Adoptions of abused children lead to couple's trial by fire
Gazette, The (Colorado Springs, CO)
Springs pair sues after murder plot, suicide tries
Author: Warren Epstein
Bob and Judy Garber keep their family album in the basement of their Colorado Springs home.
"We can't put it on our coffee table," Judy Garber says. "What would we tell people when they asked where the kids are?"
The truth about their children - adopted at ages 6, 7 and 9 - is painful to tell.
The smiling girl in her white confirmation dress later ran away to New York City to be a prostitute, then repeatedly attempted suicide and now lives in a mental institution.
The gaunt boy tearing open Christmas presents also became suicidal and was institutionalized.
The boy wearing the Indian headdress at a Halloween party later was arrested for plotting to kill his parents.
The photo album shows an old chapter in the Garbers' life; a stack of legal papers in the couple's office shows a new one.
They are suing the agencies that arranged the adoptions, saying that case workers and administrators portrayed the children as healthy and well-adjusted when they knew their files contained a history of extreme abuse.
The Garbers say they wouldn't have adopted the children if they'd seen the files. But even if they'd seen them soon after they adopted the children, they say, psychiatrists might have treated the children more effectively.
The Garbers' lawsuit, filed in August in federal court in New York, asks $130 million in compensatory and punitive damages from the Catholic Guardian Society in New York City and the social services departments of New York State and Cattaraugus County.
"I'm not doing this for the money," Bob Garber says. "But the only scorecard in a case like this is money. I can't sue for my children's mental health."
The Garbers say they hope their lawsuit will get the agencies' attention and force reform in a system that victimizes children and their adoptive parents.
But John Raggi, director of social services at Catholic Guardian, says his agency didn't victimize the Garbers.
"We've reviewed our records regarding this case and feel that the people who were here at the time acted appropriately," he says. "I'm confident that our agency will be vindicated."
Raggi refuses to address specific accusations.
Jane Alderdice, a representative of the New York State Department of Social Services, also refuses to discuss the particulars of the case. But she points out that a New York law requiring adoption agencies to provide adoptive parents with a child's medical history was passed in 1983, three years after the finalization of the Garbers' three adoptions.
Agency disclosure laws vary from state to state. Colorado has no laws that require agencies to disclose children's backgrounds, but general negligence laws suggest that agencies should give information when necessary.
Lawsuits against adoption agencies for negligence and non-disclosure are relatively new. But in the past five years, nearly a dozen cases like the Garbers' have been filed nationwide.
Judgments have been mixed, and some cases have been settled out of court.
In the last 15 to 20 years, a push has been on nationwide to place special needs children with adoptive parents, according to the National Committee for Adoption in Washington, D.C. That strategy leads to faster child placements, but the Garbers believe it also leads to the deterioration of families.
They speak from experience.
Eager to adopt, couple opens hearts to children
Lack of background information didn't seem important after family members met.
Bob Garber, 41, is a director at an aircraft financing firm in Denver; Judy Garber, 39, is a homemaker.
They were in their early 20s, living in Staten Island, N.Y., when they married. They planned to have a big family, but after a few years of trying to conceive, they discovered they were infertile and decided on adoption.
The Garbers applied to the Catholic Guardian Society. After a year of filling out forms and interviewing with case workers, they were told about three children in Olean, a town in upstate New York.
The couple drove nine hours to reach Olean, where they met the children and took them out for ice cream.
"They seemed like normal kids," Judy Garber says.
The couple went home hopeful that maybe - in a few months - they'd have an opportunity to adopt the three children.
"We had no background information, but we were so pumped up about starting a new family, it didn't seem to matter," Bob Garber says.
The Garbers were shocked when, three days after the visit, they received a call from an adoption agency worker who said "you can have the children."
The children looked thin but healthy when the Garbers picked them up in Olean. On the long drive to Staten Island, the couple took turns driving while the children slept, ate and asked about their new home and parents.
When the young couple and the children walked through the door of their apartment, they were a family. Bob Garber says it didn't matter that technically this was a probationary period.
"They were our children," Bob Garber says. "This was our dream coming true. We were told by the agency that everything was OK, and we believed them."
Linda's surfacing fears point to rocky past
Couple begins realizing the importance of their children's medical records.
They were doing well in school, getting mostly A's and B's.
Linda, 9, enjoyed singing in the school chorus. Jeff, 6, was athletic. George, 7, the most introspective of the three, was the best reader. They appeared to be happy.
Then Bob Garber noticed that Linda avoided being alone with him. When he asked her about it, she said she was afraid of daddies.
" `My daddy did things to me he shouldn't have,' " Bob says Linda told him.
At this point, the Garbers began to question the severity of problems in the children's biological family.
They called Catholic Guardian and asked about their medical records. They were told the records hadn't arrived yet.
Linda seemed to become more comfortable with her adoptive father over the following months, but then the Garbers learned she was telling her school guidance counselor that her family was terribly poor.
The Garbers were not poor. In fact, they had recently moved to a three-bedroom house in the Long Island suburbs.
As the one-year adoption probation deadline approached, the Garbers' calls to Catholic Guardian became more frequent. They demanded to see their children's medical files.
Garber says an agency worker told him the records were not available and that if they continued to demand to see them, the children would be removed from their home.
"We're not letting them go. These are our children," Garber said.
Without any more background information than first names and birthdays, the Garbers finalized the adoptions in August 1980.
Cycle of suicide attempts, psychiatric help begins
Therapy didn't seem to help Linda, who sank deeper into a self-abusive hole.
The next five years were the happiest and most uneventful the Garber family would have.
But when Linda was 14, she began to show severe emotional problems.
She told her high school guidance counselor that her parents physically abused her. Then she began running away, often for several days at a time.
The Garbers put Linda in therapy, but it didn't seem to help.
At 15, she grabbed her brother, Jeff, and took a train to Manhattan, intent on becoming a prostitute.
According to police reports, she was raped twice that night. The next day, complaining of stomach pains, she went to Manhattan's Roosevelt Hospital, where police found her and notified the Garbers. Police found Jeff a few hours later in the car of a stranger, whom police believe was interested in paying the boy for sex.
Bob picked up the children that afternoon and took them home. A month later, Linda made her first suicide attempt and the Garbers placed her in a psychiatric hospital.
The Garbers continued to fight for the children's records, and now they were backed by psychiatrists who said they needed background information to properly treat Linda.
The requests went unheeded.
Linda made other suicide attempts, and started telling her psychiatrists about a younger sister, Danielle, whom, she said, she had killed.
The Garbers say they later learned that Linda did have a baby sister who died, but records suggest Linda wasn't responsible for her death.
The Garbers' lawsuit alleges that "one or more of the siblings of the children died in early childhood and may have been killed by one of its natural parents."
The Garbers last saw Linda in a psychiatric institution in 1986 after relinquishing custody of her to the state.
While in the hospital, Linda told nurses her father sexually molested her. Social services investigated the Garber family and found no evidence of abuse.
Couple loses touch with Jeff first, then George
Move to Colorado Springs was meant to be a new start for what was left of the family.
Jeff, meanwhile, had been exhibiting emotional problems.
He ran away for long periods. He beat up fellow students. He twice tried to kill himself.
In 1988, the Garbers placed Jeff in a psychiatric hospital and gave custody of him to the state.
He was 15.
George was 16 and appeared healthy.
To make a fresh start, the Garbers moved to Colorado Springs and enrolled George at Lewis-Palmer High School.
"We just wanted to save George," Judy says. "We felt that if we could just get him through high school, somehow it would work out - we'd all be OK."
The move seemed good for George. He earned decent grades at school. He was on the soccer team. He worked part time at a McDonald's. He had a girlfriend.
The Garbers sighed and thanked God for an uneventful year.
Then one afternoon in May 1989, George didn't show up for work or, later, for his regular session of tutoring a younger student in math. Judy Garber went through George's room to see if he'd left any clues. She discovered a notebook detailing a plan to kill her and her husband and make it look like an accident. Frightened, the Garbers called police.
George was arrested and later pleaded guilty to first-degree assault.
Bewildered, Bob Garber asked George why he wanted to kill them.
" `I always wanted to kill my parents and you guys were just as good as anybody else,' " Bob Garber says his son told him.
After the arrest, George, then 17, spent five weeks in Cedar Springs psychiatric hospital. He is now on probation.
The Garbers severed contact with George, as they did with their other two children.
Couple wins long fight for George's records
Background information includes recommendation for therapy.
While the Garbers fought for the children's medical records, they also struggled to take care of medical expenses.
In 1985, they discovered they were entitled to medical adoption subsidies, and used them to pay for Linda's therapy.
After the Garbers gave up custody of Linda and Jeff, medical bills were sent to Suffolk County in New York.
In 1987, the county sued the Garbers for child support.
The Garbers say they encouraged the suit; as defendants, they would be entitled to subpoena power and could recover the children's medical records.
But as soon as they filed for subpoena power, the county dropped the suit.
Suffolk County social services officials refused to comment on the lawsuit.
In 1989, the Garbers appealed for adoption subsidies for George. Cattaraugus County's Department of Social Services rejected the appeal, saying there was no evidence that George's emotional problems were caused before the adoption.
The rejection entitled the Garbers to a hearing at the Cattaraugus County social services office, where the judge ordered the release of George's medical records.
The records revealed a troubled infancy and early childhood; George and his siblings had been shuffled between his biological parents and foster care, sometimes because the parents couldn't afford to feed them, and once after the death of an infant sister.
A psychologist had evaluated George in 1979, before the adoption, and recommended that George remain in his school, "an island of stability" and that he receive "open, concrete and detailed counseling."
George didn't receive counseling until after he was arrested in 1989.
Colorado Springs psychiatrist Dr. Roy Rosenthal treated George in May 1989 and found that he had frequent thoughts of killing and suicide.
After reviewing George's pre-adoption history, he wrote in a report that George was re-experiencing "the initial abandonment and abuse that the patient experienced early in life. Because of his early childhood experience, his current circumstances lead to a severe level of disturbance requiring hospitalization."
Children gone from their lives, but not forgotten
The Garbers' home is now a quiet place. The couple lives alone with their gray cat, Smokey.
Even if they could adopt more children, which is unlikely, they wouldn't.
"We're scared to death of the idea of having more children," Judy Garber says.
The Garbers say they're in a stage of recovery, but they're not willing to put their past behind them until after their lawsuit goes to court on March 10.
"I feel like I'm swinging back as hard as I can," Bob Garber says. "Because if I don't swing back, it says that what happened was OK. It wasn't OK. It wasn't even close to OK."
At the Garbers' request, a pseudonym was used for their middle child, "George," who lives in Colorado Springs.