Were 84 kids too much?
Were 84 kids too much?: For years Dennis and Diane, who adopted 78 children, were lauded as the most wonderful people in America. Then suddenly they weren't. Keith Botsford reports
KEITH BOTSFORD FRIDAY 10 DECEMBER 1993
First there was Lori Diane, then Katie Sue, and then 76 more adoptions plus six offspring of their own, bringing to a grand total of 84 the children of Dennis and Diane Nason. This once-celebrated pair are now under Grand Jury indictment in Deschutes County, Oregon, on 27 counts ranging from manslaughter (three counts), first-degree criminal mistreatment (15 counts), forgery of adoption and guardianship documents, racketeering and aggravated theft (nine counts grouped under the infamous Rico 'conspiracy' law, now used in America whenever the state lacks real evidence). A long sentence, a brief story.
Dennis is 51, Diane 50. Both are deeply religious, and they were married in 1960 when both were just out of their teens. Dennis is a beefy man with sideburns who works in a hardware store; Diane is dark, hyperkinetic and a supermum with an ambition to have a hundred children. By 1979, the couple had 17 children and moved 100 miles north to Sisters, Oregon, where Dennis took a job as postmaster.
Sisters is a typical Oregon mountain town, half ski resort (snowcapped mountains rise several thousand feet to the west) and half farming community. It has two main streets, the look of a slightly modernised town Clint Eastwood might come riding into, and a few thousand people, most of them living in spacious houses.
But it is in Oregon, which is important, because Oregon has its peculiarities. Its adoption policy is by far the most liberal in the United States. It allows: the advertising and selling of babies; private adoption without suitability checks; broad discretion (after adoption) for judges to make adoptions permanent; and unlimited family size. Oregon is also a state split between its rural (conservative) and its urban (arch-liberal) communities, and this is the story of a pair of conservative ultra-Christians (their first minister says they changed churches seeking a more 'traditional' way to salvation) who wanted to rescue children no one else wanted (the maimed, the crippled, the starved or abused from the Third World), and of the officious state and its social-worker representatives who moved in on them in January 1991. This was after a year during which Diane had undergone a hysterectomy, the exemplary couple had separated for a month (Dennis left, with a gun, threatening to commit suicide), and they had stopped adopting children.
Until then, the Nasons had been hero parents. They had appeared on America's most-watched programme, Sixty Minutes; ABC made a movie about them called The Celebration Family; Diane had been 'Mom of the Year' on ABC's Home Show; she had written a book about their family; they had received countless awards; senators had facilitated their adoption of foreign-born babies; public appeals had raised nearly half a million dollars to support their ever-growing clan; they had opened their own private school, 'Great Expectations'; in short, they were the stuff of legendary virtue.
During those two decades of parenting - they were widely-known as 'the United Nasons' - they had suffered three losses among their adopted family: in 1985, Jason, aged two and a half, died in his sleep, and five days later Jodi Kay, three, died on his way to hospital. The eventual diagnosis was shigella, a bacterial infection. A third child, Natasha Angel, nine, died, allegedly of malnutrition, in 1988. It is also true to say, as several of their friends explained, that by the late Eighties there were signs that the Nasons' dream was beginning to collapse about them.
These were small signs, of the kind on which witch-hunts feed, and they concerned two things: the increasingly strained relations between Dennis and Diane (neither of them highly educated, both of them poor and struggling) and the beginnings of a whispering campaign against them in Sisters. Dennis, a friend said, had wished the adoptions to stop at 40; Diane, on the other hand, had a messianic urge to continue adopting. 'Everyone has different gifts and abilities given to them by God,' she wrote. 'I feel I can make a difference.'
When the Nasons set up their own school (with as many pupils as the local school in Sisters) Diane said it was necessary because their many children with handicaps, learning disabilities or both, did not get proper attention in the local schools. Staff from the Sisters School District responded by murmuring that 'neglect' at home and the Nasons' search 'for state money' had prompted the opening of their school. At the same time, visitors to the Nasons' home (a 36-bedroom ramshackle but well-kept house some miles out of town) and school began reporting that both were 'smelly'.
The first direct accusation of abuse was made by a 28-year-old special education teacher, Betty Gilcrist, in 1988, after she was fired from their school by the Nasons. Once her testimony became available, various Nason children who had left home either volunteered to testify before the Child Services Department or were invited; some made allegations of abuse, without prompting, according to the CSD. These allegations, subsequently made public to the Grand Jury, included the use of a cattle prod as punishment, verbal abuse and, in one case, sexual abuse by Dennis.
The script here is not unfamiliar. Child abuse is frequently alleged and sometimes proved, especially in small family situations. Child abuse allegations in institutional settings, often on the basis of 'recovered memory' under prompting, fed by psychiatrists and therapists, by counsellors and women's groups, are one of America's growth industries.
The CSD moved against the Nasons. In April 1991 the CSD and police made an unannounced raid on the Nasons' home in search of the alleged cattle prod. They failed to find it, nor did they discover any other cases of gross neglect.
But the Nasons had, by then, begun to realise how overstretched they had become. By the summer, after their reconciliation, they agreed to stop adopting, and - a worse psychological blow - they were compelled to close their school, which had been the focus of their family. The reason seems to have been primarily financial. But without the school, without money, with the state beginning to look in on them and the Sisters community turning against them, the Nasons started 'downsizing' their family; within the year they had managed to place 50 of their children with new adoptive parents or guardians.
Weary of battle with the state authorities, the Nasons moved briefly north to Toutle, Washington; not long after, they left for Canada, only to return to Sisters six days later to face a new legal challenge from the state authorities, which in January 1992 took custody of their remaining 12 children. The Nasons offered to give up eight if the court would allow them to keep their biological children; the CSD refused, and after a bitter court battle, in a settlement that remains secret, they were granted custody of the latter.
In November, after months of Grand Jury hearings and two years of investigation by the CSD, they were indicted. As the Nasons proclaim their innocence and persecution by the CSD, the community is evenly split. On the charges of manslaughter, no one is more adamant on the Nasons' behalf than the paediatrician who looked after their family: 'I have watched Diane Nason take care of sick kids for 30 years,' said Dr William Miller, 'and she followed every directive.' One of their daughters, Katie, now at Stanford Medical School, is equally firm: the prosecutors 'will lose if they try to charge my parents with a crime'.
Other Nason children allege CSD persecution: the charges, many of them say, are false accusations made by children sent away when the family temporarily broke up in 1990. 'They've always been out to get us,' said one daughter, while another says: 'Most of these kids were abused before they ever set foot in our house, and now they just want to get their anger out.'
The chief prosecution witness is to be an adopted girl, now in her twenties, who in her own words remembered, with the help of a therapist, events of a decade before which, up to then, had been just 'vague, disturbing images'. This woman also accused her subsequent guardian of sexual abuse, including four counts of 'inappropriate touching', and later a charge of rape. The charges were dropped.
Meanwhile, in Sisters, awaiting a trial that will start next summer and will probably last six months, are two people who set out to do Christian good to children who had suffered everything from severe petrol burns in Vietnam to cerebral palsy, to the unwanted of the world. Only a few in Sisters will still talk to them. No one claims the Nasons were perfect parents, or that discipline for so many children, most of them incapacitated, was not strict; but the lesson would seem to be that in late 20th-century America, charity does not pay.