Adoption, Special Needs, Child Abuse, Evangelicals. Yet Another Case

Date: 2014-09-29

by Frank Ligtvoet

Ruthann Gneiser, a 31 year-old woman living just outside Manitowoc (WI), a few miles from Lake Michigan, fundraised in 2011 for the adoption of her second child, a toddler with Down syndrome from the Ukraine who would be named Lucas. A friend, Michelle Zoromski, lauded her on her blog for her original fundraise method: she etched glassware and sold that (since deleted). Her first child, a child with Down syndrome as well, was adopted as a baby in 2009 domestically and went by the name Micah. Both kids are 5 years old.

The Gneisers seem in rural Mid-Western terms a regular couple. Husband Mark is a salesman in the agribusiness, Ruthann stay-at-home mom. She and Mark are members of a Yahoo support group for parents with children with Down Syndrome, they walk the annual Down Awareness Walks in Neenah (WI) and are devout evangelical Christians. On the website of the organization through which they found Lucas, CHASK, they wrote: "Further than special needs, all children are special and precious, created for God's glory."
All might have seen well from the outside. And then USA Today reported last Thursday, September 25:

"MANITOWOC, Wis. (AP) — A Wisconsin woman was charged Thursday with child abuse for allegedly beating and scalding her 5-year-old son who has Down syndrome. Ruthann Gneiser, 31, of Manitowoc, faces one felony count of physical abuse of a child, intentionally causing great bodily harm. According to the complaint, Gneiser told an investigator she was angry and repeatedly struck the boy on his back. When he defecated in his pants, she pulled her son into the bathroom and made him stand in the shower under cold water, the complaint said. Authorities say she filled the bathtub with hot water and the boy sat in the scalding water. The boy was screaming when he was in the cold and hot water, Gneiser told the investigator. She said she realized the water was too hot when she reached in to help her son clean his underwear and almost burned herself, the complaint said. Gneiser said she believed the boy sat in the hot water for up to 1 ½ minutes, resulting in the boy suffering scald burns over 8 percent of his body, the complaint said. According to the investigator, no medical attention was sought for the boy for about three hours. He was taken to a hospital Monday. A doctor who examined the boy told the investigator that the number of his bruises were "too numerous to count," the complaint said. Gneiser is free on $10,000 cash bail and is due to make her first court appearance Monday. Online court records do not list a defense attorney."

It is a horrific story, which seems to emerge out of nothing. Maybe there is a ‘something’ in a remark last August on a chat site where Ruthann speaks about the low white blood count of both kids, which can be the result of chronic stress. But it is a devastating story anyway. And alas not an isolated one. Behind this crime hides the larger story of the evangelical involvement in adoption, and specifically special needs adoption. The Gneiser drama gives some clues.

CHASK, Christian Homes and Special Kids, the organization the Gneisers used, is not an adoption agency, but a ‘matching service’ which ‘points birth moms with special needs children to possible adoptive families’. For CHASK adoption is the answer to abortion: ‘We feel strongly that choosing life instead of genetic termination for special needs children is the Lord’s way.’

Since the Gneiser story broke the website is sanitized from earlier references to the ‘success story’ of that family. Activist Katie Fowler took a screenshot just in time. Also removed is a section on the re-homing services the organization offers. Re-homing is the disturbing and profoundly criticized practice of replacing or readopting kids from disrupted adoptions. Megan Twohey reported extensively on this in evangelical circles commonly used method to deal with children with difficult behaviors: Last but not least the name of CHASK director Tom Bushnell is deleted. Supposedly he doesn’t dare or doesn’t want to take a public stand in this situation.

Tom Bushnell is however also on the Board of Directors of NATTHAN, the National Challenged Homeschoolers Associated Network. That is a deeply conservative evangelical club for home schoolers of special need kids, with on their site this statement of faith: “We believe that the Bible is the inspired word of God and is His completed and final revelation to man. The Bible, in its original autograph, is without error in whole and part, including theological concepts as well as geographical and historical details as well.”
CHASK is an offshoot of NATTHAN. Bushnell’s personal connection to adoption is visualized in a picture on the website It shows the modern evangelical huge blended multiracial, often transnational family with biological and adopted kids, many of them with special needs.

The Bushnell’s are obviously leaders in their evangelical Christian community and are without doubt role models for many of its members. They were, one can imagine, a role model for the Gneisers as well. But maybe role model is not the right term: to define the relation between leaders and followers the expression ‘peer pressure’ might be more applicable, since adoption - and the adoption of special needs kids - is a core mission for the US evangelical community. The web is full of sites, and blogs and chat boxes with adoptive parents who implicitly boast about the amount of kids they adopted and about the severity of their needs and about how they are fulfilling God’s will. Kathryn Joyce in her study The Child Catchers wrote authoritatively about this evangelical adoption fever – and the many accompanying cases of abuse and infanticide.

There is one more connection, not exactly to the evangelical community but very close to that brand of Christianity, and that line goes through Ruthann’s friend Michelle Zoromski from the first paragraph. Zoromski works as Grants & Operations Manager for Reece’s Rainbow (, an adoption grant foundation working with foreign children with Down Syndrome and other special needs, based in Gaithersburg (MD). Their website shows a listing of children with pictures and paypal links and – big - with the amounts the kids raised with their faces and their stories. Lincoln is good for $3,700, but poor Gretchen only has raised $316 as of today. Not exactly everyone’s idea of promoting special needs children adoption. Reece’s Rainbow is an important resource for evangelicals adopting special needs children from other countries.

The Gneisers may not have adopted their first US born child with the help of Reece’s Rainbow - but met and made friends with Michelle Zoromski anyway - they pretty sure adopted their second Ukrainian kid with its support, and that is for those who know the history of that organization not a good sign. The Gneiser abuse was preceded by other Reece’s related cases like the one of Nicolai Emelyantsev (, who was killed by his adoptive mother in 2008, and by at least five more fatal cases in recent years: the deaths of these children are by many adoption activists regarded as severe incidents of abuse and neglect or downright infanticides. The Gneiser case fits the Reece’s Rainbow reputation very well.

Serious screening of prospective parents is not part of Reece’s Rainbow business. If Michelle Zoromski had seen a certain disturbing behavior in her friend Ruthann, she definitely didn’t wave the red flag. And since CHASK is not vetting their clients either, somebody else must have been responsible for the homestudies for both kids. The question is of course who? Does that social worker, his or her agency or the unavoidable adoption lawyer take any responsibility? Whoever was responsible, he or she did a terrible job with dark consequences, and should be indicted in the criminal case as well.

The mix of inadequately vetted parents with the evangelical peer pressure to adopt special needs kids turned out again to be toxic. The Gneiser story is one in a by now endless series of well documented tragic and violent adoption stories in the evangelical world. How many kids have to be abused or have to die before the adoption practices of the evangelicals will be officially examined? It is time that Ambassador Susan Jacobs, the Special Advisor for Children’s Issues in the US State Department takes action.

Thanks to Katie Fowler for her help


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