exposing the dark side of adoption
Register Log in

Faith tells woman this home is hers; Hearing Monday could end legal fight



SHELBYVILLE, Ind. -- Inside the 12,000-square-foot home in rural Shelby County, four kitchen tables with chairs line one side of the gymnasium-sized living space.

A patio furniture set -- complete with open umbrella -- sits beneath the exposed-insulation ceiling.

Several couches. End tables. Even an aquarium.

What you won't find are moving boxes. No packaging tape. No bubble wrap.

"I've never made my own plans to pack, no house-hunting plans," said Kathy Blackburn, sitting in her wheelchair at one of the many tables. "I haven't spent one minute thinking about it.

"I just believe I'm going to be here."

For more than a decade, Blackburn has called a 14-bedroom, steel-frame building on Ind. 9 home. She raised 28 Haitian orphans there and weathered a much-publicized divorce, never having to pay a penny in rent.

A new chapter will be written Monday morning. A hearing in Shelby Superior Court could decide whether Blackburn -- and the six adopted children who still live with her -- will have to find a new home. What was once celebrated as an accomplishment of philanthropy that inspired a children's book and appeared in Reader's Digest has degenerated into a legal battle over the ownership of the property.

At the epicenter: Kathy Blackburn.

Journey to Shelbyville

Almost two decades have passed since Blackburn, 58, and her then-husband, Dan -- both evangelical missionaries -- fled the Haitian village of Maissade during a period of political upheaval.

Machete-wielding rebels were enough to convince Blackburn. It was 1987, and Haitian dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier had just been overthrown.

The small village of Maissade suddenly was unsafe. Blackburn had thought she could stand and fight. The rebels changed her mind.

"They were going to chop us up with machetes," Blackburn said.

With 28 orphans, along with two biological sons in tow, the Blackburns began their long trek -- it would take almost three years, via the Dominican Republic -- back to the United States.

In 1991, all 28 orphans were granted U.S. citizenship.

Residents across the state opened their hearts and their pocketbooks. More than $150,000 was raised, and the dormitory-style home was built in 1993 on five acres off Ind. 9. Then the trouble began. A bitter divorce in 1996 was followed by a custody battle over the children. There was legal wrangling over who actually owned the Blackburn home. There were whispers about the possible problems of 28 black children living next to white neighbors in rural Shelbyville. Blackburn had health problems.

A court eventually ruled that the Shelbyville Ministerial Association -- the group that spearheaded the charity efforts to house the Blackburns -- owned the deed to the property, which was donated by Shelbyville contractor Carl Mohr.

An eviction hearing was begun two years ago so the property could be used for a charitable cause, as was stipulated in the deed.

The eviction hearing eventually led to court-ordered mediation, and a deal was struck: The property would be sold, with Blackburn receiving 65 percent of the proceeds and the ministerial association getting 35 percent.

At a hearing last month, a surprise bidder came forth: One of Blackburn's adopted sons, Aaron, offered $78,000 to save the family's home. Ownership will be determined Monday when sealed bids will be opened.

Blackburn, who has visions of creating a women's ministry on the property, believes it's God's will that she stay put.

"This is headquarters," Blackburn said. "Headquarters for coming to God."

Isolation issues

For several years, it was headquarters for more than two dozen Haitian children, 17 boys and nine girls. Two other girls, both with mental disabilities, were placed in foster care after the divorce.

The family was a bit of a mystery to the rest of the community. Some of the kids got into trouble. Word of the house falling into disrepair began to circulate. Soon, the ministerial association began to wonder whether the Blackburns were a good fit for the community.

"Am I sympathetic toward her as an individual? Yes, I am. Who couldn't be?" said Mark W. McNeely, a lawyer representing the association. "On the other hand, her track record is not so good. . . . They were never brought into society or integrated into the community. She home-schooled everyone. They were isolated out there.

"It just never evolved as a community-type thing because they were so cloistered among themselves out there. Certainly it wasn't what all the ministers envisioned at this point. It just didn't work out, quite frankly."

True, Blackburn countered, some of the children were home-schooled, but later they were placed in public schools.

"They were never isolated," she said. "Think about it. Is it possible to isolate 28 kids? They were just everywhere.

"They 'Americanized' so fast your head would spin."

Relied on faith

Assimilating 28 children into a new culture raises several issues, said Virginia Appell, executive director of Adoption Alliance, a nonprofit adoption agency headquartered in Denver.

"How are you going to keep children connected to their culture and their ethnic background?" she said. "How are you going to help the children deal with racism and prejudice they might encounter here? The crucial thing is meeting their emotional needs as well as their physical needs."

For Blackburn, the answer was simple: faith and the Bible.

And 20 churches that provided sustenance.

"We weren't wealthy," Blackburn said, "but we made it."

Six of the boys, ranging in age from 18 to 27, still live with Blackburn. One is a junior at Shelbyville High School. Others have earned college degrees or are studying in college. Four others are in state prison.

"I know I turned out to be an all-right guy," said James Blackburn, one of the adopted sons. He works as a chef and caterer at Fat Daddy's restaurant. "A lot of it was her and the way she raised me, with morals in life and stuff. When I was younger, I didn't pay too much attention to all of it. Now that I'm older, I can see why she put me through all this stuff."

Several other adopted children declined to comment.

Blackburn said she wasn't the model disciplinarian. She used Jo Frost, the child tamer extraordinaire on the ABC reality show "Super Nanny," as an example.

"I wouldn't say that was a picture of me at all," she said. "I just know that I loved them. I still do.

"But I'm the kind of mom who lets them grow up and make their own decisions and lead their own lives. I don't do the apron string thing. I have my life, and they have theirs."

Repairs needed

The home's condition also is a factor. Blackburn has developed quite a to-do list: clean the gutters, paint the house, fix the plumbing, replace three broken windows. She also could use a water softener. Chuckholes as deep as punch bowls fill the gravel driveway.

"It's falling into terrible disrepair," McNeely said. "With us still being on the deed, we felt responsibility and liability for that."

Shelbyville residents are unsure what to make of Blackburn, relying largely on word of mouth for information.

"She probably needs to find a new home," said Lisa Gaines, 45. "It sounds like she tore it apart."

Said Sue Clements: "It was probably overwhelming to have that many kids. But if you have that many kids, everybody ought to have a chore."

Blackburn has heard all the rumors. She's had to live under a media microscope.

"I don't think they know who I am," she said. "I couldn't even describe me. I tend to be kind of bashful. I haven't had a chance because I came in with all the publicity and, of course, the racial problems and the legal problems.

"I haven't really had a chance to be me. I've just been seen through all those things."

On top of everything, Blackburn has battled Raynaud's disease, a circulatory disorder that resulted in half of her left leg being amputated three years ago.

Her journey has come full circle. Born in Shelbyville and raised in nearby Hope, her missionary work took her to Haiti and returned her back home.

That is where she wants to stay.

"I've had to stand, lots of times for lots of reasons," she said. "There are situations in life you can't look for the comfort zone, not really.

"You have to go through them. You have to go for what you think is right."

Call Star reporter Jason Thomas at (317) 444-2708.


Where are they?

Both of Kathy Blackburn's biological sons, Chuck, 38, and Scott, 36, live in Florida. Here are the whereabouts of the 28 adopted children:

* Andy, 18, is a junior at Shelbyville High School.

* Mark, 18, lives in Muncie.

* Mike, 19, lives with Blackburn in Shelbyville.

* Caleb, 19, lives in Shelbyville.

* Thaddeus, 21, is a student at Anderson University, planning to transfer to Indiana University.

* Rachael, 22, lives in Shelbyville.

* Jeremiah, 24, is incarcerated at the Correctional Industrial Facility in Pendleton.

* Noah, 24, lives in Shelbyville.

* Benjamin, 24, lives in Shelbyville.

* Gideon, 24, is incarcerated at the Putnamville Correctional Facility.

* Aaron, 24, lives with Blackburn in Shelbyville and is employed at an automobile parts manufacturing company in Franklin.

* Matthew, 24, lives with Blackburn in Shelbyville.

* Jacob, 24, lives in Shelbyville.

* Jemima, 24, lives in Columbus.

* Abigail, 24, was placed in foster care.

* Lizzy, 25, is married and lives in Columbus.

* JoAnna, 25, was a student at Indiana State University and has plans to transfer.

* Marva, 26, is a student at Berea College in Kentucky.

* Cheryl, 26, lives in Shelbyville.

* James, 27, lives with Blackburn in Shelbyville and works as a chef and caterer at Fat Daddy's restaurant in Shelbyville.

* Sam, 27, is incarcerated at Correctional Industrial Facility in Pendleton.

* homas, 27, is incarcerated at the Branchville Correctional Facility.

* Bobby, 27, lives with Blackburn in Shelbyville.

* Stephen, 27, lives in Shelbyville.

* Yvonne, 28, lives in Shelbyville.

* Becky, 28, lives in Indianapolis.

* Rosie, 29, lives in Shelbyville.

* Mary, 29, was placed in foster care.

2005 May 15