Adoption in shadow of abuse

Date: 2006-03-02

Cases reveal need for better screening of parents

Cheryl Wetzstein
The Washington Times

A troubling and persistent problem in adoption and foster care cases has drawn increased public attention in recent years: How to protect children in such situations from abusers.

"You were mean to me for my whole life ... . You took my childhood," Bruce Jackson recently told his adoptive mother, who was sent to prison for starving him and three other adopted boys.

"I just felt like I was trapped," Masha Allen said on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" recently. She was starved and used as a sex slave for five years by the Pittsburgh man who adopted her from Russia in 1998 when she was 5. He is now in prison for life.

Unusual tragedies such as these inevitably overshadow the countless good deeds done by a majority of adoptive parents, foster parents and child-welfare workers.

"It's important to recognize that abuse by adoptive parents is rare," said Wade F. Horn, assistant secretary for children and families at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

Still the question remains: What can be done to prevent children from being taken from one abusive home and placed in another?

Better vetting of prospective adoptive parents is the No. 1 answer.

"That's the only solution. There's no other solution," said Marcia R Lowry, executive director of Children's Rights Inc., which has sued New Jersey's child-welfare system and helped win $12.5 million in civil damages for the four Jackson boys.

Proper screening of the adoptive parents might have precluded abuse in the Jackson case and in Masha's case.

In 1991, 7-year-old Bruce was adopted from foster care by Raymond and Vanessa Jackson of Collingswood, N.J.

Social workers frequently visited the Jackson home as more children were adopted and always found it to be suitable.

But in 2003, Bruce Jackson was caught rummaging for food at 3 a.m. in a neighbor's trash can. The neighbor who called 911 described him as "a little kid." At the time, he was 19 years old and weighed 45 pounds - slightly less than what he weighed when he was adopted.

The Jackson couple told authorities that they were good parents and that the younger Mr. Jackson and his three adopted brothers, who also were discovered to be severely malnourished, had eating disorders.

In the two years that Bruce Jackson has been away from the Jackson couple, he has grown 15 inches and gained 95 pounds. His brothers have similarly flourished.

In court last month, the adopted son confronted Mrs. Jackson over being starved, beaten and forced to wear diapers.

"You didn't feed me. Or my brothers," he said. "You took my childhood. I will never get that back."

Mrs. Jackson was sentenced to seven years in prison for assault and endangering the welfare of a child. Raymond Jackson died of a stroke in 2004.

In the wake of the Jackson scandal, New Jersey hired more child-welfare workers and changed some policies. Social workers are now required to interview everyone in the home, visit every room in a house, check whether appliances work and check for adequate food. New Jersey foster children no longer can be home-schooled, as the Jackson children were, and the state will check with adoptive families that do not use Medicaid to see whether adopted children are receiving appropriate medical attention.

In Masha's case, Matthew Mancuso acquired her through a private adoption agency. She said he began sexually abusing her from the time she arrived in his home until five years later, when law-enforcement authorities arrested him on child-pornography charges. Mancuso had taken hundreds of exploitative pictures of Masha and put them on the Internet. Authorities eventually traced the pictures to him and prosecuted him.

Masha said she went to school but that no adult asked about her well-being or wondered why she was severely underweight. At 11, she was wearing the clothes of a 6-year-old because Mancuso starved her to prevent her from physically maturing.

Competent screening of these adoptive parents might have prevented these tragedies, but officials say this is easier said than done.

Prospective adoptive parents must undergo in-depth "home studies," but the rules differ from state to state and even based on the kind of adoption, said Maureen Flatley, a Boston adoption consultant active in Masha's case.

In Mancuso's case, Ms. Flatley said, it's as if he said to the adoption agency: "I am a retired, divorced, independently wealthy millionaire ... with a [biological] daughter who doesn't speak to me, and I don't have a [bed]room for the kid in my house, but give me a 5-year-old girl with blonde hair and blue eyes. And they said OK."

Mancuso had a poor relationship with his biological daughter, who has said publicly that he sexually abused her as a child.

After Masha was rescued from Mancuso, she was taken into Pennsylvania's foster care system. Her new adoptive mother, Faith Allen, also had to undergo a home study, which turned out to be "an extensive background check," complete with interviews from neighbors, Ms. Flatley said. "So, same child, in two different [child-welfare] systems, in the same state. The home studies were treated very, very differently. That's the key thing," she said.

Mancuso pleaded guilty to child rape, incest and unlawful restraint for abuse and was sentenced in November to as many as 70 years in prison. Lawsuits have been planned against Mancuso, against people who downloaded pornographic images of Masha and against the adoption agencies who facilitated Masha's adoption.

Another strategy to support struggling adoptive families is to offer more post-adoption services.

Services such as therapy, counseling, respite care and parenting training would be helpful to tens of thousands of families. However, very little of the federal government's $5 billion child-welfare budget goes to post-adoption services, said Mr. Horn, adding that his agency continues to push for child-welfare funding reforms in Congress.

"Post-placement services are probably the crying need in the field today," said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute. "We need to do better vetting at the front end and better post-placement services afterward."

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