By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 9, 2006
A talkative 9-year-old boy came to Helen Briggs on Valentine's Day 2000. She was a foster mother with years of tough love and scores of troubled kids behind her. But she grew to love this boy. Within the year, she'd talked her husband into adopting him.
Now, six years later, Briggs and her husband, James, a maintenance worker for the city of Alexandria, are taking the highly unusual step of trying to unadopt him.
In 2003, when the boy was 12, he sexually molested a 6-year-old boy and a 2-year-old girl still in diapers. She said it was only then, as she waited outside the courtroom for his sexual battery hearing and caseworkers handed her his psychological profile, that she found out just how damaged the boy had been when he came into her life.
The Washington Post generally does not name the subjects of juvenile court cases.
Briggs said she did not know he had lived in five foster homes since he was 16 months old. Nor that his alcohol- and drug-addicted biological parents had physically abused him, injuring his brain stem and impairing his ability to gauge the passage of time.
He'd been hospitalized seven times in psychiatric institutions and diagnosed as possibly psychotically bipolar. He'd thrown knives, kicked in walls, pulled out all his hair and threatened to kill himself. He'd heard voices telling him to do bad things. His confidential case file shows he most likely was sexually abused.
"I did not know any of that," Briggs said, though Virginia policy states that caseworkers should provide "full, factual information" about a child to adoptive parents. "They just told me he was hyperactive."
She said the state's failure to fully disclose the boy's background is tantamount to fraud.
State child welfare officials could not comment on the case because of confidentiality restrictions. But some caseworkers do not believe Briggs, records show. They think she wants to get out of paying child support.
Still, a Fairfax County court has granted Briggs's petition to relinquish custody. The boy, who has lived in institutions since his conviction, is now officially back in foster care. He asked to be put on suicide watch, records show, when the judge's decision came down.
Briggs hired an attorney to terminate her parental rights. But in Virginia, a child older than 14 must give consent. The boy, now nearing 16, wants Briggs to be his mother forever, according to the voluminous confidential case file and e-mail and phone records Briggs subpoenaed for her lawsuit and provided to The Post.
Briggs sought to file a "wrongful adoption" lawsuit. But under Virginia law, she needed to file within two years of discovering the boy's history. Instead, she wavered.
First, she wanted him home after he had completed his sex offender treatment. But then psychologists deemed him a "sexual predator." That meant Briggs could no longer be a foster parent, which she considers her job. Nor could she allow her three grandchildren in her house. Nor could she keep a little girl she had cared for since the day she was born.
She had to choose.
"You don't want to throw somebody away," she said. "But sometimes you have to."
Her choice has left her with none of the rights and many of the responsibilities of a parent. Caseworkers forbid her from contacting the child because he becomes so violent and angry when she does. Yet state law requires that she pay $427 a month in child support and cover court costs when he appears before judges who now decide what's best for him.
With no legal recourse, she is asking politicians to help her find a way out.
"At first blush, you think, 'What, you're trying to give up your kid? You're a jerk,' " said Virginia Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). "Then you find this lady has received awards for all the foster work she's done. And that she never would have adopted the boy and put other children in danger if she had had the information that was withheld from her."
The technical term for what Briggs is trying to do is "dissolve" the adoption, as if all the bonds of love and hurt could simply vanish into thin air.A Hopeful Start
When Briggs, 57, went to visit the boy for the first time, she said she saw a cute, happy child. She recalls caseworkers telling her that he was in a psychiatric hospital because he was too much of a handful for his great-aunt.
They were nearing desperation before they found Briggs, records show. Nobody wanted him.
A no-nonsense, old-school "professional parent," Briggs figured she could handle him. When the boy acted out, she gave him limits. When he began pulling his hair out, she had it shaved. And when he kept running away from school and her Lorton townhouse, she turned him over to her husband for a whupping, just like she got as a child -- until caseworkers called Child Protective Services.
Nonetheless, caseworkers noted that the boy thrived in her care. "The Briggs foster home is the most constructive and potentially successful placement option that this child has," they wrote.
Briggs hadn't planned on adopting anyone. There was just something special about this child. He was so thankful he had his own room, with the first bed he hadn't had to share in his whole life, she remembers him telling her.
If she got sick, he'd make her soup and rub her feet. At school, if he heard an ambulance, he'd be beside himself until school workers let him call home to make sure Briggs was okay. She understood, she said. So many people had abandoned the child.
As she was signing the adoption papers, she remembers nothing about a background briefing, as required by state policy. Only a caseworker asking skeptically, "Are you sure you want to do this?"
"Yes," she recalled answering. "I love him."
When the boy came to her, he was taking medications for mental illness, depression, delusions, seizures and attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder. He was considered a "therapeutic" foster child, one that comes with extra emotional, medical or behavioral baggage and a heftier monthly subsidy.
Some case workers think she must have known, records show. One wrote that Briggs wasn't being "entirely honest." However, nothing in the case file indicates she was given an oral briefing or a written summary of the boy's background, or access to his records. In some reports, details such as his psychiatric hospitalizations and sexual abuse are left out.
There are also notations of alarm when Briggs began taking the child off his medications, that perhaps she did not understand the gravity of his condition.
Briggs said she thought the medications were for hyperactivity. When the child began complaining of headaches, she took him to a psychiatrist caseworkers recommended. She asked if the boy needed all the pills. The psychiatrist, records show, said no.
"When he told me he was hearing voices, I told him it was just his conscience talking," she said.
Records show that caseworkers are vehemently against Briggs terminating her parental rights. "At least, if his parents win the lottery and die, he will inherit," one wrote in an e-mail. Some think she has rejected the boy because she needs the money she gets from foster children.
"That's a lie," Briggs said angrily.
A religious woman and active in her Sword of Spirit Deliverance Ministry Pentecostal Church, Briggs said being a foster mother is a calling. She's on disability, she explained, so it's one of the few things she can do to supplement her husband's blue-collar wage.
"The system needs to be revised. That's why I'm doing this," she said. "I should have known about the child. Because people get hurt."
And then there is another reason, one that woke up late one recent morning and, yawning, shuffled downstairs in fluffy white slippers with bells on the toes and nestled onto Briggs's ample lap: a little girl of 5, the child of a former foster daughter and Briggs's legal ward.
"I can't take him back," Briggs said, stroking the hair of the child she chose to keep.
If it is true what Briggs says, that she really didn't know the full extent of the boy's difficult young life, it would not be the first time.
The first "wrongful adoption" lawsuit was won in Ohio in 1986. Parents were told the 16-month-old they adopted was a healthy infant born to a teenage mother. When the child later developed a fatal disease and exhibited mental disorders, the parents discovered he was born to two middle-age mental patients.
Since then, states have enacted a patchwork of laws and written disclosure policies. Some states, such as Texas and Ohio, give adoptive parents access to a child's entire case file. In Maryland, social workers are required to prepare a written background summary and ask adoptive parents to sign it. Virginia's disclosure policy has no written requirement.
"I have seen so many adoptive parents come back and feel so angry and cheated that we didn't tell them about a child. And we did tell them," said Judith Schagrin, a Maryland social worker. "It's just that at the time, they were so hopeful and looking through a lens of love that they couldn't hear what we were saying."
But sometimes, because of the high turnover of case workers, information gets lost, assumptions get made, mistakes happen -- especially if the child is older. Especially if they've bounced around foster care for years. And especially, Schagrin said, if their sad and broken histories might scare away potential foster or adoptive families.
That pressure has intensified since 1997 because of a federal law that rewards states as much as $6,000 for every foster child adopted.
"I have seen caseworkers. They think, 'Oh, the family won't adopt the child if they know everything," Schagrin said.
Most adoptions take, especially for infants. But for children over 12, as many of 25 percent of the adoptions don't. They simply dissolve.Separate Paths
Briggs has seen her adopted son four times since he left her home in 2003 -- three brief visits to his out-of-town institution before she decided to give him up and once in court this summer. The child, by turns angry and despondent, had smashed his hand through glass.
"He feels unloved," a counselor noted in his file. "That he doesn't belong in the world."
Caseworkers came to Fairfax juvenile court to ask a judge to send the boy to a secure facility in another state. Though she had no say in the matter, Briggs came to see him.
After the hearing, she asked him for a hug. "Well, I'm grown up now," she remembers him saying before he gave in.
"Do you miss me?" she remembers asking.
"Yes," he said.
Then she returned home, to her grandchildren, her small ward and the new foster daughter who sleeps in the boy's old room.