exposing the dark side of adoption
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Couple's 2 adopted kids found dead; Tenn. adoption process questioned


By Amanda Hara

The process of adoption in Tennessee has been called into question after investigators found the bodies of two adopted children on two different East Tennessee properties.

Michael and Shirley Gray are accused of abusing, starving and eventually burying two of their adopted children, according to warrants filed by the Knox County Sheriff’s Office.

A young girl, 13-year-old Sophie Heather Gray, was found buried behind a home in Roane County where the parents, Michael and Shirley Gray, lived with their four adopted children. A young boy, Jonathan Gray, was found buried behind a home in Knox County’s Halls neighborhood where the couple previously lived with their five adopted children and their biological adult son.

According to the warrant, the Grays continued to receive adoption benefits from the state of Tennessee even after the children died. Tennessee does not provide subsidies to families who adopt children outside the state.

The couple has three surviving underage adopted children who have since been removed by the state. Investigators said some of those children detailed horrible living conditions like getting locked in cages and fed only bread and water for extended periods of time.

The case prompted people across the state and country to question how Tennessee ensures the safety of children after an adoption is finalized.

WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara discovered that once a child is adopted in Tennessee, oversight by the state largely stops.

“Once a court finalizes an adoption, the parents become the legal parents of the children in every sense of the word. Without an allegation of abuse or neglect, the state has no legal authority to monitor the children any further, just as the state would not have the authority to do so for any other family,” according to Tennessee Department of Children’s Services Commissioner Jennifer Nichols.

Tennessee does not check in with families once an adoption is finalized. However, it does continue to pay out monthly financial benefits.

According to a warrant, Michael and Shirley Gray never reported the deaths of their adopted children yet they “continued to receive adoption payments from the State of Tennessee as well as other assorted financial benefits on behalf of the deceased children.” The warrant further states the couple received additional benefits for the remaining children who were “confined in the basement of the Roane County home.”

So, how much money does an adoptive parent or family receive from the state of Tennessee? Per child per day, the amount can range anywhere from $25.33 up to $60 in cases where extreme medical or mental health care is required, according to a spokesperson for Tennessee DCS.

“The subsidy amount is approximately the same as foster parents receive to reimburse them for the costs associated with caring for foster children. When a child is adopted from foster care, the subsidy is paid at least through the child’s 18th birthday, and in some special needs cases until the child is 21 years old,” said Commissioner Nichols.

WVLT News asked DCS to explain why Tennessee would pay subsidies to a family but would not require periodic welfare checks to ensure the safety of the adopted child or take steps to ensure adopted families are spending the money appropriately.

Commissioner Nichols reiterated that the state has no legal authority to monitor a child after adoption unless an allegation of abuse or neglect is levied.

All states provide a subsidy to adoptive families once a child is adopted. The amount of money can range from state to state and from child to child, based on income and whether a child has special needs, according to Josh Kroll, project coordinator for Adoption Subsidy Resource at the North American Council on Adoptable Children.

So how does Tennessee ensure a child’s safety before adoption? As a ‘foster to adopt’ state, families must foster for at least six months before qualifying for adoption. From there, a spokesperson for DCS said a rigorous pre-screening process ensues, including background checks, fingerprinting, and home visits conducted by the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services.

“This comprehensive process includes a state and national criminal history fingerprint check through the TBI and FBI; a financial background check in order to validate a prospective foster parent’s financial ability to care for a child or children; and a home study to be completed by a licensed social services agency professional,” said Commissioner Nichols.

Foster parents are required to complete an eight hour adoption-prep training, on top of 36 hours of foster parent training, and foster for six months, according to a spokesperson. Those steps must be completed before an adoption is approved.

Before an adoption is complete, DCS will periodically check in on a child during its time with a foster family. Case managers are required to visit at least twice a month, including the time leading up to an adoption, according to Commissioner Nichols.

After a family commits to adopting through DCS, they are required to attend a training program offered by Maryville based Harmony Family Center.

The Adoption and Guardianship Preparation Training (AGPT) is an 8 hour course developed by Harmony in 2007. In 2019, more than 1,100 caregivers attended the course, according to CEO Kate Trudell.

She told WVLT News Anchor Amanda Hara that the AGPT courses became mandatory in the last three years and a search of records revealed Michael and Shirley Gray did not receive any services from Harmony.

Once adoption is complete, the state is largely removed from the equation.

“DCS has strong adoption support services in place for adoptive families. However, these services are available only at the request of the adoptive family. It is the decision of the adoptive parents whether or not to accept support services,” said Commissioner Nichols.

Some of those optional, post-adoption therapeutic and educational services are offered by Harmony Family Center in Knoxville to families that have adopted through the welfare system. The services are free and include in-home therapy, parent education training, crisis intervention, case management, support groups, animal assisted therapy and family camps.

In 25 years, Harmony has served more than 125,000 children and families. On average, it services about 800 families per month.

While the services provided by Harmony Family Center are not mandatory, Trudell points out they are beneficial. “The national adoption disruptive rate is between 10-12 percent, while the disruption rate among post-adoptive families who have received services through our ASAP (Adoption Support and Preservation) program is one percent,” said Trudell.

While Tennessee’s DCS has provided basic information about how the foster and adoption processes work, officials cite child privacy protection laws as the reason for not commenting on the details of specific cases. That includes the case against Michael and Shirley Gray.

“Words are inadequate. Cruelty such as this makes us question all that we know to be true... Those children are now in a safe place and being cared for and their parents face significant criminal charges...State privacy protection laws prohibit me from providing specific details of this open case, but rest assured, we will continue to work with law enforcement and the district attorney as they continue the criminal investigation and justice is served,” said Commissioner Jennifer Nichols.

In the Roane County case, both Michael and Shirley Gray face eight charges: two counts of Especially Aggravated Kidnapping; two counts of Aggravated Child Abuse; three counts of Aggravated Child Neglect and a single charge Abuse of a Corpse.

As of the filing of this report, charges had not been filed in the Knox County case.

2020 Jun 8