Written by David Unze and Kirsti Marohn
February 10, 2012
Although three years have passed, Wayne Smith can still close his eyes and see the outline of the teenage boy walking toward his house on Sarah Lane.
The boy was a friend of Smith’s son and lived several miles out in the township. He had called ahead to say he was coming, that he needed to talk.
On his feet were socks, but no shoes. A light windbreaker covered a short-sleeved T-shirt and strained to protect his body against the chilling breeze. The mild November afternoon felt a little colder than the mid-20s the thermometer showed.
Some of the shivering boy’s tears had dried on his face.
The ugly family secret that made him not want to go back to his home just south of Holdingford would thrust Smith into a role for which he had been uniquely, if informally, prepared.
“Morally I had a responsibility to that child,” Smith would later say. “I wasn’t going to let it go. I knew that it had to be stopped.”
Smith has lived more than the 46 years that his birth date suggests. He struggled for years to recover from repeated sexual abuse by a relative. It occurred when he was a teenager. Giving his life to God was a major step in his recovery.
It was his faith and his experiences in a troubled past that guided Smith’s response when he heard what the boy had to say that November day in 2008.
Two siblings had sexually abused him in the house where he lived with 16 other children, the boy said. The boy admitted “messing around” with a sister and told Smith that his parents knew of possible sexual misconduct among other children in the house.
An allegation of sexual abuse among siblings was one thing.
But the family in question was headed by nationally known advocates for large families, particularly families constructed through adoption and foster care. Paul and Paula Dunham were self-proclaimed authorities at raising large, mixed families. At one point their family was as large as 24 children — nine biological and 15 adopted. They were the subjects of national news stories about how to raise large families and were sought for their advice on the challenges of adoption and foster care.
Paula Dunham led a Stearns County support group for families considering, or involved in, adoption. She started a blog in 2005 and talked openly about her family’s challenges, the joys and fulfillment of giving troubled children love and a fresh start in life, about following a path that God had paved for them.
What the boy told Smith about what was happening inside the Dunham house threatened to tear apart the family.
It eventually would raise questions about how the family got to be so large, and how it was allowed to take in children after multiple reports of sexual misconduct among the children in the house.
The magnitude of the abuse that Smith heard from the boy, and how serious Smith thought it could be, gave him no pause.
You’re going to have to tell the sheriff what you’ve done, and soon, Smith told the boy. There will be punishment, but you have to tell them everything you’ve done. And everything that’s been done to you.
“You’re going to be a better man,” Smith said he told the boy. “And think about your sisters. You’ll be protecting them. And think about the man you’ll become because you are doing the right thing.”
Two days later, several Stearns County sheriffs’ deputies removed 15 minor children, ranging in age from 8 months to 17 years, who were still living at the Dunham home. Most were interviewed at the sheriff’s office and placed in foster care.
That week, more than a dozen court-appointed attorneys crowded a hallway on the second floor of the Stearns County Courthouse. Each was there to represent a Dunham child at emergency protective care hearings.
The 22 months that followed saw the official unraveling of Paul and Paula Dunham’s patchwork family. Five of their children would be charged either as adults or juveniles. Three would be convicted and two would be found not guilty, one after a victim refused to return to Minnesota to testify against a sibling.
Stearns County, which didn’t place any of the children in the Dunham house, initiated 15 child protection cases and began the process to terminate the Dunhams’ parental rights to two of their children.
In the next two years, dozens of county or state employees would spend hundreds of hours working on cases involving the Dunhams. Sheriff’s deputies, social workers, judges, probation agents and prosecutors were among them.
The legal cases touched on so many complex and varying areas of law that they involved the civil, criminal and juvenile divisions of the Stearns County Attorney’s Office. The total workload spanned nearly two years and was equivalent to the work required for a complex double-homicide, County Attorney Janelle Kendall said.
“I’d say this is the biggest one I’ve seen in 21 years,” she said. “This many kids, all at the same time? This was one big mess when this came in.”
Having a family big enough to field two football teams wasn’t on the Dunhams’ radar when they met at California State University-Chico.
They married in 1985 and spent the first nine years of their marriage moving around the world for his job.
When it came to the number of children they wanted, she was stuck on four. He was stuck on two.
Their third son brought a different perspective. Paula wrote about it in a blog called “North of Reality,” in which she gave detailed updates on her family and shared their struggles and successes.
“We had almost lost him and all of the sudden we realized what a precious gift each and every child was,” Paula wrote in her blog. “About that time we had been doing some reading about the Lordship of Christ over all aspects of your life, including child bearing. We decided then that we would allow God to give us as many children as He saw fit.”
That meant another five biological children by 1999, when their family consisted of four sons and four daughters.
Paula herself was adopted, and she and Paul continued to contemplate adding to their family through adoption.
They took adoption classes when she was pregnant with their eighth child.
“You’d think that after having eight children your parenting experience might count for something, but all we heard from social workers was, ‘You have eight kids, why do you want more?’ Yada, yada, yada ... we were stonewalled from the beginning,” she wrote in her blog.
The Dunhams weren’t trying to just add a ninth child to their brood. They wanted a sibling group, something the system tries to keep together when making child placement decisions.
The Dunhams were told they first had to prove their ability with one child in order to get a sibling group. They adopted a 15-year-old who was mildly mentally disabled and was in a home with what Paula called “severe kids.”
He didn’t belong there, but there was nowhere else to put him, she wrote.
The adoption worked, opening doors less than a year later that allowed the Dunhams to adopt two sisters. The girls had been in foster care for three years, bounced to seven homes because of the younger sister’s behavior.
All three of the Dunhams’ adopted kids by that time came from Maine.
Shortly before finalizing the adoption of the sisters from Maine, the Dunhams learned about a sibling group of six Filipino children, ranging in age from 8 to 17, that needed a family. The siblings had been adopted from the Children’s Shelter of Cebu in the Philippines by another family. The adoption didn’t work, and those adoptive parents were willing to help a family financially if they would take in the children.
“We finalized the adoption of our girls on a Monday and that very Friday, my six Filipino children joined us,” Paula wrote.
The Dunhams suddenly had more than doubled their family to 17 children and had to move from Sartell to a country home near Holdingford to find more space.
“We had a lot of older kids with some deep hurts,” she wrote. “… We became a transracial family for the first time too and had ESL issues to deal with.”
Another adoption wasn’t something the Dunhams were thinking about, Paula wrote. But just like their original plans to keep their family in single digits, that changed as well.
God had other plans, Paula wrote in describing the decision to again expand their family. In 2005, three years after adopting the six Filipino siblings, two Hispanic siblings joined their family, a 16-year-old boy and an 11-year-old girl.
“They were in foster care for six years and now they have a family,” Paula wrote.
“We feel we are very blessed and while we know that this is not the road that most would choose to walk, it is the one that we have chosen.”
Adoption is not for the fainthearted, she warned people who read her blog. “Some days I go to bed crying my eyes out and just beseeching God to fill me up because I am so at the end of me. There are plenty of times when I feel like I will never be able to help these hurt children and that I must be the worse (sic) mom on the planet. Seriously, it’s not easy what I do, but the rewards are great and so I persist.”
And persist they did, relying on God’s guidance.
“Will we add more children? Maybe,” Paula wrote at the time. “We have said that we will take the children that God sends us, and there are lots of children that need families still. We’ll just have to wait and see.”
In 2006, the Dunhams adopted three of four siblings who were placed into their home by Morrison County after the kids were taken from their parents.
The same year, Paula Dunham reported to Stearns County Human Services that she suspected one of her adopted sons had been sexually active with an adopted daughter.
It wouldn’t be the last time such an allegation would come to the attention of law enforcement. And although the Dunhams now counted 22 children as theirs, they also weren’t done adding kids.
The accused children admitted that they had sex once around Christmas 2005. A Stearns County judge ordered treatment for the children, and the county provided services through child protection.
The Dunhams had enough concerns about the behavior of their children that they put alarms on bedroom doors, segregated the boys’ rooms from the girls’ rooms and installed cameras in the youngest boys’ rooms.
Sheriff’s deputies were called several times to the Dunham house in the next two years.
A child would run away. Another would refuse to go to school, throw a tantrum and punch holes in the wall.
They investigated a report that Paul Dunham had slapped one of the children after being verbally abused by the child. Another daughter was accused of hitting, kicking and biting Paula.
Court reports and Paula’s blog show deputies, social workers, mental health professionals and others had contact with the family multiple times beginning in 2006 and continuing until at least December 2008, when the children were removed from the home. The county was involved in termination of parental rights cases until October 2010.
Data privacy laws prevented the Times from gaining access to additional documents that could have showed what those people saw, who they talked to in the family and the reasons they allowed the Dunhams to continue to add children to the family.
Despite a growing list of police reports involving the family, in September 2007 the Dunhams became guardians for two boys aged 16 and 13 from Montana who had been adopted from the Philippines. Their adoption had failed, and Paula and Paul agreed to take the boys in.
The Dunhams planned to adopt those boys as well.
Because it was a private placement from one family to another, Stearns County again played no role in placing the kids.
The county didn’t learn the real reason the adoption in Montana had failed until after Wayne Smith brought one of the Dunhams to the sheriff’s office in late 2008.
It came out during a police interview with Paula Dunham.
One of the Montana boys had repeatedly sexually abused his sister in Montana, and a court order prohibited him from having any contact with the girl or from being alone with girls more than a year younger than him.
“No interstate compact on the placement of juveniles had been completed for transferring (his) probation,” according to a Stearns County sheriff’s report.
Paula Dunham told investigators that she was aware of the allegations and the restrictions on the boy when she took him into her home with the intention of making him and his brother their 23rd and 24th children.
“(Adoption) disruption is always a very hard thing,” Paula wrote at the time, “but as far as this one goes, we really feel it’s as good a scenario as possible.”
The adoptive parents who asked the Dunhams to take the boys wanted to maintain a connection to the Dunhams and the boys, she wrote.
"We feel like we are gaining a great extended family and another layer of love and support for both the boys and for us. I truly wish all adoption disruptions could be like this.”
Paula wasn’t alone in knowing the boy faced restrictions because of his conduct with his sister in Montana. So did the probation agent from Montana who approved the placement of the boy in the Dunham home, according to Paula’s statement to investigators.
In that 2008 interview with sheriff’s investigators, Paula discussed the allegations of sexual abuse inside her home. There had been family meetings where the parents had cautioned the children about good touch versus bad touch, she said.
With that many kids and their challenges, school-related activities, jobs and doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, psychiatry appointments and visits to schools for individual meetings with teachers, a county social worker had a question for Paula Dunham during her interview.
Are you really capable of properly supervising all of those children?
“I thought so,” Paula said. “But you know, at this point, who knows. Because from what I’m hearing now there’s still stuff going on. I mean, I don’t know who had more precautions in place than I do. We have alarms in the door, we have a camera in the little boys room, the boys come with me, the girls stay home. I have a few adult children that I’ve trusted, maybe I shouldn’t have. Maybe they weren’t as diligent as they should have been, or needed to be.”
The family continued to grow after the Montana boys arrived. Paula gave birth in April 2008 to her ninth biological child, a daughter. In October, one of the Dunhams’ daughters gave birth to a son, and the Dunhams eventually adopted him.
Their family totaled 24. To name their last child, they turned to their faith.
“His names mean ‘God has given’ and ‘home strength,’ ” Paula wrote. “We feel it suits him well as he was a gift from God, born to a strong home.”
Later that year, their strong home was ripped apart by one boy’s allegations of sexual abuse.
Those allegations led to adult criminal charges against two of the Dunhams’ biological children and one adopted son. The biological sons, one a juvenile who was certified to stand trial as an adult, were convicted of first-degree criminal sexual conduct. The adopted son was found not guilty after a trial before a Stearns County judge.
That trial was delayed several times as the county tried to get the alleged victim to return to Minnesota from Florida, where Paul and Paula had moved. The victim refused, even after Stearns County sent two deputies to Florida.
Court records and copies of investigators’ interviews show that the Dunhams’ Stearns County home often was rife with complaints of favoritism toward the Dunhams’ birth children and indifference toward the adoptees. It was an underlying theme that bubbled throughout the house.
Some of the Dunhams’ children moved with them to Florida; some have stayed behind and some have been returned to the foster care system.
The two termination-of-parental-rights case ended with the Dunhams losing those two children. Paul relinquished his rights to both children, while Paula had her parental rights terminated by the county.
Paul and Paula were investigated for possible neglect and maltreatment and for potentially failing to report the abuse going on inside their home. Kendall’s office determined that no charges would be filed against them.
“We had to show that they had knowledge of the abuse and didn’t report it or aided in letting it occur,” said Mike Lieberg, head of the criminal division in the Stearns County Attorney’s Office.
If the Dunhams still had their foster care license in December 2008, Paul and Paula would have been mandated reporters and therefore required to report any suspected abuse. But their license had lapsed, and there weren’t any foster children in the house at the time.
And there was no evidence that Paul and Paula knew about the abuse and allowed it or acquiesced to it.
“We don’t have anything along those lines here in this case,” Kendall said. “Mom reported the first round that we knew about. We asked those questions, absolutely.”
Paula started a new blog in February 2011 from their home in Florida.
In it, she expresses frustration with the adoption and foster care systems and the government agencies and nonprofits that are supposed to help.
She railed against the lack of post-adoptive services, the absence of “full disclosure of information” about the children she was adopting and about becoming part of the problem, when she wanted to be part of the solution.
“Adoption has been heralded as the great solution to children who have been made legal orphans by the states. ‘Every child deserves a loving family’ is the theme of the day,” she wrote. “OK, but is that really the solution when you have a very violent child? Is that really the best solution if there are other children in the home who will be put in jeopardy?”
We are caregivers. It’s what we do, she wrote.
“Yet, none of us were prepared for this ugly cycle. Yep we took our classes and heard the stories, but we ALL wanted to get out there and try to help anyways. It’s not that we are slamming our children. We CHOSE our children. An adoption is never an accident! We adopted these children on purpose. Most of us would make the same choices again. That does not mitigate the fact that there are problems that are not being addressed. There is no help out there for most of us. Unless things get so bad that the criminal justice system steps in, we are left treading water, just trying to stay afloat in the midst of a violent storm.”
She closes that blog post with a quote from Galatians 6:9.
“Do not grow weary while doing good,” she wrote, “for in due season you shall reap if you don’t lose heart.”
She thanks readers for listening to her “rant,” saying “it’s about time someone does.”
She and Paul refused repeated requests from the Times for interviews.
Smith isn’t as reluctant to discuss what he thinks was happening in the Dunham home. He believes that Paul and Paula had good intentions, to help the children that few, if anyone else, would take in.
It’s just that things got out of hand as the family swelled. Who was supposed to be watching as the family grew to 24, he wonders, and what processes were in place to scrutinize whether that growth was safe for the children in that house?