Foster child's history was a mystery - and so were her terrifying symptoms

By John Kelly
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 12:02 AM

Maria and Todd Jameson fought the urge to get their hopes up. They had seen too many children plucked away before they'd even had a chance to meet them.

The Waldorf couple had taken their adoption classes. They'd said they were willing to adopt siblings. They'd decided they were up for the challenge of special-needs children. They'd been shown photos of kids from Missouri to Louisiana to the Carolinas.

But they'd lost out every time.

"And then along came these three," Maria said.

In 2007, a social services caseworker laid three photos down on the table in front of them. "This is the group," she said. There was a 6-year-old boy, Devin, his 3-year-old brother, Clayton, and 4-year-old sister, Cora.

Todd asked how many other hopeful parents-to-be were also interested in the children.

"You're it," she said.

Said Maria: "I think we made our minds up just looking at the pictures."

They met for the first time in a park a month later. The children's demeanor was a little cool. If they were slow to warm to Todd and Maria, that was understandable. The children had been in a series of foster homes.

"Technically, I was Mom Number 5 for Devin," Maria said.

As the children played with the couple - just the latest adults to come into their lives - Todd and Maria made a decision: They would start the foster-to-adopt process, meaning that after a trial period together, Devin, Cora and Clayton would become Jamesons.

The children came to Todd and Maria with little more than the bags holding their modest possessions. When you are a foster parent - as the Jamesons were considered at first - you're not entitled to a complete medical history, so about the only thing the Jamesons knew about the trio's past was that they had been vaccinated.

But they knew their lives hadn't been easy. They wondered especially about Cora, about the bruising on her body, about the dark circles under her eyes, about the strange way she behaved around food. Cora craved certain items - french fries, potato chips - and would seek them out, even if they were on the ground or in the trash. Other foods she would throw up after a single bite.

More alarming, she was prone to tantrums of a magnitude Todd and Maria had never seen: shouting, slamming doors, unwilling or unable to sleep. The adoption social worker thought it might be reactive detachment disorder or post-traumatic stress, a legacy of her troubled childhood. "I don't think I slept the first two months she was with us," Maria remembered.

On Feb. 24, 2008, four months after she had joined her new home, Cora had the worst episode Todd and Maria had seen. She was a frightening mixture of delirium and lethargy, racing around like a whirlwind, changing her clothes, turning on all the lights in the house, but her eyes were fixed in an unfocused stare, as if Todd and Maria weren't even there. She was, the couple would later learn, slipping into a coma.

About 3 in the morning, as Maria tried to console Cora, the redheaded 4-year-old broke from her grasp and threw herself on the floor. She began screaming something she might have wanted to demand of every adult she had ever met, every adult who had been unwilling to keep her, every adult who had been unable to console her: "You need to take care of me!"

"I'm trying," Maria said. She thought to herself: If only I knew how.

What's wrong with Cora?

Cora was rushed to Children's National Medical Center. On Thursday, I'll explain what was wrong with her and how she's doing now.

Until then, please make a tax-deductible contribution to Children's. All of the money we raise during our annual fund drive is for the hospital's uncompensated care fund, used to pay the bills of uninsured children. To donate, send a check or money order (payable to "Children's Hospital") to Washington Post Campaign, P.O. Box 17390, Baltimore, Md., 21297-1390.

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