When Adoption Dream Turns Into Nightmare
Newsday (Melville, NY)
Couple sues over kids' hidden past
Author: Roni Rabin. STAFF WRITER
Eleven years ago, a young Islip couple jumped at the chance to adopt their dream - a houseful of children.
Now they're thinking they jumped too soon.
According to Robert and Judith Garber, they were told nothing about 9-year-old Linda and her brothers, Michael, 7, and Jeffrey, 6, except their names, dates of birth and religion. Despite repeated requests, they say, they never received the children's medical records, and were never told the real reasons why the natural parents in upstate Olean gave them up for adoption.
It didn't take long for clues to surface. From the start, the Garbers said, Linda was scared of being in the same room with her adoptive father. In the years following her adoption she told teachers she had been starved at home, raped by her brothers, and that the Garbers were desperately poor. She started running away from home for two to three days at a time, and at the age of 15, she took her brother Jeffrey and fled to New York City to become a prostitute. Police tracked the children down and brought them home. In the months that followed, both Linda and Jeffrey made several suicide attempts; both were eventually committed to psychiatric hospitals.
Last year, the Garbers discovered a series of notes indicating that Michael, the only son who appeared to be healthy, was, with some friends, plotting to kill them. He pleaded guilty to first-degree assault charges and is out on probation.
Now the Garbers, from their new home in Colorado Springs, Colo., are suing the agencies that arranged the adoption, the Catholic Guardian Society, and the social services departments of New York State and Cattaraugus County. Claiming the defendants knowingly withheld information about the children's past, they are seeking $30 million in compensatory damages and $100 million in punitive damages in a suit their lawyer says is unusual.
It was not until last year, after a different legal battle, that the Garbers obtained medical records from the Cattaraugus County Department of Social Services. "These records showed, among other things, that the children were in and out of foster homes, were rejected by foster parents and possible adoptive parents, had severely psychotic symptoms because of unstable conditions in their lives, endured repeated and continuous mental, physical and sexual abuse by their natural parents, and suffered neglect by their natural parents and by their foster parents," the suit claims.
Although they have spent thousands of dollars on psychiatric treatment for the children, they are not pressing the suit for the money, Garber explained.
"I want to damage the system," said the 41-year-old Garber, who is in the aircraft finance business. "A system that can do this to children and to adoptive families . . . we want to do as much damage as we can to."
In the lawsuit, the Garbers say their lives were made "a literal living hell."
Speaking of the pain his family endured, he said, "We need to make sure the last 12 years of our lives and of our children's lives - because we do still think of them as our children - are going to matter, are going to mean something."
A spokesman for the state Department of Social Services, Terrance McGrath, said he could not comment on the suit because it is in litigation. But he pointed out that a law requiring adoption agencies to provide adoptive parents with medical histories of the child was only passed in 1983, many years after the 1980 finalization of the Garbers' adoptions.
John Raggi, director of social services at Catholic Guardian Society, a Manhattan-based not-for-profit organization that arranges about a dozen adoptions a year, said he could not address the specific charges.
But, he said, "We have reviewed our records of the case and we feel confident the agency did all it could and acted appropriately at the time."
While the lawsuit itself is fairly unusual, according to the Garbers' attorney, William S. Greenawalt of Manhattan, the problem is not unique.
"The issue of discovery of information, whether medical or psychological, is extremely important for adoptive parents, to know whether they can handle that kind of situation," said Ernesto Loperena, executive director of Council on Adoptable Children, an adoption referral group in New York. "We counsel our adoptive parents to get as much information as possible."
Garber, who was interviewed by telephone from his new home, acknowledges that he and his wife, who had been told they would not be able to have children of their own, were desperate to have a family and therefore rushed into the situation. After the first meeting with the children in Olean in 1979, he said, "We were very high. It was a wonderful thing. Emotionally, we dreamed of a family, and this potentially could be our family."
Meanwhile, the lawsuit says, "The Society continuously assured the Garbers that each and all of the children were excellent and prime candidates for adoption." Months later, they were urged to finalize the adoption without receiving any background information, and were told that if they persisted in demanding the information the children would be taken out of their home.
As the years went by, Linda's behavior became more and more bizarre, Garber said. She convinced her teachers that her family was very poor and that her brothers raped her repeatedly. She started carrying a cross around with her and studying the Bible intensely. Her parents repeatedly sought to obtain her medical records through the Catholic Guardian Society, but were met with silence, they charged.
In November, 1985, New York police retrieved Linda and her brother Jeffrey from Manhattan, where the girl said she had gone with the intention of becoming a prostitute. A month later, at home, she made her first suicide attempt and the Garbers hospitalized her in a home for disturbed children. She made repeated suicide attempts and started talking about a younger sister, Danielle, whom, she said, she had murdered.
The Garbers learned later, after obtaining some medical records, that a younger child in the family, Danielle, had in fact died "and may have been killed by one of its natural parents" because she was crying, according to the lawsuit.
What happened, Garber said, was that Linda - who had been put in charge of the child and told to keep her from crying - blamed herself for the death.
In 1985, Linda was so psychologically ill she no longer recognized the Garbers and the parents relinquished their custody to the county. She remains institutionalized.
Meanwhile, Jeffrey was becoming very abusive, Garber said. He beat up other children, including one who required plastic surgery, and tried to kill himself, slashing his wrists one time and swallowing a whole bottle of Tylenol another. In 1986, when he was 13, the parents relinquished their parental rights to Jeffrey. He is now in the Berkshire Farm Center, a psychiatric center in upstate Canaan.
Michael still appeared healthy, Garber said, and the family relocated to Colorado Springs in 1988 to try to make a new start. But after they discovered the plot to murder them, Michael, too, had to be institutionalized.
The Garbers no longer have contact with any of the children. But they still think of the children as their own, and the whole episode is still very painful. "Somehow we get through," Garber said. "Had these children been our biological children, and we had caused all this, I don't know if I'd be here to talk to you. But we didn't cause this, we tried to help."