exposing the dark side of adoption
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Washington Post

Author: Veronica T. Jennings; Washington Post Staff Writer

Just the mention of Jamie Clemons, 6, and Michael, 8, starts their sisters and their father gushing.

"Jamie was the sweetest," said Rebekah, 17. "He loved Mickey Mouse," said 14-year-old Sara, pointing to color snapshots of a boy wearing Mickey Mouse pajamas lying on sheets adorned with Disney characters.

"They were all over you," said the boys' father, David Clemons. "I would have to carry both of them when I came home."

"We had already made big plans for them," said Jin-Sook, 16. Michael, "the good-looking one," wanted to be president, she said. "But that's all shattered now. There's nothing."

More than three months after an Ellicott City fire killed Jamie and Michael Clemons, the family they left behind is filled with sorrow and rage. Their reddened eyes fight back tears for "those two innocent boys." At family gatherings, they avoid talking about the fire, channeling their grief into jobs, schoolwork and household chores.

Their anger is reserved for another brother, Jacob, 15. According to police, Jacob, who has cerebral palsy and is blind in one eye, said he set the Oct. 30 fire in his bedroom to end his unhappy life. Abandoned at birth and a victim of physical and sexual abuse in a Pennsylvania home, Jacob now is an outcast whose family members refuse to visit or write, despite his imploring letters.

The Clemons family had 16 children, 15 of whom were adopted. Many of those adopted had physical or mental handicaps. They show little sympathy for Jacob, who they said was given numerous chances to succeed, but was difficult and manipulative.

Jacob initially was charged as an adult with arson and the boys' murders. Last week, a Howard County judge ordered he be tried instead as a juvenile so that if he is found culpable he could be treated in a juvenile facility rather than spend years in a state prison.

David Clemons, 42, a stocky man with a strong jaw, thought otherwise. Clemons testified he believed his son could get more treatment -- and punishment -- as an adult.

Asked to talk about the tragedy, Clemons, owner of a heating and air-conditioning company in Ellicott City, said, "I don't want him {Jacob} to be crucified. That won't bring the boys back."

"But you have got to pay the consequences for what you do."

Elaine, 18, the Clemons' only biological child, agreed: "How can we forget that because of his selfishness Jamie and Michael are dead? Where is the justice?"

The Clemonses adopted their first child about 1972, after doctors told the couple it would be too dangerous for Sally Clemons to conceive again, her husband said. "Adoption has been the greatest thing in our life," he said.

During the next 14 years, the Clemonses adopted children mainly from South America and Asian countries. The couple sought out hard-to-place children, those who had been abandoned or were unwanted because of learning disabilities or physical handicaps. Jamie, for example, was mildly retarded and Jin-Sook had an artificial limb.

At times, there would be 10 or 11 children in the house, said David Clemons. But things seemed to work well, he said, citing the background of his wife, Sally, a social worker who started the ACORN adoption agency two years ago in Columbia.

"We're not the Partridge family," said Jin-Sook, "but we communicate well." Added Rebekah: "We don't stand out as much" in a large family, because many of the adopted children, like herself, are Korean.

But David Clemons said the family has had problems. An older son has troubles with drugs, while another son was placed in a juvenile reform program.

"We're taken on a lot of challenges . . . maybe selfishly," Clemons said. "But we do it because it makes us feel good when they succeed. For the most part we've had real good luck with the kids."

At the time of the fire, Clemons and his wife were vacationing in Aruba, an island north of Venezuela, with two of their children. It was the first vacation the couple had taken in several years, he said.

A Howard County detective told Clemons by telephone of his sons' deaths. "I thought, 'Is this a joke . . . is this really real?' " he said. "There I was miles and miles away getting news like this."

Clemons said his wife "had a feeling" Jacob was involved in the tragedy.

He said they sent Jacob to a psychologist in June 1985 because he was slovenly and had behavioral problems. After Jacob began beating up Jamie and Michael the family tried to place Jacob in a smaller family where he could get more attention. However, he was sexually and physically abused there, David Clemons said.

"I don't know what you do with a person who doesn't want to succeed," he said, shaking his head. "I don't know what else we could have done. I wonder if it was my pride . . . our belief that adoption is forever that made us stick it out so long."

The fire shattered the family's everyday routines. The children stayed away from school for several weeks, "embarrassed" about the fire and their brother's involvement, said Elaine Clemons.

David Clemons said he was haunted by the boys' funeral and the closed casket with Michael's charred remains. Jin-Sook and Sara insisted on placing their bed beside a window, fearful of being unable to escape in case of another calamity.

The family has installed five smoke detectors in the house and everyone has been taught fire safety rules. Jin-Sook said she now sleeps with a light on in her room.

In January, the family moved to a three-story house in Sykesville. Slowly, normal life is beginning to return. In the last few weeks, the surviving children's nightmares have subsided, but not their anxiety. Watching fire scenes on television are "super scary," said Jin-Sook. "We know that's not the way it happens . . . not everyone survives."

The mother, Sally Clemons, who was on a business trip in the Philippines during the interview, was the most devastated by the fire, family members said. Clemons said his wife, who visited Jacob briefly at a state mental hospital afterward, believes Jacob set the fire because he was angry at her for leaving him behind on the Aruba vacation.

Jin-Sook and Sara, who said they often took up for Jacob in arguments at school, don't believe their brother's story that he was trying to commit suicide. "How could he do this to us?" Jin-Sook said. "Why did he wait until we went to sleep if he only wanted to kill himself?" Sara asked.

But Peter, 13, who remained silent during most of the three-hour interview, had the harshest words: "I don't care about him any more," he said. "I don't care if he commits suicide. He's not a part of my life any more.


A family photo of Jamie, left, and Michael Clemons, Ellicott City fire victims.

Clemons family members, from left, Jin-Sook, 16, Elaine, 18,

Rebekah, 17, father David, and Peter, 13, discuss brother Jacob

1989 Feb 15