Ronald Federici and Heather Forbes have released a DVD-based training course called “Making Sense of Our Complex Children” – information about the course can be found here.
Ronald Federici and Heather Forbes have released a DVD-based training course called “Making Sense of Our Complex Children” – information about the course can be found here.
Here is an example of expert testimony by Dr. Ronald Federici:
COURT OF APPEALS OF VIRGINIA
Present: Judge Annunziata, Senior Judge Duff and Judge Clements*
Argued at Alexandria, Virginia
MEMORANDUM OPINION** BY
v. Record No. 2537-99-4 JUDGE CHARLES H. DUFF
MAY 9, 2000
FAIRFAX COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF
FROM THE CIRCUIT COURT OF FAIRFAX COUNTY
Arthur B. Vieregg, Jr., Judge
(Charles J. Swedish, on brief), for
appellant. Appellant submitting on brief.
Thomas P. Sotelo, Substitute Assistant County
Attorney (Keegan & Sotelo, PLC, on brief),
(W. Kip Wood, on brief), Guardian ad litem
for Saman Ghasem, an infant.
Shohreh Ghasem (“appellant”) appeals the decision terminating
her parental rights to Saman Ghasem (“Saman”). The issue on
appeal is whether the evidence was sufficient to meet the clear
and convincing standard required for termination of parental
rights under Code 16.1-283(C)(2). We find that the evidence was
sufficient and affirm the trial judge’s ruling.
Saman was born on December 11, 1989. In September of 1995,
the Fairfax County Department of Family Services (“the
Department”) removed Saman, then four years old, from appellant’s
care because appellant left Saman unsupervised and locked out of
their hotel room for seven hours. Saman was returned to
appellant’s care, but removed again on July 29, 1996 because
appellant violated a preliminary protective order which prohibited
her having contact with a friend who had physically abused
appellant’s other son. The Department later returned Saman to
On December 11, 1997, appellant signed a service agreement
with the Department stating Saman would not be left alone or
unsupervised at any time or for any reason. The Department
explained to appellant that Saman suffered from mild mental
retardation and had special needs. Appellant’s therapist also
explained the agreement to her. On that same day, a social worker
for the Department telephoned the Ghasem home and found Saman was
there alone. The Department removed him from appellant’s care
again on December 11, 1997.
Appellant signed additional service agreements with the
Department on December 24, 1997, and January 9, 1998, stating she
would not leave Saman alone or unsupervised for any amount of time
or for any reason. Since 1995, the Department provided the family
with various services, interventions and financial assistance,
including: protective supervision of Saman and his brother;
coordination with the mental health center and Multicultural
Clinical Center for individual and home based therapy; and
coordination with Saman’s school and health clinics. The Center
for Multicultural Human Services had worked with the family
“intensively” since April of 1997, providing individual therapy,
parental education, nutritional education, and social skills
training for appellant two times per week. Despite the repeated
attempts to educate appellant concerning Saman’s special needs,
and despite attending parenting classes, appellant continued to
deny Saman had any problems. Evidence was presented that
appellant suffers from depression and a brain dysfunction.
Appellant again left Saman alone for about one hour and
fifteen minutes on January 29, 1998 when she was late returning
from a doctor’s appointment. The Department removed Saman from
her care and initiated proceedings to terminate her residual
parental rights to Saman.
On July 28, 1999, a hearing was held in circuit court
concerning the termination of appellant’s parental rights. At the
hearing, the deposition of Dr. Ronald Federici, a clinical
neuropsychologist, was admitted into evidence. Dr. Federici
conducted a comprehensive neuropsychological evaluation of Saman
dated January 21, 1999. He testified Saman, who at the time of
the evaluation was nine years old, suffers from profound cognitive
and learning disabilities, speech, language and hearing
deficiencies, mild mental retardation, brain dysfunction and
various mental and emotional disorders. He is physically small
for his age, and his mental development is equivalent to that of a
five year old. Saman also suffers from a reactive attachment
disorder and fear of abandonment. Dr. Federici stated that Saman
will likely require adult supervision and a controlled environment
into adulthood. Saman’s prospect for future development is very
poor. Dr. Federici further opined that if Saman is to reach his
developmental potential, he requires a parental figure with
significant dedication and intelligence to address his needs.
On September 27, 1999, the trial judge entered an order
terminating appellant’s residual parental rights. The trial judge
found that it was in the best interest of Saman to “live in a
controlled environment with adults who understand and can meet his
special needs.” He also found the Department clearly and
convincingly proved the requirements of Code 16.1-283(C)(2),
stating that, despite attending parenting classes and receiving a
“host of other services,” appellant’s “inherent disabilities
demonstrate that she is unable to remedy the conditions which led
to Saman’s placement in foster care.” Appellant appeals that
“When addressing matters concerning a child, including the
termination of a parent’s residual parental rights, the paramount
consideration of a trial court is the child’s best interests.”
Logan v. Fairfax County Dep’t of Human Dev., 13 Va. App. 123, 128,
409 S.E.2d 460, 463 (1991). Where the trial judge hears the
evidence ore tenus, his decision is entitled to great weight and
will not be disturbed on appeal unless plainly wrong or without
evidence to support it. See Lowe v. Dep’t of Pub. Welfare, 231
Va. 277, 282, 343 S.E.2d 70, 73 (1986).
Code 16.1-283(C)(2) provides that the parental rights of a
child placed in foster care may be terminated if the court finds
by clear and convincing evidence that it is in the best interests
of the child and that
[t]he parent . . ., without good cause,
[has] been unwilling or unable within a
reasonable period of time not to exceed
twelve months from the date the child was
placed in foster care to remedy
substantially the conditions which led to or
required continuation of the child’s foster
care placement, notwithstanding the
reasonable and appropriate efforts of
social, medical, mental health or other
rehabilitative agencies to such end. Proof
that the parent . . . without good cause,
[has] failed or been unable to make
substantial progress towards elimination of
the conditions which led to or required
continuation of the child’s foster care
placement in accordance with [the parent’s]
obligations under and within the time limits
or goals set forth in a foster care plan
filed with the court . . . shall constitute
prima facie evidence of this condition.
“‘[T]he rights of parents may not be lightly severed but are
to be respected if at all consonant with the best interests of the
child.'” Ward v. Faw, 219 Va. 1120, 1124, 253 S.E.2d 658, 661
(1979) (citation omitted). The termination of parental rights is
a grave, drastic, and irreversible action. “When a court orders
termination of parental rights, the ties between the parent and
child are severed forever and the parent becomes ‘a legal stranger
to the child.'” Lowe, 231 Va. at 280, 343 S.E.2d at 72 (citation
Appellant contends that she was first diagnosed as mildly
mentally retarded after Saman was removed from her home on January
29, 1998. She asserts that this condition led to the child’s
foster care placement and that, after January 29, 1998, the
Department has offered her no services in an effort to remedy this
condition or any other condition which led to Saman’s foster care
placement. However, the record indicates that appellant’s
psychological condition had been an issue throughout the
Department’s period of involvement with the family, not just on or
after January 29, 1998. Moreover, appellant’s diagnosis of mild
mental retardation was not the sole condition which led to Saman’s
placement in a foster home. The evidence proved that Saman had
numerous physical, mental, and emotional special needs that were
not being met under appellant’s care. Furthermore, appellant
repeatedly left the child alone and unsupervised despite the
Department’s continuing attempts to advise her of his special
In addition, the Department worked with the family and
offered numerous counseling and medical services to the family
since 1995, but noted little progress or improvement in
appellant’s parenting skills. For example, appellant received a
psychological examination in January 1997, parental/child
interaction assessments in March 1997 and February 1998, and
parenting classes. The December 14, 1998 Foster Care Service Plan
states that appellant received psychiatric medication from October
1995 to December 14, 1998. The plan also states that despite
“intensive services and interventions” appellant did not make
“much progress and continually engages in the behavior that
resulted in Saman going into the custody of the Department in
In addition, appellant received a neuropsychological
evaluation in February 1998. The Foster Care Service Plan dated
March 3, 1998 indicates that appellant was diagnosed as suffering
from “an emotional condition” and “brain dysfunction.” Her
emotional development was diagnosed as that of a child and
characteristic of Borderline Personality Disorder. The report
further stated she “displays significant cognitive weaknesses
which represent impairment of several brain areas which are
generally impervious to change.” At the time of the report, and
as stated above, appellant had received “intensive home-based
services” for over two years, but she continued to leave Saman
unsupervised, and she continued to deny that he had any special
developmental, cognitive, mental or physical needs or problems.
Thus, the record indicates that the Department was aware from
the time it first became involved with the family that appellant’s
mental health status was an issue in the matter. Moreover, the
Department was also aware of and concerned for the mental,
physical, and emotional well being of Saman, a child with numerous
special needs. The record is replete with instances of
“reasonable and appropriate efforts” made by the Department and
other agencies over a period of several years in an attempt to
work with appellant and remedy the numerous conditions which led
to the foster care placement of Saman. However, the record also
indicates that appellant made very little, if any, progress in
remedying these conditions, notwithstanding the efforts of the
Department and other agencies.
Therefore, the record supports the trial judge’s finding that
the termination of appellant’s residual parental rights was in
Saman’s best interest and his finding that the Department
presented clear and convincing evidence to meet the requirements
of Code 16.1-283(C)(2). Accordingly, we affirm the decision.
* Judge Jean Harrison Clements took part in the
consideration of this case by designation pursuant to Code
17.1-400, recodifying Code 17-116.01.
** Pursuant to Code 17.1-413, recodifying Code
17-116.010, this opinion is not designated for publication.
Because we decide the evidence was sufficient to support
the trial judge’s holding, the point raised by appellee
regarding Code 16.1-283(B) is moot.
Very interesting blog here.
In this article, Dr. Ronald Federici, of Clifton, VA comments on lax licensing standards:
“Ronald Federici, a Washington, D.C.-based developmental neuropsychologist who specializes in treating post-institutionalized children, says that lax licensing standards allow therapists to conduct treatments for which they have no formal training or qualifications.”
Friday, June 25, 1999
On June 26, Washington, D.C. will play host to a reunion of the first children rescued from orphanages in Siret, Romania. The horrific conditions of orphans in Siret and other Romanian institutions were brought to light by a 1990 ABC Turning Point report, “The Lost Souls” and a follow-up in 1997 entitled “Romania: What Happened to the Children.” The exposé launched efforts around the United States to help the neglected and abused children.
The Romanian crisis, which has a long history related to communism and economic turmoil, continues today. Dr. Ronald Federici discussed the current state of orphanages in Romania and other parts of the world, as well as the adoption programs in the United States. Dr. Ronald Federici is a psychologist and founder of several American relief efforts for the Romanian orphans.
He first visited Siret’s orphanages in 1996 as a consultant for the follow-up report. Federici, who has adopted two Romanian orphans, is founder of the American chapter of the Romanian Challenge Appeal. He is also the author of Help for the Hopeless Child: A Guide for Families.
Read the transcript below.
Washingtonpost.com: Welcome to our discussion Dr. Federici. To get us started, could you give us some background about this week’s reunion of the Siret adoptees?
Ron Federici: After working in one of the most dismal institutions in Romania known as Siret, our humanitarian efforts were able to extract fourteen children from this place and find families to adopt them here in the States. The event on Saturday, 26 June, will involve American and Romanian specialists and dignitaries working collaboratively in discussing even more aggressive programs for de-institutionalization. This will be the first time the adopted children from Siret will see each other on American soil, which really highlights how a project can come together with the help of concerned people in both countries.
Washington, D.C. : Dr. Federici,
Can you tell us a little bit about how you got involved in Romanian orphanages.
Ron Federici: I have been performing neuropsychological evaluations on very damaged children for 20 years and have seen numerous children from international settings. I was asked to be a medical consultant for ABC News in 1996 in which Tom Jarril wanted to revisit the tragedy of Romanian institutions. When I went over to Romania it really made it clear to me as to how the children I had already been seeing had become damaged. I now continue to work with an international humanitarian group and experts regularly in Romanian institutions, performing evaluations and setting up treatment programs while coordinating activities with the government.
El Paso, TX: Can you comment on the subject of attachment disorder and the Romanian adoptees? Have any longitudinal studies been undertaken? Does consistent nurturing seem to overcome some of the initial problems seen in these cases?
Ron Federici: Specialists in International Adoption Medicine have been collecting a tremendous amount of data about the effects of institutionalization. Psychological experts are now revisiting earlier studies in the 40’s and 50’s on the effects of deprivation from Spitz and Bowlby. For all of the older children, beyond adoption age of 2 and 3, attachment problems are almost guaranteed as these children never lived with any type of positive parental figure, nor are they typically afforded proper care. The child under the age of 2 years old stands the best chance and will benefit the most by intensive nurturing and attachment whereas the older adopted child just does not have the ability to benefit from love and nurturing alone. Actually, those of us working in attachment disorders are finding that parents who try to provide an abundance of love to the older child only wind up with more problems as the post-institutionalized child just does not process or comprehend these emotional concepts. We are now breaking down attachment disorders into children with cognitive problems who lack the innate ability to comprehend human emotions and children who appear to have primarily psychological damage causing attachment disorders.
In my book, “Help for the Hopeless Child; A Guide for Families”, I discussed a very radical but successful treatment program for parents adopting older children in order to rapidly work on the effects of institutionalization and attachment disorders. Again, providing just love and affection can often cause more problems as this is more what parents need to do than what the child can handle. More and more research studies are being published but the current focus continues to be more on medical issues. The psychological data will continue to be available in book form and in subsequent research articles.
Bethesda, Md.: Has democracy in Romania done anything to improve the condition of the orphanages?
Ron Federici: Romania will take years to evolve as they are in a terrible economic crisis. Children continue to enter institutions due to poverty and deprivation with very few funds being channeled to these institutions. International aid is in great demand as the conditions continue to be VERY poor for these children. Democracy has allowed growth, but the country is still in great despair. It is evolving, however.
Alexandria, VA: Doctor Federici, we’ve had cases in the U.S. of parents putting their children up for adoption and then changing their minds and wanting to regain custody of their children. Do situations like these ever complicate your efforts in Romania?
Ron Federici: It is a tragedy that children are adopted and then relinquished. This is due directly to the fact that adoptive parents are typically not well prepared, trained or informed by their adoption agencies. Families have one opinion that the child will just fall in place, but when the damage surfaces, many ill-prepared families are overwhelmed and disappointed to where they want to give up the child.
The Romanian Department of Child Welfare is very troubled regarding this situation and feel that there should be a much better family assessment and binding contract to where families are not able to quickly relinquish their child. this is the importance of an IMMEDIATE and thorough assessment of the child’s needs by proper specialists and to provide vast support to the families in order to prevent relinquishment. If it continues, in these cases, the Romanian Government will most likely require more stringent contracts between agencies and their government in order to insure the best interests of the child to remain in the home.
Washington, DC: Is it true that the older children get, the worse the conditions are in orphanages? I have visited orphanages in Russia and this is the case — abuse gets much worse as the children get moved from a small kids to an older kids orphanage.
Ron Federici: As children grow older, they continue to be channeled in any available institution where the range can be from 4 years old to 25 years-old. This is a huge problem as children become more vulnerable and more abused and more emotionally damaged by being even further lost in a hopeless system. This is the tragedy of Eastern European institutions which have a long history through Communist times. This is the importance of trying to find a way to prevent more children from entering the institutions, as once they get in, they may never leave
Arlington, VA: Dr. Federici, are you and your colleagues trying to close down Siret or reform it? What is the response-reaction of the Romanian government?
Ron Federici: We have had tremendous support from the Romanian government regarding our humanitarian efforts in Siret. We now have a full-time group of volunteers from all disciplines working in Siret and they have allowed our medical team to set up pediatric, psychiatric, medication, and educational programs . We have built two group homes and have used Siret as a model for de-institutionalizing children. Our ultimate goal is to provide new training and models on ways for institutional children to leave the place and become productive Romanian citizens but they need a great deal of guidance from outside experts. We have total support from the government, and, I believe, Siret will stay open as they are very proud of our accomplishments, and often reference our work to other sections of Romania. We travel around Romania evaluating institutions. There may be some that close, but at the current situation, chidren will just remain in the institutions as there is no other place for them to go.
Rosslyn, VA: In the wake of the Columbine shootings, can the ideas in your book be applied to older children? Also, how is the traumatization of older children different than that of younger children?
Ron Federici: Columbine was a tragedy but reflects how damaged children can become – the epitome of an unattached child. Families must use principles of aggressive reattachment and demanding that their child get back in the family, comply with requirements, but also learn and practice how to relate at a deeper level. While sections of my book may seem aggressive and unconventional, what choice do we have when children are slipping away into deep despondancy and rage?
We must find ways to aggressively to hold them in the family ,train them and recondition their thinking and behaviors. While there still may be failures, aggressive attempts on the part of parents of the older child stands a much better chance of success than allowing the damaged child to drift away into tragic outcomes.
No. Virginia: What happened to the Romanian children who came to the U.S. and then started to have severe psychosocial problems. Were some of them sent back to Romania or did they go into new foster homes?
Ron Federici: So many of the children have chronic problems and have overwhelmed the families to where the families have given up even trying. Some have gone to foster homes or residential care, which is like another institution for them, and promotes a deeper attachment disorder. We are trying very hard to train mental health professionals on more proper and aggressive treatment models for the post-institutionalized child as opposed to the “wait-and-see or let them adjust” model. These children have gone through so many experiences that we cannot comprehend and need experts who truly understand children and the effects of deprivation. Treatment has to be unconventional as the child with an attachment disorder can often be smarter than the therapist or the parent. We are setting up international adoption clinics across the country with the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child (e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org), setting up training for families at least three to four times per year across the country.
Washington, D.C.: Do the orphans tend to have psychological damage before entering these orphanages or does it come from living in them? How do you -or other professionals in this area- address these youngsters psychological problems?
Ron Federici: Many of the children who enter institutions have been damaged either medically or psychologically simply by poverty and deprivation. Many of my Russian and Romanian colleagues tell me that “why do you think we place the children in the institutions – because they are healthy?” Poverty is certainly the number 1 reason for children to be placed in institutions, although given the severe medical, nutritional, environmental, and economic hazards, the mothers and children are clearly at risk which results in either cognitive or emotional impairments when the child enters the institutions and gets worse as the years go by.
Washington, DC: How long does the adoption of foreign children take today? Because of the Romanian Challenge Appeal, is adoption of Romanian children quicker than children from other countries?
Ron Federici: Families wanting to adopt must go through an international adoption agency which can take anywhere from 8 months to two years depending on the problem. Most people want infants, which is smart. Older children are more readily available with an abundance of handicapped children.
Our Romanian Challenge Appeal focuses only on institutionalized children who clearly have emotional damage and need a very strong familiy. We have the strong support of the Romanian government to expedite handicapped adoptions as this has been the priority of the Secretary of State, Dr. Tabacaru, who sees the handicapped child as the most vulnerable and in quickest need of a family who can handle them. We have had wonderful families taking on our children from Siret, with the adoptions being done within 4-6 months and at virtually no cost aside from basic requirements (e.g., translations, INS, court fees, etc.).
Arlington, Virginia: Dr. Federici, I read the recent Washingtonian article about your work. How have your boys recovered from their surgery since the article’s publication? I hope they are well.
Ron Federici: Our children were almost dead when we found them and are now very much alive. They have defied all odds and are walking and at the top of their classes. They are an amazing pair and show how a strong brain and a strong soul can prevail. it too tremendous medical and psychological work to get them to this point. Tom Jarriel, from “20/20” ,will be seeing them this Saturday, as he and I saw them at their worst condition years ago. Thank you for your kind words.
Arlington, VA: In 1990 Romania was seen at the forefront of the problem orphanage scene. Where are troublespots around the globe for this problem today?
Ron Federici: International adoptions are a real risk, as we just do not know genetic backgrounds, accuracy of records, the amount of care provided or how the older child really is. People are still adopting in volumes but I think families really need to be prepared for potential problems and hope that they will be able to find a healthy child or at least be able to aggressively deal with problems as they surface. Think of it this way, how would you function if you lost everything, had poor medical and nutritional care and had no one to take care of you and you had these experiences for years? Would you be healthy? And how long would it take for recovery to occur? Some do much better than others, with the goal being to get out of the institution as early as possible.
Herndon, VA: Have you heard evidence of similar problems with children adopted from other places under similar circumstances?
Ron Federici: Problems are not only in Romania. In my work in evaluating over 2000 internationally adopted children, there are problems in any country having institutional care. There is no such thing as a good institution – only some that do better than others. Whether it be Russia, Romania, Poland, Central and south America, the Far East, or even China, there are going to be problems if children remain in institutions. It is just not the place where children need to remain. Again, families must become more educated regarding the effects of abandonment and neglect, and that recovery takes a long time. it will often need more than love and a good home.
Garland, TX: Earlier, you mentioned the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child. What other types of support are available for adoptive parents once they’ve brought these orphans home?
Ron Federici: There are more support groups forming, such as Friends of Russian and Ukranian Adoptions (FRUA). The Parent Network does the most trainings and has satellite branches across the country. There are also international adoption clinics, and international adoption specialists across the country providing support and services. The Parent Network is centered in Dallas, TX, under the direction of Kathieseidel@juno.com, or you can e-mail PNPIC@aol.com to get the exact location. There are also support programs in Fort Worth, TX, at the Child Development Program at TCU, which is now doing a summer camp program for intensive rehabilitation of the post-institutionalized child. I trained their staff.
Oakland, California: Dr. Federici: Many people who have escaped from or are familiar with Rumania believe that orphanages in that country are -or were- a tool of “ethnic cleansing.” Are there any statistics available as to the ethnicity of the children in orphanages, i.e., Rumanian, German, Hungarian, Sekler, Gypsy, etc.? Thank you.
Ron Federici: I agree that there was probably some “ethnic cleansing” during the Communist years. I do not know if anybody knows the statistics. What we do know is that any child with ANY type of deformity, medical, intellectual, or even suspected anomaly, went into the institution. Caucecscu did not like anything but perfection and mandated that women have many children to increase the work force. But, when the conditions were bad, sick children were born. This was how the institutions became so overcrowded. A real human tragedy which continues. However, this new government, particularly Secretary of State, Dr. Tabacaru, who is in Washington DC at this moment having many meetings with governmetn officials, is trying his best to get as much medical and economic support as possible.
Rosslyn, VA: Do many people still adopt Romanian orphans? I remember a number of American families adopted needy babies after political changes in Romania about 10 years ago or so.
Ron Federici: People are still adopting Romanian children. But it is slower because it is harder to find healthy infants. The older children have problems and many people choose not to adopt them as their problems are quite evident. If families work with a good agency and a good Romanian foundation, good adoptions can be done. I know for a fact that the Romanian government wants to continue working with the United States. The Romanian Secretary of State is meeting with the head of international adoption agencies in Washington on Tuesday to discuss these matters.
Chevy Chase, MD: Nearly a decade has passed since the ABC report. You have been their many times–how has Siret changed over the years?
Ron Federici: The only reason Siret has changed is because of the Romanian Challenge Appeal, groups both here and in Great Britain. This is a terrible institution but we have been able to maintain the best group of volunteers imaginable to work with the children. Now that the government and the institution allows us to intervene we have been making some real improvements but it is a very difficult task. There are so many children. If we can help ten or 20 % then we have done well.
Washington, D.C. : Did the television coverage of the Romanian orphanages in the early 1990s help to improve conditions there?
Ron Federici: The first TV show brought awareness but then everybody flocked to adopt these damaged children only to be ill-prepared for the effects of institutionalization. Media coverage certainly put pressure on Romania to allow other concerned parties to help, which is what we are doing.
I can’t say enough positive things about this new government. The Department of Child Welfare is really trying to do good things but they often struggle with older ideologies. It is an evolution that requires many outside consultants that can work with the Romanians at their level of transition.
Arlington, VA: How would you address criticism of Americans rushing to adopt Romanian -and other European- children over the thousands of orphans in their own country?
Ron Federici: Families adopt internationally because it is quicker, cheaper, and avoids contact with the biological parents. We have a tremendous amount of children here from families, that are also abused. But it is interesting that families here do not want to adopt children from “our system” as they feel the child is damaged when the same type of damage is possible or probable for the institutionalized child in Eastern Europe. It gets back into families being better prepared for a child’s problems. Also, many families go internationally as they view these children as cute and attractive and not having the problems of our abused children here in the States. This is so incorrect. Children everywhere need a family.
Garland, TX: Where can I send a financial contribution to help these kids?
Ron Federici: Thank you very much. The Romanian Challenge Appeals office is at 400 South Washington St., Alexandria Va 22314. Phone number – 703 660 6079. Donations should be clearly marked to the Romanian Challenge Appeal. You can also ask for our entire programs available.
Washington, D.C.: How would you characterize the local adoption system?
Ron Federici: The local adoptions systems in the States tend to be very quick if you adopt from Social Services. If you use international adoption agencies you must interview them and make sure they provide you with all the necessary training and information, which includes potential risks and resources if problems occur. Don’t go with the person who says “love and a good home will make it better.” This is certainly a very important intervention but commonsense must prevail as these children often need a lot more than love and a good home. With proper understanding and interventions, the goal is to bring the child to their optimal potential.
Washingtonpost.com: We’re out of time now, so let’s bring this discussion to a close. Thanks to Dr. Federici and to all who participated today.
February 2006: A Shocking Tennessee Child-Abuse Case Sheds Light on a Hidden World of Hard-to-Adopt Kids—and a Bizarre Method of Disciplining Them
As the dozen deputy sheriffs and child welfare workers approached the tidy, three-story white house in Trenton, Tenn., intending to remove all the kids because of reports of abuse, they came upon a bizarre sight. A young girl, 14 years old, was sitting cross-legged on the ground with her nose pressed up against the house. When a social worker asked why she was there, the girl said she had gotten in trouble. Asked how long she had been there, the girl replied, “Before lunchtime.” It was 2:30 p.m. “It was pitiful,” says investigator Don Curry. “It was so hot that day it made me sick.” As Curry recalls, the girl was being disciplined that afternoon in June 2004 for getting a sibling’s shoes wet. “It was something silly,” he says, “something silly like that.”
But as investigators began to examine Debra and Thomas Schmitz, who lived at the house with their 18 children—16 of them adopted, foster children or unofficially transferred to their care—they say that that incident proved to be among the milder forms of punishment. On Jan. 30 the Schmitzes went on trial in Brownsville, Tenn., on 31 counts of child abuse and child trafficking. The case of the Schmitzes—most of whose kids suffered from physical or emotional problems—has also focused attention on a little-known gray-market network of families who take in children (often through word of mouth and the Internet) cast off by their own adoptive parents. The collectors of unwanted children say they do it to help kids, though some skeptics suggest that money, in the form of state subsidies, furnishes another motive. “People call and say, ‘I need your help; we can’t have these kids in our home,'” says Frances Matthews, a friend of the Schmitzes’ who has 10 adopted disabled kids at their home in nearby Kenton. “Sometimes you need a break.”
Matthews explains that it is not uncommon for families in this kind of adoption network to exchange for brief periods disruptive or challenging children among themselves as a means of lessening the stress. What’s more, many of the families practice “attachment therapy,” a method that includes some controversial forms of discipline (see box). In Internet chat rooms, the Schmitzes sold themselves as AT experts—which they insist is a legitimate form of child rearing—to parents looking to unload their kids. But in his opening statement, prosecutor Garry Brown said they took the idea of discipline to criminal extreme, painting a harrowing portrait of life in the Schmitz household. He accused Debra, 46, of forcing one child to eat his own vomit; holding another child’s head underwater as punishment; sitting on a girl and urinating on her; and hurling a wheelchair-bound girl into a swimming pool (the girl was pulled to safety). Tom, 48, who works for a portable-toilet company, is accused of placing a hose in a girl’s mouth and turning on the water, and lancing a boil on another child with a box cutter as she screamed in pain. The couple allegedly forced children to dig what they were told were their own graves. The witnesses: 10 of the kids the Schmitzes cared for. Natasha Bennet, 16, told the court how she had been adopted from Russia at age 5 by a single American mom but was so unruly that the woman drove her to the Schmitzes one day in 2003 and left her there. “[Debra] welcomed me to a house of living hell,” testified Natasha, who is now living in McKenzie, Tenn. “She told me I could call her ‘mom’ or ‘master.'” Her first day at the house, said Natasha, she was put in the storm cellar for 20 minutes: “[Debra] told me every time I misbehaved that’s where I’d go.”
In his opening statement, Debra’s attorney Barney Witherington tried to downplay the seriousness of the Schmitzes’ actions. “They say she threw a butter knife at one of their children,” he said. “It’s a butter knife; it’s not even a sharp knife.” Witherington continued, “Everybody loves children. These children are different. The things that the Schmitzes did were absolutely necessary. The rest didn’t happen.” But to authorities, it was abuse by any name. “If you put kids in a storm cellar or a bed that’s really a cage, that’s not right,” says Gibson County Sheriff Joe Shepard, who has led the investigation of the Schmitzes. “Psychologically it will affect them the rest of their days.”
Some of Debra Schmitz’s own kin, including her estranged mother, Shirley Hogan, 67, and daughter Melanie, 21, emphatically second that notion. (Debra was married twice and had three children, including Melanie, a student, prior to her marriage to Tom, with whom she has a son, Mackenzie, 16.) According to Shirley, in 1995 Debra and Tom began taking in kids from other families for brief stays, then moved on to taking foster children and finally to adopting their own in 1996. Their first adopted child was an African-American toddler named Marcus who fell prey to their abuse, says Melanie, who left home in 2001: “If Marcus dirtied his diaper, she’d make him wear it on his head.”
Before long, the Schmitzes had branched out to taking in children that other adoptive families no longer wanted. Melanie recalls seeing her mother spending hours trolling the Internet looking for candidates, some of them foreign-born adoptees with special needs whose new parents had underestimated the burden of caring for them. “She’d barely get off the couch,” says Melanie. “She’d be online all day looking at kids.” In one instance, Melanie says, she went with her family to a truck stop in the Midwest to pick up one child, an episode that Debra has said never happened. (At the time of their arrest, the Schmitzes had seven kids living in their house who had not been adopted through official channels, though their lawyer has maintained that the couple intended to get legal custody.)
Both Melanie and Shirley believe that Debra’s initial motive was to help kids but that financial gain soon became a factor. “After she found out how much money could be made, it never stopped,” says Shirley. Authorities say that thanks to the kids for whom they had legal custody, the Schmitzes received about $84,000 a year alone from Social Security and state and federal subsidies, which are higher for special-needs children. “They were living pretty good,” says Sheriff Shepard. “Beautiful home, beautiful antiques.” Not so, says Debra, who has claimed that she received no support for the last seven children she brought into her home. “I wore rags,” she told USA Today, “but my kids always looked wonderful.”
How could such alleged abuse continue unnoticed? Police found evidence that the couple had rigged up a warning system to alert them when anyone—including child welfare workers, who made visits to the house over the years and reported nothing amiss—came up the driveway. Authorities say they found the house to be im maculately kept but concluded that Debra had used the kids to do the vast bulk of the cleaning. The alleged abuses came to light when two home health care workers learned from some of the children about life in the house and notified a doctor, who called the police.
At least one expert, Ronald Federici, author of Help for the Hopeless Child, who evaluated the family last year at the invitation of the defense, voices sympathy for Debra and Tom. “They were adoption addicts,” says Federici. “They were well-intentioned people. They wanted to make the world better for kids who were abused. They got in way over their head because of their rescue fantasies. This was like a psychiatric facility without a medical director.” As for the investigation, which relied heavily on the word of the children themselves, Federici questions how much credence that testimony should be given. “Only four kids were competent under psychological standards,” he says. “The rest were retarded, autistic, brain damaged. They were so impaired. Yet all the statements went into gospel.”
To officials, the stories the children told rang true. Investigator Curry recalls interviewing Nora, then a 15-year-old who wore a leg brace because of polio, who had been adopted in China and then dumped at the Schmitz home by parents who didn’t want her. “She was telling us when she got in trouble Debbie made her sleep naked on the floor,” says Curry. “She’d take her brace and the little girl would have to crawl up the steps.” Even Schmitz friend Frances Matthews, who had a falling-out with her yet agrees that the accused couple wanted to do good and found themselves overwhelmed, recounts some disturbing practices. She acknowledges, for instance, that she was having such problems with her own adopted daughter Marianna, now 19, who has spina bifida, that she hit her in the face with a shoe (she was sentenced to 20 days in jail for that abuse) before sending her to live with the Schmitzes. But Debra, says Matthews, had no better luck with Marianna. “She said she had spanked her so hard that Marianna had an abscess on her behind,” says Matthews.
In the run-up to the trial, which was expected to last about five days, all but two of the Schmitz children had been put in foster homes. That, says Matthews, has distressed Debra more than anything. “She’s very depressed,” says Matthews. “She wants her kids. She misses them. When they take your kids, you come unglued.” Adds Matthews, with no intended irony: “She loved those children. Maybe she wasn’t the best, but she loved them.”