Sisters’ adoptive Oklahoma family reflects
BY ANN KELLEY Oklahoman Published: April 11, 2010
© Copyright 2010, The Oklahoman
FAIRVIEW — It has cost more than money for Ardee and Penny Tyler to give five Liberian sisters a better life in the United States.
It’s cost them their reputations and their privacy, and scattered their family. Would they do it again? Yes, but they’d do it differently.
"We would have gotten the right kind of help from the beginning,” Penny Tyler said. "We had no idea the cultural and behavior issues we’d be dealing with. But we’ve all grown.”
The Tylers weren’t shy about telling their adoption story which has landed them two felony convictions for child abuse and has their son jailed for molestation. They say an act that started out of compassion somehow turned into a bitter fight over their daughters.
A child welfare worker removed the girls Friday night from their parents’ custody after the child welfare case was reopened last week. The girls all say they want to remain with their parents.
"We love them and they love us,” said Mary Tyler, 16. "We want to be with them. And we’re not being abused.”
Obliged by scripture
Penny Tyler, 45, said they contemplated adoption for years. The Tylers have a son and daughter together, and a son from Ardee Tyler’s first marriage, but said they were compelled by scripture to have more children.
In 2005, Penny saw an advertisement for the West African Children’s Support Network, an adoption agency-African orphanage searching for American families to pair with Liberian children. She soon learned the group was looking for a home for sisters whose mother had died giving birth to the youngest only months before.
"I cried when I heard their story, and then I was told they might be split up,” Penny said. "Ardee and I decided right away, we wouldn’t let that happen.”
Round trip airfare from Oklahoma to Liberia was more than $14,000. Adoption fees paid to the African government were $30,000. There also were costs for a home study and adoption legal fees in the United States.
To finance the endeavor, they tapped into savings and were assisted by fellow church members at the Mennonite Brethren Church in their hometown of Fairview.
Three months after Penny Tyler responded to the magazine ad, the Tylers were in Liberia picking up their daughters.
Civil war has devastated Liberia. The Tylers saw people living in shacks with no plumbing or electricity. Men walked the streets with rifles and handguns. And it was indistinguishable who was there to keep the peace and who were the predators, Ardee Tyler said.
The Tylers stayed two weeks while the government processed their adoption paperwork.
Fatu was practically a newborn and Bindu was a toddler. Mary, the oldest, was 11 and Mahawa was 6. The fifth, and second-oldest girl, was 8.
"From the moment we got there, they were in our care,” Ardee Tyler said. Penny Tyler said the girls’ natural father, James Andrews, was excited his daughters would be living in the United States.
No place like home
The modern amenities of the western world fascinated the girls. They spent the first days in their new home flushing toilets just to hear the water.
The Tylers moved to Oklahoma about five years before and built a spacious, 5-bedroom log cabin. The grounds include an above-ground swimming pool, gardens and a large workshop where Ardee, a carpenter, works.
The Tylers raise livestock for meat and can vegetables from their garden. They have chickens for fresh eggs and a dairy cow for milk. Penny Tyler homeschools the children.
She said the girls were undernourished and suffered from exposure to lead paint in Africa. Along with learning disabilities, they were academically behind other children.
The Tylers say they soon learned the girls had emotional problems. Little by little, the older girls started telling stories of events they witnessed in Liberia.
They also learned their girls had undergone a tribal initiation that left them scarred, he said.
The girls were acting out, and the Tylers were at a loss with how to deal it.
"They told us nothing at the adoption agency of their history,” Penny Tyler said.
Mary and their second-oldest daughter needed psychiatric help. There were no juvenile mental health centers in Oklahoma specializing in the girls’ problems, Ardee Tyler said.
Ardee and Penny Tyler have admitted to the things they were convicted of doing.
The girl was tied to a bedpost and slept outside. She also went three days without food. The Tylers admit it sounds extreme. However, circumstances aren’t as they seem, Ardee Tyler said.
He said the girl was tied to a bed with a tie from a bathrobe and could have easily untied herself.
Ardee Tyler said she slept on the back porch of their home for one night after she purposely urinated on the floor during a tantrum. He said she was dressed in warm clothes and given a sleeping bag.
"I hardly slept that night, because I kept getting up to check on her,” Ardee Tyler said.
Penny Tyler said the girl asked to try fasting after hearing about it in a church sermon.
The Tylers say they are remorseful for their behavior and that of their natural children.
Ashton Tyler, 21, was convicted of molesting the girl. Last month, he began a two-year prison sentence for the offense from when he was 15 and the victim was 9.
Nathania Tyler, 20, was convicted of misdemeanor assault and battery, and given a six-month suspended sentence.
"Nathania lost her temper and hit her, but there was a lot of tension and stress in our house then,” Penny Tyler said.The Tylers don’t have much to say about their son, other than he made a grave mistake and shouldn’t be punished the rest of his life for it.
The Tylers say they struggled privately.
"We weren’t ashamed,” Ardee Tyler said. "We thought we were protecting our girls by not telling anyone about their behaviors or past in Liberia.”
Penny said trouble erupted when she dismissed fellow church member Janice Wichert from helping her home school.
She said Wichert was the sounding board for her second-oldest adopted daughter.
"She was telling her things like I beat her with a rake or a baseball bat,” Penny Tyler said. "That never happened.”
They sent the second-oldest daughter to stay with Penny’s cousin, Barbara Johnson, in Illinois, after learning of a mental health center there that could help her, Penny Tyler said.
Not long after she left, a child welfare worker from the state Department of Human Services was at their door, she said.
Penny Tyler said DHS has been their biggest advocate. She said once or twice a week since the case opened a child welfare worker has visited.
The family has been to counseling , she said.
Ardee Tyler said Major County Assistant District Attorney Tim Hayworth assured them they wouldn’t lose their children if they cooperated with DHS.
The case continues
After a two-year battle, the Tylers thought on March 29 their legal troubles were behind them.
Associate District Judge Vinson Barefoot closed the child welfare case, allowing the children to remain with the Tylers.
The couple’s criminal case was concluded nearly two months before. Penny Tyler had finished her 60 days in the county jail.
Their son is in the county jail awaiting transfer to a state prison.
The daughter that made allegations is being adopted by Barbara Johnson.
The child welfare case has been reopened at the request of state Attorney General Drew Edmondson and Major County District Attorney Hollis Thorp.
"We are a family and we’re going to do whatever it takes to stay together,” Ardee Tyler said. "We’ve said that all along and we mean it.”