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A Chinese girl is moved to Tennessee, and ‘hell’ begins

A Chinese girl is moved to Tennessee, and ‘hell’ begins

By Megan Twohey


[Inset to part 5 of a 5 article series here The Child Exchange: Inside America's Underground Market for Adopted Children ]

NEW LIFE: Nora Gateley contracted polio in China. After being "re-homed" in Tennessee, she says, her new mother took away her leg brace. REUTERS/Handout/Nora Gateley

KENTON, Tennessee – Almost a decade has passed since Nora Gateley was rescued from a house in Tennessee where she was once forced to dig her own grave.

The parents who adopted Nora from an orphanage in China left her at the house in 2001. "Hell started from there," she says today.

Nora's time at the Trenton, Tennessee, home of

Tom and Debra Schmitz

is detailed in court records later filed in the couple's indictment on child-abuse charges: Her new mother struck her and many of the 17 other children living there. To punish Nora, who was disabled by polio as a child, Schmitz took away the leg brace that she needed to walk. She dragged her by the hair.

At age 26, Nora is speaking publicly for the first time about what happened after the parents who brought her to America gave her away. Her case is an early example of "private re-homing," a term that refers to adoptive parents sending children they no longer want to other families. The Schmitz family later legally adopted her.

Patricia McLaughlin, the American mother who first adopted Nora, in China, declines to say how she and her husband found the Schmitzes. Other parents who placed children at the Schmitz home said they connected with the family through an Internet group that assisted in re-homing unwanted children. Such groups are part of a network of underground child exchanges that operates without any government oversight.

Abandoned at birth, Nora grew up in an orphanage in Guangdong, China. A pamphlet describing children up for adoption at the orphanage shows a picture of Nora as a toddler, one hand on a walker, peering at the camera. She wore her hair short and dressed as a boy, which she says was an unsuccessful effort to ward off sexual predators. "I never felt safe," Nora recalls.

At 13, the McLaughlins found her. In 2000, they brought her to their home in Largo, Florida, where they were raising four other children. Her new mother home-schooled her.

Nora was learning a new language and living a better new life. She pedaled her bike along neighborhood streets and adored the Chinese food that Patricia made. But when one of her new sisters accused Nora of hitting her during a fight, she says, the relationship with her new family soured.

One night, Nora recalls, Patricia set her favorite dish on the table, beef and bok choy. Then she announced the meal would be Nora's last with the family. Less than two years after bringing her to America, Patricia and Mike McLaughlin had decided to remove the teenager from their home.

Patricia McLaughlin won't discuss Nora's re-homing other than to say it was not safe for her to remain in their family. The McLaughlins didn't involve child welfare officials.

"There are only drawbacks there," McLaughlin says. "It was not an option for anybody's good."

On the drive from Florida to the Schmitz home in Tennessee, Nora counted cows out the window of the McLaughlins' Toyota van. Patricia McLaughlin didn't come along.

When they arrived, Mike McLaughlin introduced Nora to Tom and Debra Schmitz. Mike and Nora were both meeting the couple for the first time, Patricia says.

Not long after arriving, McLaughlin drove away. Nora hasn't seen him or his wife since.

Tom Schmitz worked as a portable-toilet salesman; Debra was a stay-at-home mom. They already had 12 other children in their home, according to Debra.

The house sat far back from the road on a stretch of land in the country. Chickens, pigs, ducks, dogs and cats roamed the property.

Children were everywhere. Many had special needs. Some had been sent to the Schmitzes without the approval of child welfare officials, according to court records filed in the couple's indictment.

A nurse who helped at the Schmitz house later told sheriff's officers investigating the case that Debra Schmitz showed her an Internet group that listed adopted children who were no longer wanted. Schmitz told the woman that she could get a child through the website in three weeks without the involvement of any government officials, according to documents filed in the indictment against the Schmitzes.

AVAILABLE: Nora and an unidentified boy, as shown in a brochure put out by her orphanage in China. REUTERS/Handout/Nora Gateley

Nora says she quickly realized that her new mother had a violent temper. A different nurse who helped care for the children, Sherry Dvorak, also saw it.

"She was angry and full of hate," Dvorak says of Debra Schmitz.

Nora recalls that Schmitz mocked her after taking away her leg brace. "Go on, try to run away," Schmitz would say. "No one cares about you."

Dvorak says she learned details of the abuse in 2004. One night, Dvorak persuaded Debra to let her take Nora and another teenage girl to her house to sort through clothes in her attic. The moment the girls got in the car, they told her what was going on at home.

As one form of punishment, Debra made children dig holes in the yard for their own graves, the court records show.

"She said, 'You die here and no one will know. No one will find you,'" Nora says today.

When Dvorak returned to the Schmitz house for work the next day, she slipped a tape recorder into the bathroom. Nora and the other girl took it into a bedroom and recounted the abuse. Dvorak later took the recording to the sheriff's department. Their first search warrant sought, among other things, evidence of "swap, trades, or interchange of children."

The Tennessee Department of Children's Services was quoted at the time saying that seven of the 18 children removed from the home did not legally belong to the Schmitzes. The kids had come from families across the United States.

"Detectives said there were some children they could never figure out where they came from," Dvorak says. Two years after, court records still referred to one child as

Adam "whose last name is unknown."

In July 2006, Debra Schmitz pleaded no contest to 14 counts of child abuse and one count of child trafficking, all misdemeanors. She was sentenced to six months in jail and placed on probation. The case against Tom Schmitz has been expunged.

Tom Schmitz couldn't be reached for comment. Debra, who has divorced and now goes by the last name Hogan, says adoptive parents turned to her because she was known for caring for children with conditions such as reactive attachment disorder.

"They'd contact you privately and beg you to take them," she says today. "The state frowned on this but they didn't do anything about it."

She says she never abused any child. The children were made to dig holes as punishment for lying, she says, and she would tell repeat offenders they were digging themselves deeper into their own grave. She says she never pulled Nora by her hair or withheld her leg brace, even though she pled no contest to those and the other charges. She says she thought entering the plea would help get the children back.

She didn't get them back. Some returned to their previous families; Nora was among those placed in foster care. The McLaughlins didn't want her returned. "We were horrified," Patricia McLaughlin says, "but we were out of the picture."

Almost 18 by then, Nora lived with the woman who rescued her, Dvorak, for nearly six months, and later lived for several years with a professor of hers from Jackson State Community College. She eventually took that family's last name, Gateley.

At first, child welfare officials arranged reunions of children freed from the Schmitz home. Those eventually ended. Today, Nora lives with a roommate in Jackson, Tennessee, and works as a receptionist at a doctor's office. She says she has lost touch with most of the children and often wonders what's become of them.

2013 Sep 11