.
When the house filled up, they made more space. Carl Scott added two floors and a recreation room to the big white house on Hobbs Road that was once the city's railroad station. ``Carl said the house was going to fall around our heads some day,'' Sherry Scott said, ``but he never did anything to fix up.''
The house is still standing, but Sherry Scott's world collapsed last month. The state Children's Services Division, acting on allegations that Scott thinks came from two of her daughters, removed 28 children from her home on Feb. 15. The youngsters ranged in age from 11 months to 17 years.
Five were her biological children. Others were adopted or under the couple's guardianship or living temporarily in the house. CSD officials still don't know the legal status of three children.
The state believes the children were poorly supervised and that some participated in inappropriate sexual behaviors'' with other children. The agency said the house was cluttered and infested with rodents, that the septic system didn't work and that the single fire escape was blocked by mattresses.
Last week, a Washington County judge returned one child to his parents and placed the rest in foster care. CSD is working on a plan to return some of the children to the Cornelius home, perhaps within a month.
But that won't happen unless the agency and the court are satisfied that it's a safe and healthy place. Oregon State Police are still investigating the alleged sexual abuse and other issues.
Sherry Scott, 48, thinks two of her daughters are behind the complaints. One is an adult living in Portland, the other a teen-ager. CSD won't say where it got the information that led to the removal of the children.
Some local residents have rallied behind Sherry Scott. Supporters have cleaned the house and are looking for a way to improve the septic system or connect to the city sewer line. They are trying to raise money on her behalf.
Friends say events have taken their toll on Sherry Scott.
``She's a wreck,'' said Bob Kline, a Forest Grove locksmith who set up a fund for the family through First Interstate Bank. ``That lady's about to break.''
It also has devastated Carl Scott, who is living with his father in Forest Grove, but who sometimes visited the children.
``I just feel awful sorry and sad and hurt because this happened,'' he said. ``I don't know what I can do right now. I want my kids. That's all there is to it.''
- Sherry Scott has 13 children from two marriages. She and Carl, who have been married 20 years, started adopting children in 1979.
Between natural and adopted children, they've raised close to 50 children of various ethnic backgrounds. Many came to them with mental, physical or emotional problems.
The family lived off Carl Scott's salary as a truck driver until he quit in 1987 to help at home. They received money from supplemental Social Security payments to some of the disabled children and some money from adoption agencies. The community donated lots of food.
Their way of life created stress under the best of circumstances. Then last summer, Sherry Scott said, she learned her husband had been involved in an affair.
Carl Scott said it lasted only a few months and that he tried to make peace at home. He said he left in August at Sherry Scott's request.
``Sherry said she needed more space, so I said fine,'' said Carl Scott. ``The only reason I left was because I loved her.''
The family suffered another blow in late November. One of her daughters died, a 5-year-old quadriplegic with severe birth defects. A state committee that studied the coroner's report concluded the girl died of natural causes. Gary Shurtz, CSD's Washington County branch manager, won't say whether the cause of death is under examination.
Sherry Scott said a detective in the Washington County sheriff's office asked to talk to her about the girl's death. When she arrived at the meeting in early December, she was introduced to Brian Dobbs, a CSD caseworker.
Sherry Scott said Dobbs asked her about the state of her marriage and the condition of her house. Dobbs said later that he offered CSD's help to Sherry Scott. She said she remembers no such offer.
Three weeks ago, Scott decided to take a brief vacation with Her friends said it was an abrupt decision reflecting the stress in her life. She called her estranged husband Feb 4. and asked him to care for the others following day. He agreed.
The couple's 19-year-old son, Sean, was having problems getting along with his dad. When Carl arrived, Sean blocked him from entering the house. Carl called the sheriff's office, but Sean disappeared before deputies arrived. He came back in the evening, put his dad in a full-nelson wrestling hold and carried him out the front door, according to a deputy's report. Sean said his father was no good, and that the kids didn't like him.
Deputies returned and convinced Sean that he had to let his father into the home. The son gathered his clothes and left with a friend. Carl Scott said he did not want to press charges.
Sherry Scott returned the next morning. She believes the incident with Sean contributed to CSD's decision to remove her children from the home. ``It was really a disaster,'' she said.
CSD received other complaints a few days later, Shurtz said. The agency began working with the state attorney general's office and the Washington County district attorney on reviewing the complaints. A judge allowed the state to take the children into protective custody first thing the morning of Feb. 15.
Sherry Scott admits the place was a mess when police and caseworkers arrived. She'd spent two days with one of her sons in a hospital and had fallen behind in the housework. ``They got me on my absolute worst day,'' she said.
Even on the best days, the old house was no palace. Sherry Scott's friends said donated food sometimes rotted before anybody could preserve it. Some of the toilets didn't work, and some thought the place smelled of urine.
Then there were the rodents. Scott said she could hear scratching inside the walls but didn't know if it came from mice or rats. She put out traps and then poison to get rid of them.
She said she'd actually seen only one rat in the house. It had apparently come up through the plumbing into the toilet. Some of her older boys fished it out with tongs.
Scott used to have the septic tank pumped once a month, until she ran out of money. ``I have done nothing but have a bum septic tank,'' she said. ``I plead guilty to having a bad septic tank.
Scott dismisses CSD's allegations that the children were not adequately supervised, or that there was continuing sexual abuse in the home. She says some of the children are sexually interested in others, but she doesn't think sexual activity got out of control.
``All this junk about sexual abuse, oh, my Lord,'' she said. ``They made it sound like I was on the couch watching football and eating bon-bons while the kids were having orgies on the rug.''
Oregon has no laws limiting the number of children a family can adopt, and it does not regulate private adoptions. But many people wonder whether one family can handle 28 children, especially when many have special needs.
At least five adoption agencies examined the Scott home and family and found them acceptable. The Boys and Girls Aid Society moved two children from CSD custody into the Scott home. Two adoptions were pending final approval on Feb. 15, when CSD removed the children.
Most and perhaps all the adoptions were registered with CSD, as required by law. But the state had no authority to limit the number of private adoptions or even set standards for adoptive homes. CSD has asked the Legislature for authority to regulate private adoptions and set quality standards. But it is not seeking to limit the size of an adoptive family.
Shurtz wonders if the agencies took advantage of Sherry Scott's willingness to take children that few people want. ``They knew she couldn't say no,'' he said.
Shurtz is also worried about the informal placements of children into the Scott home, outside any state regulation. ``I think these kids are getting moved around, rather than anyone dealing with their problems or their family problems,'' he said.
Sherry Scott said she took money for what she called respite care. To CSD, that means that she was providing foster care even though she was not a certified foster parent.
She thinks her informal service to families is no big deal. ``I'm not the only one doing this,'' she said. ``There are hundreds of others. It's a good service people are providing for each other, and there's no harm in it at all.''
Sherry Scott worries about her kids, who are spread out in foster homes in four counties. She thinks some want to come back. But she's heard others do not. One who likes skiing is living with foster parents who take him to the mountains. Others are getting clothes and expensive shoes Sherry Scott could not afford.
``These are fragile kids,'' she said. ``Whoever has the car keys and checkbook should be the winner.''
Shurtz said he hopes Sherry Scott can pick up the pieces and get back to raising her kids. He thinks she will try to do what is necessary to get her children back.
``Now we have her attention,'' he said.