Special-needs foster family disintegrates

Helping 1 child wasn't enough, but how many are too many?
By Josh Brodesky

Tucson, Arizona | Published: 07.15.2007

Karin and Larry Wilson took in the children others didn't want.

They adopted or were foster parents to 26 severely disabled special-needs kids over the years, caring for as many as 19 children at one time.

But since spring, Child Protective Services has removed 16 children from the Wilson home, 14 of them in the wake of a chaotic late-night fight between the couple in May. The family has been the subject of repeated CPS investigations over the past 2 1/2 years, Karin Wilson said. CPS could not confirm how long the family was investigated because of a court order restricting comments about the case.

Pima County sheriff's deputies have responded to 10 complaints regarding the Wilson children, mostly from faculty and staff members with the Marana Unified School District, who reported abuse suspicions because the children came to school with frequent injuries.

Karin Wilson, who had moved out of the family's West Ina Road home about a year before the children were removed, said two children have since been returned to her, and she is fighting to regain custody of the others.

Before the troubles started, the Wilsons were lauded for their willingness to take in children who were born without brains or had Down syndrome, cystic fibrosis or fetal alcohol syndrome. None of the children were adopted in Arizona. The family was featured in newspapers, including the Arizona Daily Star, and received national recognition, even appearing on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" to promote adoption of special-needs children, particularly those with developmental disabilities.

In interviews with the Star, Karin Wilson said the couple's Memorial Day fight resulted from a single stressful incident and is no indication of a violent home. The reports of suspected abuse, she said, came from well-meaning educators who didn't know that some severely disabled children hurt themselves easily and regularly.

Larry Wilson, reached by telephone numerous times over the last month, declined interview requests.

A year of reports

After the Wilsons separated a year ago, they worked out an arrangement where Karin — a licensed nurse — would go to the home in the mornings to help the kids get ready for school, then return in the afternoon, remaining until bedtime.

But on Memorial Day, an in-home nurse failed to return a child she had taken home for the weekend.

Larry Wilson filed a missing-persons report, and the child was found at the home of the nurse, who had filed a petition for custody. The child was brought home.

Karin Wilson was across town at a barbecue while the incident played out. Larry called her throughout the night, giving her updates, she said. When she made it to the home at 2 a.m., a fight broke out so quickly she never took off her motorcycle helmet.

Police reports say Larry pushed Karin out the door and was hitting her in the head, which was protected by her helmet. When the deputies arrived, Larry had locked himself inside. Ultimately, deputies kicked down the front door and tackled Larry, arresting him on suspicion of assault and disorderly conduct.

A few days later, CPS removed the children.

Karin Wilson said she did not want to trivialize the incident, but characterized it as a momentary breakdown: "He just lashed out. I think he had enough. I was the person who was there, and I got it."

Despite the fight, she said she couldn't imagine any child abuse in the home, citing the number of nurses and attendants there at all hours.

While charges are pending from the fight, none of the other police reports resulted in any criminal charges. Most of the reports are mired by conflicting stories between Larry Wilson and his children. Often, the children changed their stories.

Each time the Sheriff's Department was called out for a suspected abuse case, CPS was notified.

"The assistant principal also stated things like this happen to the family a lot, and it always seems that Child Protective Services is always investigating the Wilsons," one incident report from early May states.

State concerned about CPS

The Wilson case raises recurring questions about CPS policy, said state Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Tucson Republican who will be leading legislative hearings on CPS in August.

One question is why it would remove some kids but not others. Another is why the agency removed the kids only after a lengthy period of multiple investigations.

Because of an order issued Tuesday in Pima County Juvenile Court that prohibits the parties in the case from speaking about it, CPS spokeswoman Liz Barker Alvarez was unable to respond to those questions.

But in an interview before the court order, Barker Alvarez said CPS deals with cases on a child-specific basis, and "takes into account the allegation and the situation for each individual child." The agency will remove only kids who appear to be in harm's way, she said.

Karin Wilson says school officials were too quick to suspect abuse of kids who came from troubled backgrounds and were prone to self-injurious and age-inappropriate behavior. "What has happened is when you have all of these reports like that, one after another like that, people start to think where there is smoke, there is fire," she said.

Some special-needs kids are prone to hurting themselves, but only in a small number of cases, said Ronald C. Hughes, a psychologist and director of the North American Resource Center for Child Welfare, a policy-development group.

"Certainly some children with special needs have self-injurious behaviors or may engage in behaviors who injure other children, but if that's the case, you don't need 19, 15 or 20 kids in the home," he said.

Goal was to give better care

Karin Wilson began to foster, and then adopt, special-needs kids while working as a nurse in Alaska roughly 20 years ago because she didn't like how some of the kids were being cared for, she said.

She moved to North Carolina with her two biological children and one adopted special-needs child and met Larry. Soon the couple began adopting more and more special-needs kids, moving from North Carolina to Georgia and finally to Marana. Larry also had two biological children.

Karin Wilson rejected the idea that the size of her family made it similar to an institutional setting. "In an institution, the only permanent thing about it is the building," she said. "At home in a family, you have parents, siblings."

It's common for nurses, social workers or special-education teachers to adopt children with extraordinary needs, said Laraine Masters Glidden, a psychology professor at St. Mary's College of Maryland. Such positions give prospective parents a sense of confidence and competence, and they are a benefit when an agency is considering placement, she said.

"Another factor is just familiarity, where many people go through life not getting to know people with disabilities," she said.

Since her kids have been removed, Karin Wilson said she has visited them at the group and foster homes where they've been placed.

Even if the kids are returned, however, it's unclear if the Wilsons can support them.

Not only will they remain separated, but the couple is running into financial trouble. Supporting so many special-needs kids costs as much as $10,000 a month, Karin Wilson said. To make ends meet, the couple relied on subsidies from the various states from which the children were adopted. They also received Social Security in addition to their own savings and credit.

But the subsidies have stopped, and Karin Wilson said their home will soon be for sale.

"It destroyed the family," she said.

Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or jbrodesky@azstarnet.com.


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