On a Wednesday in late May the sweet cherub-cheeked face of Barbara appears on the Channel 8 evening news in Dallas. Here is twelve-year-old Barbara out for a pleasant afternoon at the Forth Worth Zoo, petting the baby deer and rabbits. She is dressed in pink shorts, a pink-and-white shirt, and white straw sandals, looking wholesome enough to star in a Blue Bell ice cream commercial.
Barbara is on television because she is a Wednesday’s Child, one of about eight hundred children in Texas who on any given day are waiting for someone to adopt them. Most Wednesday’s Children are wards of the state; a few are in the custody of private agencies. They were either abandoned by their biological parents or so abused that the Texas Department of Human Services took custody of them to save their lives. Their faces are familiar to us; each week an estimated 80 percent of the population of Texas sees Wednesday’s Children on the local news. They appear on our TV screens and from there, presumably, are taken into the arms of safe, loving families. It is the perfect made-for-television story; everyone seems to live happily ever after.
WFAA anchorman John Criswell tells viewers that up until now Barbara’s life has been one of terror. “Barbara was severely victimized, and it will always affect her life,” says Criswell as he strolls with her through the zoo. “Caseworkers describe Barbara as twelve going on thirty-five.”
Before she became a Wednesday’s Child, Barbara had another identity. She was a prostitute known on the streets of Dallas as Raspberry. Her first experience with sex occurred when her mother—a schizophrenic who was married to an alcoholic—allowed her boyfriends to sleep with Barbara. Barbara later turned to prostitution. Last summer she ran away from her pimp and turned herself in to the Dallas police. The night she fled to the police, Barbara was wearing a black miniskirt and hooker-style makeup, and her brownish-blond hair was spiked. She told the police and her social workers that her pimp’s name was Star Child. Lately she has been living in a state-licensed group home and is taking prescribed medicine for depression and anxiety.
The two-minute television segment about Barbara does not reveal the dark details of her life. Criswell ends by telling viewers Barbara is a good student and wants to be a veterinarian. “Barbara is a survivor,” he says. “Now she needs parents to help her thrive.” On the screen flashes a telephone number for viewers who want to make Barbara their daughter.
“Monday’s child is fair of face,” goes the old Mother Goose nursery rhyme. “Tuesday’s child is full of grace/Wednesday’s child is full of woe.” The rhyme is perhaps the most honest thing that can be said about these children. Barbara is a typical Wednesday’s Child. By the time the social service system found Barbara and decided to market her on TV, she had suffered years of brutalization. It’s difficult to reconcile the television image of Barbara enjoying a trip to the zoo with the reality of her past and the riskiness of her future. The heartbreaking truth is that whoever adopts Barbara is adopting Raspberry as well.
There are no orphanages in Texas anymore. The Department of Human Services declared them nonexistent in the mid-seventies. In the late sixties changing social attitudes made the idea of rearing children in orphanages repugnant to child-welfare experts. Soon support for deinstitutionalization spread to the public. At the same time, the DHS gave abandoned and unwanted children a new name. In 1975 they became “special-needs children,” a phrase that fit neatly with the belief that they would be better off in families than in orphanages.
Today there is a shockingly high number of victimized children, innocents whose parents have subjected them to horrendous physical, psychological, and sexual abuse. In 1986 Texas had more than 61,000 confirmed victims of child abuse, double the number of reported cases in 1976. Of 8,911 confirmed cases of sexual abuse, slightly more than half of the victims were under ten years old.
Often parents who are abusing their children don’t want to give them up, and their reluctance is matched by DHS’s. The primary goal of the courts and social service agencies is to keep children with their biological parents. Sometimes, though, meeting that goal puts a child’s life at risk. By the time the state moves in to take children from their parents permanently, the odds are overwhelming that such children have been irreparably damaged. As infants, they learned that their fundamental survival needs would not be met. When they were hungry, no one fed them; when they cried out for comfort, they were beaten or sexually molested. The consensus among psychologists who specialize in abused children is that if they receive treatment before the age of seven, they have a decent chance of becoming attached to a new set of parents. After the age of eleven, the chances of ever truly bonding are poor. The average age of a Wednesday’s Child at the time of adoption is eight. Yet many, like Barbara, are adolescents.
The first step for children who have been removed from their parents is to be placed in a foster home. Eventually, however, children who become wards of the state are cleared for adoption. Although only a few appear on the local news, all of these children are known as Wednesday’s Children.
The practice of marketing the children evolved from the pet-of-the-week stories in newspapers. The idea was that if sad stories helped dogs and cats find homes, the same system could work with children. So in the mid-seventies the DHS began recruiting adoptive parents through the newspapers. The department gave reporters general information about its hardest-to-place children, and the feature stories appeared under the “Wednesday’s Child” label.
In 1980 John Criswell became the first broadcast journalist in Texas to put these children on the air. Now most Texas markets have at least one television station that carries “Wednesday’s Child” spots. The spots are a strange mixture of journalism and social work. The reporters are not investigating whether the system is functioning; the point is to sell the child to prospective parents. If the TV stations sold soap the way they sell Wednesday’s Children, the Federal Trade Commission would order them to pull the spots for misrepresentation.
The whitewash originates with the DHS. Television reporters are given fact sheets about the children, which don’t contain the horrifying details of their lives. Neither the DHS nor the TV reporters explain what effect such abuse has on the children’s ability to function in a family setting. After all, the DHS has a vested interest in placing the children, not in frightening off potential parents. It’s easy to sympathize with caseworkers, whose desks are stacked with the files of children who have been starved, beaten, or raped. The caseworkers’ impulse is a natural one: to unload children as quickly as possible in new homes.
The dreadful odyssey of these children does not always end with adoption. Some new families find themselves utterly unprepared to care for such damaged children. When they turn back to the DHS for help, they are told that the children are their problem now. Finally, a group of adoptive parents is crying out for help in the only way they know how—by filing a class-action lawsuit.
The same week that Barbara’s episode aired in Dallas, seven adoptive couples sued the DHS on behalf of all Wednesday’s Children for what amounts to deceptive trade practices. The parents say the DHS glossed over or withheld information about their children, much the same way TV stations do each week in their efforts to market children.
“In effect, DHS placed children in the homes of these parents without telling them who the children were, and then when these human time bombs exploded, DHS had no help to offer,” says Neil Cogan, the associate dean of the law school at Southern Methodist University, who filed the class-action lawsuit in Dallas and Austin.
DHS officials deny the general charges in the lawsuit but refuse the comment on specific cases. “Our policy is to tell the parents everything we know, but often we just don’t know everything,” says Susan Klickman, an adoption-program specialist who works at the department’s headquarters in Austin.
Currently the DHS provides a written summary of the child’s record to the parents. But the parents who filed the lawsuit want more than a sanitized version of the records; they want access to all of the information the department has compiled, except the names and whereabouts of the biological parents. They also want better training programs for prospective parents and more state-supported counseling services for their children. Without such help, the parents say, there is only more woe for everyone concerned.
Diane and M.L. Richards, one of the seven plaintiff couples in the lawsuit, became interested in adoption through reading feature stories about Wednesday’s Children in the Austin American-Statesman and later seeing them on television. They became foster parents through the DHS and, as time passed, decided to adopt a child, since Diane had been told as a young woman that she was infertile. On Valentine’s Day, 1982, the DHS placed a handsome Mexican American boy named Mark in their home. Mark was almost seven years old when the Richardses first laid eyes on him. In a photograph taken on their first day together, Mark has a toothless grin on his face and is peering at the camera with eager brown eyes. The photo seems to promise a new and happy life.
Mark’s social worker told the Richardses that Mark suffered from learning disabilities because of environmental deprivation. In the summary of his records that the Richardses were given, the caseworker noted that Mark had been abused by his biological parents. Mark had a problem with bed-wetting and a history of expressing “negative feelings toward his caretakers.” In the very next sentence, the Richardses read the following reassuring words: “It is believed, however, that with the proper limit-setting, consistent love, and nurturing, this behavior can be corrected.”
The first indication the Richardses had that Mark’s problems were more severe than bed-wetting occurred one evening not long after he came to live with them. It was M.L.’s turn to supervise Mark’s bath, and the new father hustled his son toward the bathroom. The moment M.L. peeled off Mark’s clothes, Mark tried to fondle his father’s penis. “It was obviously an instinctive response,” recalls Diane. “Someone had taught Mark to do that.” The problems became more severe. Mark set his first fire when he was eleven and continued to set fires both in his room and in the back yard for the next two years. It got to the point that Mark simply couldn’t control himself at all. Once, Diane found forty pairs of women’s underwear hidden away in Mark’s closet; Mark had used them for masturbation. Next, a younger adopted brother confided to his mother that Mark had forced him to commit oral sex at knife-point. One Christmas Eve Mark took a knife from the kitchen and ran through the house, threatening to kill his younger brother and the rest of the family. Diane says she remembers thinking, “When is this going to stop?”
Life for the Richards family became an endless game of musical therapy. First, Mark was sent to a psychologist who specialized in play therapy to find the source of Mark’s problems. Then they tried individual therapy, and finally Diane and M.L. went with Mark to talk to a family therapist. All of the counseling was paid for on M.L.’s salary and insurance benefits as a lineman for the Lower Colorado River Authority. None of the therapy helped. Finally, one psychiatrist told the Richardses that their son is a borderline personality—a violent person who has an inability to form social relationships—and both Diane and M.L. knew they had reached the end of the road. The Richardses found themselves trapped in a single line of a nursery rhyme—“Wednesday’s child is full of woe”—with no way to get to Thursday. Last October they took Mark to a private mental hospital in San Marcos, at a cost of nearly $15,000 a month. M.L.’s insurance company is picking up the tab. But the family is facing another crisis: M.L.’s insurance is running out.
When they committed Mark to the hospital, the Richardses obtained a copy of some of his files and learned that Mark had been diagnosed as mentally ill before his adoption. His prognosis for recovery in 1981, a year before he came into the Richardses’ home, was described as poor. They also read about their son’s first years: His mother had starved him, and from an early age, Mark had displayed symptoms of a child who had been sexually molested. Whatever his parents had done to him, they had done it from birth to almost three years old, when he was placed in a foster home. In the files the Richardses discovered why Mark’s left forefinger was missing: his biological father had bitten it off.
“I’m suing the state because I don’t know what else to do,” says Diane, sitting on her couch with her feet tucked beneath her legs. She looks like a shell-shocked veteran of an awful private war. “It’s too late for Mark. If they ever let him out of the hospital, he will kill us or kill somebody else. I’m certain of it,” she says. Diane and M.L. have investigated the possibility of relinquishing custody of Mark, but they have been told that most judges in Texas view adoption as forever.
Do Diane and M.L. still love him? Diane’s brown eyes become two pools of tears. “There’s a part of Mark we love,” Diane says, “and there’s a part of him we loathe.”
Bait and Switch
On a Wednesday in June 1984, Lynn and John Davis were sitting in the living room of their home in Dallas, watching the news on Channel 8. Midway through the broadcast, the face of a young black child named Michael appeared on the screen. Both Lynn and John felt an overpowering urge to reach through the television set and bring four-year-old Michael to the safety of their bosoms.
“I’d always watched ‘Wednesday’s Child’ on TV,” recalls Lynn, “but that night both of us really felt we’d love to have Michael as our son.” Lynn had two daughters from a previous marriage, and she and John had often discussed adopting a child. Before the broadcast was finished, Lynn telephoned the number on the screen and told the operator who answered that she and John wanted Michael as their own.
That televised glimpse was the last they saw of Michael. Instead of giving them their dream child, the DHS placed four troubled black siblings with the Davises. From the bureaucracy’s point of view, the Davises are a spectacular success story—the caseworker relieved himself of four problems at once by placing the children with a solidly middle-class couple. But the DHS’s success was the Davises’ nightmare.
The fault really isn’t the caseworker’s. Caseworkers are simply cogs in an unworkable system. The bureaucratic imperative is to make these kids someone else’s problems so that taxpayers won’t have to provide for them. Child-welfare experts have a name for this type of bait and switch—“stretching.” To facilitate a placement, a caseworker “stretches” a family to take on more children and more problems than they had bargained for. The truth also gets stretched when caseworkers minimize the level of abuse a child has suffered in order to persuade parents to adopt the child.
The Davises’ caseworker, Jim Baldwin, had more on his mind than Michael. He had the responsibility for placing four brutally abused siblings, and he wanted to find one home for all of them. To him, the Davises seemed like the perfect solution. Verbally and in written reports, Baldwin told Lynn and John Davis that the children had been taken away from their biological mother in 1983 because of “extreme neglect.” The only reliable water source in their mother’s apartment was the commode. All of the children had swollen stomachs from malnutrition.
Every word Lynn and John Davis read about the horrible conditions the children had endured made them want to adopt them more. “I just felt that they had never been filled with food and love and that if we could show them that, they wouldn’t ever have to be hungry again—everything would be all right,” Lynn says. The most disturbing material Baldwin gave the Davises was found on page three of a rambling psychological report on one of the daughters. “Sex is a very predominant issue for this child,” wrote the psychologist. “If she was not herself a victim of sexual molestation, then she undoubtedly was a direct observer.” Lynn said she questioned Baldwin about exactly what the psychologist’s report meant; he minimized her anxiety by saying the girl may have only watched other people engage in sex.
Baldwin arranged for the Davises to be paid a subsidy of $225 a month for each of the four children, and the children came to live with the Davises in July 1985. The next March, Lynn got a telephone call from one of the boys’ teachers. He had been caught fondling a female classmate’s genitals. The calls occurred more frequently. Once, Lynn was called because he was exposing himself in the school bathroom. Next, he took another little girl behind a cabinet at school, removed her underpants, and tried to have sex with her. One afternoon Lynn walked into one of the bedrooms of her apartment and saw her seven-year-old son lying on top of his eight-year-old sister. The sight of children trying to complete the sexual act sickened Lynn. She felt totally defeated.
She quit her $17,000-a-year job as a quality-control worker at a manufacturing company and now spends all of her time trying to keep her four adopted children from sexually abusing one another or innocent strangers. The family now survives on John’s $28,000-a-year job as a supervisor for Honeywell. “Our life is a living hell,” Lynn says. The Davises’ marriage has suffered because of the problems with the children. When the trouble started, John didn’t believe the situation could possibly be as bad as Lynn described it every night when he came home from work. “I felt Lynn was picking on the kids. Later I realized they were manipulating us,” John says.
The Davises regularly see Barbara Rila, a psychologist who specializes in adoption-related problems. Even though the DHS recommended Dr. Rila to the Davises, Rila says the state should never have placed all four of the children in the Davis home. “These children have been so abused that their internal core has been shredded,” says Rila. “Parenting one of them would be an incredible challenge; four is impossible.”
Despite all that has happened, the Davises are trying to keep the children together. Their living room is crowded with family photos, and the coffee table is crammed with soccer trophies. “If I had known what to expect, I wouldn’t have adopted all four of them. But now that I have them, what am I supposed to do? Throw them out on the street? Not on your life,” Lynn says. Still, Michael is a mythical space in her marriage. Lynn and John often wonder about him and dream about how nice it would have been to have just one son.
Every two weeks five couples meet in the cozy library of the Highlands Christian Church in northeast Dallas. The night is devoted to therapy—not for the adopted children of the couples, but for the couples themselves. It was here that the couples first shared their war stories and discovered their common problem. They, as much as their disturbed children, are victims of the system. It was here that the lawsuit against he DHS first took form. They learned that their problems weren’t isolated, and they filed the lawsuit to force an overhaul of the public adoption system in Texas.
None of the couples in the room can bear to watch the weekly “Wednesday’s Child” feature on Channel 8. Despite the love and hope they have offered their children, each couple has at least one adopted child whose troubles are so severe that the entire family is caught in the vortex. A few of the couples are ex-hippies who thought they were helping to save the world by adopting many disadvantaged children. One couple adopted ten DHS children; others have four and five.
Couples who have adopted six or more children are often referred to at the DHS as “collector families.” Many caseworkers regard such couples with a mixture of awe and amusement. Caseworkers admire their tenacity and compassion but wonder how they can put up with so many heartbreaking problems each day. Collector families have more than a client relationship with the DHS. These couples find they become unpaid social workers. Since the state offers strictly limited services for families after adoptions are finalized, the couples often become unofficial counselors in emergencies. When DHS caseworkers receive telephone calls in the middle of the night from a Wednesday’s Child parent, they often refer the parent to someone more knowledgeable than they—another adoptive parent.
It takes only one disturbed child to transform ordinary parents into experts on troubled children. The Reverend Bob Chandler and his wife, Cherry, are not collectors; they have two biological sons and an adopted daughter. Bob is the pastor of the church where the therapy group meets. The Chandlers simply viewed adopted as a socially responsible way to build a family. “We thought we were pretty good parents and had something to give to a child,” says Cherry. “We weren’t out to save the world.”
When their daughter, Tina, came to live with the Chandlers in November 1978, they thought they had a perfectly normal three-year-old. Bob and Cherry picked her up from her foster home and were delighted because Tina didn’t shed a tear when she left her foster parents. Later they learned that this was the first sign of trouble. Tina is typical of many children who are abused and neglected during the first two years of life. The psychological label for these children is “unattached,” which means that they are incapable of forming intimate relationships and have severe behavioral problems. At one time child-welfare experts actually encouraged such emotional damage by advising fostercare parents not to become too close to the children, because it would then be too painful to give them up for adoption.
At first, Tina’s problems seemed harmless enough. The moment she walked through the door of the parsonage, she took markers and drew all over the carpet in the entry way. But as time passed, she seemed unable to tell the truth. At ten, she set fire to her brothers’ blue jeans. By then, she was also stealing—everything from her mother’s jewelry to $150 worth of merchandise from a drugstore. At eleven, she took a butcher knife and hacked several pieces of furniture in the living room. Later she threatened to kill her two brothers. “One psychiatrist told us Tina could kill us in the night and never shed a tear,” Cherry recalls.
Last February the Chandlers obtained some of Tina’s records from a lawyer. The Chandlers learned that Tina had been severely physically and sexually abused almost since birth. The records included copies of photographs of Tina’s bruised genitals. “I wanted to crawl off and die when I saw those photographs,” Cherry says.
Now twelve-year-old Tina is living in a private mental-health clinic in Evergreen, Colorado. She is being treated with a controversial technique called rage-reduction therapy, which uses confrontation to break down her defenses and trigger unremembered feelings of anger stored in her since infancy. Cherry and Bob have participated in Tina’s therapy. Near the end of one session Bob put his face close to Tina’s, as you would an infant in a crib, and talked to her lovingly. “After a while Tina crawled up into my lap, just like a baby,” says Bob. The two of them held each other and sobbed. It was the first time Bob had ever felt authentic feelings of love from his daughter. The last time Bob and Cherry visited Tina, they all went horseback riding and hiking in the mountains. For the first time in ten years the Chandlers feel hopeful about Tina. They are looking forward to her returning home.
Like the other parents in the group, the Chandlers have asked themselves whether they would have adopted their child if they had known about her past. All the parents find they can’t answer that question. Still, the Chandlers blame the DHS for not telling them about Tina’s past so they could have gotten help for her sooner. In their view, the DHS contributed to Tina’s suffering. As much as Bob believes that children like Tina need homes, he tells his friends not to adopt children from the DHS. “I hate to admit it, but I wouldn’t recommend anyone adopt a child from the State of Texas right now. These kids need more help than any one family can possibly provide,” he says.
Seated next to the Chandlers at the meeting are Bonnie and Jim Harlow, who have adopted five DHS children. All five have problems, but it was their first child, Chris, who motivated them to join the lawsuit.
Bonnie and Jim adopted Chris in 1978, when he was three. They knew he had been abused but were given no specifics. No one told them that abuse meant almost certain psychological damage. From the moment he came into their home, Chris exhibited classic warning signs of an abused child. He had difficulty in school and was diagnosed as having perceptual problems. He had unprovoked temper tantrums and would become so enraged that he could destroy Tonka trucks in his room. But Chris could be beguiling; in particular, he charmed strangers with his sweetness. The Harlows wish that they had known that this behavior was another bad sign. Trouble children often overcompensate with exaggerated charm.
When Chris hit puberty, all hell broke loose. He fondled a girl at school; he physically attacked his parents and showed no remorse. “Once, he hit me in the face and gave me a bloody nose and just stood there, laughing,” Bonnie recalls. Bonnie and Jim installed an alarm on his bedroom door and locked him in his room at night so they could get some sleep.
In desperation, Bonnie begged the DHS for access to Chris’s records. She was no longer a mother but a detective frantically searching for the missing pieces of her son’s life. The DHS refused. But Bonnie tracked Chris’s records to New York. Social workers there informed her that both of his parents were mentally ill and that his father had been diagnosed as a schizoid personality, a personality disorder similar to but less severe than schizophrenia.
In December 1986 Chris tried to kill himself by swallowing all of the aspirin in the Harlows’ medicine cabinet. His behavior continued to deteriorate, and in August 1987 Jim and Bonnie took him first to a private psychiatric hospital. The diagnosis: schizophrenia. The Harlows were told schizophrenia has a strong genetic link—Chris’s background put him at extremely high risk for mental illness. There is no cure for schizophrenia, although the violent behavior that often accompanies it can be treated with drugs. Chris is now thirteen and lives behind the locked gates of the Terrell State Hospital.
There are twelve boys on Chris’s ward. Four are children who were adopted from the DHS. Even though the hospital is a public facility, Chris’s treatment costs $5,000 a month. Jim’s insurance pays half the bill, Jim and Bonnie pay $170 a month, and the remainder goes unpaid. If it weren’t for the Harlows’ health-insurance policy, Chris would have bankrupted them. Jim owns a landscape-and-lawn-care business in East Dallas, earning roughly $30,000 a year, not enough to cover the cost of Chris’s care for one year.
Last June 6—ten years to the day when they first saw Chris—the Harlows drove the 35 miles to Terrell to visit their son. All the way, Bonnie kept remembering how excited and hopeful they had been that very first day. When they arrived at the hospital, Chris would hardly speak to them at all. Finally, after much prodding, he told his parents he was afraid they were abandoning him in the mental hospital. Although they had visited him every week, he still had no faith that they would be back. His father tried to assure Chris that they loved him. “You’re just like a bicycle tire with a hole in it,” Jim told Chris. “No matter how many times we try to fill you up with air, you just stay broken. You can’t come home until the hole inside you gets fixed.”
The Harlows realize that no one gets a guarantee that their child won’t become mentally ill. But they believe if they had been warned that Chris was predisposed toward schizophrenia, they would have understood the signs better and would have sought appropriate treatment.
Tracey Bush had her two minutes in the “Wednesday’s Child” spotlight on April 7, 1982, just shy of her fourteenth birthday. By the time Tracey appeared on Channel 8’s “Wednesday’s Child,” her biological mother had twice given her up for adoption and she had been unhappily through one adoptive home and three foster homes. Nonetheless, she was thrilled about being on television, so excited that she never worried about the uncertainty to follow. “I never even thought about it,” says Tracey, hunched over a gooey breakfast of biscuits and gravy. “I guess the idea of being on television overshadowed everything else.”
When Tracey appeared on TV, she was old enough to understand exactly what was going on. At nearly fourteen, she knew that being put on TV would not give her a second chance at childhood. Her television appearance was the DHS’s effort to find a solution for a troublesome case. If Tracey didn’t get a new home, the department could be responsible for her until she became a legal adult at the age of eighteen. Yet on that spring day when she made her televised pitch for a new mother and father, Tracey was incapable of thriving in a normal household. She had endured too much pain. Putting her on TV was deceptive to her would-be parents and to Tracey as well.
After Tracey and WFAA anchorman John Criswell took their televised trip to the International Wildlife Park in Grand Prairie, 24 couples called and expressed an interest in adopting Tracey. It’s easy to understand why. Tracey is a warm and captivating girl who had long, thick black hair and a peaches-and-cream complexion. She was born with spina bifida, a congenital disease of the spine. She walks with a rolling gait, with the aid of braces. Those braces and her worn-down saddle oxfords affirm that this is a young woman with spunk.
Tracey’s two minutes of air time were one of the highlights of her life. Six years later, she still keeps in touch with Criswell by telephone. Even tough her contact with him is minimal, it means the world to her. Criswell is the positive counterpoint in Tracey’s life, a father figure who returns her phone calls and will not disappear. She can see him any night she wants, on the evening news.
After Tracey was on “Wednesday’s Child,” she was placed with the family of a DHS child-abuse investigator who quit his job so he and his wife would be eligible to adopt Tracey. The adoption was never finalized. She was returned to the state after eighteen months because of conflicts with family members, compounded by hygiene problems associated with spina bifida. “I guess there is something wrong with me,” Tracey says, sheepishly. “I’ve lived in six different homes, had eighteen foster brothers and sisters, and I bombed out of every last one of them.”
Tracey was born on April 19, 1968, in Denton. Her mother, Janie Bush, was an unmarried twenty-year-old who had dropped out of college by the time Tracey was born. Janie decided the best thing for both of them would be to give Tracey up for adoption. When the couple who had agreed to adopt Tracey found out she had spina bifida, they changed their minds. Janie went to the Dallas office of the Texas Department of Health, where she was told how to relinquish custody of her child. A few days later Janie signed the paper, and Tracey became a ward of the state.
When Tracey was three weeks old, the state sent her to live with a foster mother in Balch Springs. At five, Tracey was adopted by her foster mother’s adult daughter, Norma McDonald, and her husband, Kevin. “She was a bright and beautiful little girl,” Norma recalls. Because Tracey’s condition required that she use a urinary catheter, two or three times a week Norma would have to go to Tracey’s school to clean her up. “She was a burden, but a sweet burden,” says Norma.
Five years later Tracey was too much of a burden for Norma to handle. By then, Norma and Kevin were divorced, and Norma could not financially support their four biological, much less their adopted, children. In May 1980 Norma contacted Janie with the idea that she could help rear Tracey. By June, Tracey had moved in with Janie.
Janie found out that her daughter’s childhood had been anything but happy. DHS supervisors believe 80 to 90 percent of Wednesday’s Children have been sexually abused. Tracey’s experience conforms to that theory. From the time she was a little girl, she had been forced to engage in oral sex with her adoptive father. Unlike many other Wednesday’s Children, Tracey didn’t maintain the silence. Eventually, she testified against Kevin McDonald, and on March 30, 1981, he was convicted on one count of sexual abuse of Tracey. McDonald was sentenced to five years in prison but was released on probation shortly after sentencing.
For Tracey, however, returning to her biological mother was not the answer to her problems. In spring of 1981, less than a year after Tracey moved in with Janie, the two of them had a terrible argument. Neither of them remember exactly what provoked the fight, but at eleven-thirty that night Janie telephoned a DHS caseworker at home and told her to come and get Tracey. Two days later a crestfallen Tracey wrote in her journal, “I’m in a different home. She gave me up.”
Once again, Tracey was returned to the social service system, and she spent an unsuccessful year with a foster family, Tracey’s caseworkers next decided to try to market her on television. “They asked me if I’d like to go on TV to try to get another family, and I thought it was a great idea,” Tracey recalls. Caseworkers warned her not to get her hopes up about being placed in another adoptive home, since she was almost fourteen.
Being on television provided no magic solution. Between the spring of 1982 and the summer of 1985, Tracey shuffled from family to family, until she was sent to the Mary Lee School, a residential group home, in Austin. Tracey didn’t like the school and its strict structure—when she disobeyed the rules, her privileges were taken away. One evening she and a friend ran away from the home. After that, three caseworkers met with Janie and Tracey. There, in a conference room in Austin, the system gave up on Tracey Bush. At seventeen—three years after she had appeared on television—Tracey became an emancipated adult.
Today she lives with two roommates in a two-bedroom apartment in Euless. In some respects, Tracey is doing better than ever before. She has a job processing payroll checks, earning $6.12 an hour. But she often defeats herself. For instance, she bought a used car for $400, but she doesn’t know how to drive. Lacking only a half-credit to graduate from high school, she dropped out. Criswell has told her that there is a full college scholarship waiting for her through the Wednesday’s Child Benefit Corporation, but first she has to receive a high school diploma. She can’t seem to summon the will to finish high school. Yet she has accomplished something: She freed herself from the child-welfare system by surviving long enough to outgrow it.
Illusion and Reality
“The problem is, no one in the system wants to get their hands dirty with these kids,” says psychologist Barbara Rila. Rila’s analyst couch is rarely empty. Every day she gets her hands dirty with Wednesday’s Children and their distraught parents. Instead of talking generally about child abuse, she forces the children to face whatever horror they have endured in brutally explicit ways. There is no polite and gentle way to deal with the rape of the innocent. Yet that is what the DHS tries to do by portraying these children in cabbage-patch TV settings.
DHS officials defend the television recruitment campaign. As Betty Avant, an adoption supervisor, puts it, “There are families for these children. It’s simply a matter of us finding them.” TV is a convenient and powerful vehicle. Avant and other adoption officials realize that there is an inherent contradiction in their method: They insist that publicity about the children be presented in a favorable light, but they also don’t want to mislead the public. Once prospective parents have become interested after seeing a child on television, DHS officials say, they can tell them all the facts about the child and train them to be good parents.
Several adoption workers maintain that the DHS does not purposefully withhold information from parents. “It’s a big department, so obviously there may be isolated examples of caseworkers not telling a family the total truth, but I would hope we aren’t intentionally not disclosing information,” says the DHS’s Susan Klickman. Several adoption workers said they alert prospective parents to a child’s behavioral problems, but the parents are so excited they simply don’t comprehend negative information. “We tell them everything,” said Helen Grape, the program director in Dallas-Forth Worth, “but I can’t be responsible for what they hear.”
There is also a gap between what the rules allow and what adoptive parents say is needed. For instance, the state’s policy on post-adoption services is contained in one small paragraph of the voluminous pages of DHS policy manuals. If the caseworkers have time, which they often don’t, they can help families in trouble—as long as they have permission from a supervisor. Klickman is now reevaluating whether the state can provide continuous counseling and more services. “Our families are telling us they need help, and we are trying to accommodate them, but it takes time and money,” she said.
Klickman and others think that most Wednesday’s Children are better off being adopted, even if later they have to go to group homes. Klickman, however, believes most Wednesday’s Children thrive in their adoptive homes: They are sheltered, clothed, and encouraged to become self-sufficient. The DHS is aware that some Wednesday’s Children are in trouble, but the department does not attempt to find out how many and in what ways. According to DHS records, 10 to 12 percent of the children who are placed in adoptive homes leave during the first six months, before the adoption is legally final. They have no idea, however, how many children leave their homes after the adoption is final. The notion that adoption is forever is so firmly embedded in the agency’s psyche that DHS workers don’t even use the word “failure.” The DHS’s word for an adoption that doesn’t work out is “disillusionment.” And the agency doesn’t keep score of disillusionment.
Twenty years ago social workers arrived at the consensus that every child is adoptable. Even today many social workers argue that what abused and abandoned children need are “therapeutic” parents. But it is obvious that some Wednesday’s Children need more therapy than most ordinary parents can provide. Indeed, the role of parents and therapists may be mutually exclusive. Some of the parents are challenging the accepted wisdom by saying their children need too much mental-health care to be able to live in a family setting.
Even though the word “orphanage” has been expunged from our language, institutions for children still exist. They are group homes run by trained counselors. Some adoptive parents say that such group homes offer the best solution for deeply damaged children and that the DHS should be more sensitive in deciding which setting is appropriate for each child. Many of the Wednesday’s Children whom nobody wants or who are incapable of living with their adoptive families end up there. Unfortunately, the decision about who goes into a group home is left to the marketplace—the DHS forbids caseworkers from recommending that any child would be better off placed in such a home rather than with a family.
Caseworkers also know what kind of people make the best parents for Wednesday’s Children. Older parents who have reared biological children successfully often have fewer ego needs and are able to slowly earn the trust of the unattached child. Few upper-income families ever inquire about adopting a Wednesday’s Child. But social workers say low- and moderate-income couples tend to make better adoptive parents for troubled children. These families have more realistic expectations and give the child room to breathe; they are less concerned that the child excel in school or sports. But they must have a generous health-insurance policy; woe be unto any family of a Wednesday’s Child who does not.
There are never enough of these special parents to claim waiting children. So the DHS uses the power of television to elicit an emotional response from a wider audience. Sadly, the gap between TV and real life is dangerously wide. The first villains in these children’s lives were monstrous parents who took away their innocence. But all of us share complicity if we allow these children into our living rooms every week, give them a benevolent nod, and insist that they stay invisible by encouraging so much to go unsaid.