Shane Salter would like to relive this memory: He and his son are going fishing. It is 1991, soon after Salter and his wife adopted the boy, who is 7. Father and son are up before daybreak. They pack the car and, nestled next to each other, head out from their Chantilly home.
Salter is content. This is what fathers do with their sons, he is thinking. As the countryside flashes past the window, they listen to old rhythm-and-blues songs. His son loves the music Salter likes. He is the only child in the family who does.
They listen for their favorite tune, a song that has meaning for them both. When it comes on, they sing happily, loud and clear. Together: "All . . . by . . . myself. Don't wanna be. All . . . by . . . myself."
It is a perfect time.
Another morning, eight years later: Shane Salter is packing the family van. He starts the car and turns on the radio. As he sings old Temptations songs to himself, he drives his four kids, his wife and grandmother to the hills of Pennsylvania, three hours away. Everyone except Salter is lethargic, dreading the three-hour ride, though they look forward to reaching their destination.
They are going to visit the one family member who is missing, the son Salter used to take fishing. The boy has been diagnosed as schizophrenic and now lives in a facility for children with severe emotional and behavioral problems.
Once they arrive at the rolling campus, they have 24 hours to be a regular family--to eat, shop and play together. Sometimes the time goes better than others. The goodbyes are always hard on everyone. On the 15-year-old boy who remains behind. On the sisters and brother who feel guilty that they can go home. On the parents who adopted this boy, never imagining they would ever have to leave him.
But it was especially difficult for Shane Salter, the father who must walk away from the child who reminds him of all he has suffered and all the pain to come.
Shane Salter was 3 years old when his mother left him with his 6-month-old brother in the family's Bronx apartment. He doesn't remember much of what happened then. He has been told they were alone for two days before he walked outside.
He was barefoot, he remembers. He saw a policeman down the block. The policeman looked real big and he felt real small.
Salter never saw his mother again. He and his brother Keith became wards of the state, moving from one foster home to another. When he was 11, a psychologist at the adoption agency told him his mother had died of a heroin overdose. He cried there in the office, again on the train and at home. He remembers his foster mother saying, "Why are you crying? Your mother never did anything for you."
Salter wanted to run away, but he had nowhere to go.
What Salter did instead of run was write. When he was supposed to be paying attention in class, or doing his homework, he wrote stories, fantasies starring little boys with loving mothers and fathers who swept them away for a day of adventure. Recently, a childhood therapist who had heard of his success sent him a play he had written at age 9. She had kept it all these years; a play about a boy who wished for a family.
Salter, now 34, is sitting in the Rockville office of the Marriott Foundation for People With Disabilities. He's the national director for Bridges . . . From School to Work, a transition program that matches disabled high school seniors with employers.
Most of the time he is an exuberant man, a practical joker who plays all the old tricks: sneaking up behind a daughter and putting his hands over her eyes, distracting his son so he can steal fries off his plate. He talks with his hands and his body, some part of him always in motion. After years of pondering his life, he can finally talk about his own painful childhood, though his conversation is peppered by a short, nervous laugh.
"The emptiness of having no one there never goes away," Salter says. "You just learn to manage it. A safe place to call home and a family to embrace you shouldn't be something you have to wonder if you have day to day."
He was 12 when he and his younger brother went to live with a couple who wanted to adopt them. Two months later, "they told us to pack our stuff. The man told me I had ruined my chances at a good home."
Salter admits he often got into fights with the couple's son, and "stole stuff . . . to get attention." So he thought he was getting what he deserved--but in the process, he had ruined his brother's chance of having a family.
The brothers home-hopped until they had one more chance to be adopted together. But Salter, who was 15, found the new father too strict and ran away. This time, he was determined not to ruin his brother's chances. Knowing it meant losing the only family he had, he asked the state to officially remove him from the house but allow his brother, then 11, to stay and be given a chance for adoption. He never even got to say goodbye. Keith thought his older brother had abandoned him. It would be years before they would see one another again.
Salter believes the split almost killed him. "I suffered. . . . I had epilepsy, and the seizures increased. I remember doctors saying that if I continued to have them so close together, it would kill me."
A Dream Deferred
Salter went to yet another foster home. From time to time he visited his maternal grandmother, his only contact with his biological family. One day, a man there introduced himself as Salter's uncle and asked for the boy's phone number.
The next day, Salter's father called. They agreed to meet at his Brooklyn foster home. Salter sat on the steps, waiting. A man with a big Afro drove up in a battered brown Bonneville.
"He didn't look anything like I thought," Salter says. "He didn't look like me. He looked like my brother, and I realized then that I looked like my mother.
"He hugged me and kept saying, 'My son, my son.' I cried. We sat in the car and talked for hours about what my life was like. Then he took me to meet some of my siblings. He had 17 children by different women. I've never met all of them."
On that very day, Salter left his foster home. "I told everyone to kiss my butt. I had found my father!" he says.
He thought his dad would lavish gifts on him. "He bought me something to eat, but didn't have a lot of money to make up for my whole life like I thought."
Salter moved into his father's South Bronx apartment. There the fantasy ended.
"It was dingy with rats and roaches and no hot water," recalls Salter. "It was a condemned building that people occupied."
His father sold toys on the street during the day and cocaine at night. "He tried to keep it away from me and was adamant that I shouldn't get involved with it."
Then one afternoon, Salter was sitting on the steps of the apartment building when he saw a group of men pin his uncle against a van and pull a gun.
"Someone put the gun to his head," Salter says. "They clicked it, but it didn't go off. So they put the gun to his side and this time, it did go off."
Salter ran to get his father, who grabbed a gun to retaliate. Fortunately, the men had already gone. An ambulance took his uncle to the hospital--and he lived.
But something died in Salter. The next day, he packed and sneaked out before his father could stop him. He went straight to school, where he told the office staff: "My father is dangerous. I want to leave."
His father had followed him. He was in the hallway, hollering, "Where is he? Where is he?" While his father scuffled with school personnel, teachers put Salter into a taxi headed for a social service agency. He had lived with his father for six months. Now he knew he would not live with another family until he made one of his own.
"It was a very lonely, scary time," he says.
But something happened inside Salter that ultimately would make him different from the countless boys doomed by ruined childhoods. Instead of becoming bitter, he grew determined: "I calculated I had two years left before I was out on my own . . . two years to do everything I could so I wouldn't be like my dad when I was an adult."
Salter called Joseph Nelson, a young man who had taken an interest in him a couple of years earlier. Nelson had seemed to Salter the image of success and stability, the kind of man he wished he'd had for a father. He was older, but not too old to speak Salter's language. They began bantering when they saw one another around the neighborhood, and developed a friendship. Then Salter moved and the two lost contact.
But Salter never forgot how good it felt to be with Nelson, an ex-Marine and Western Electric executive. "What separated me from some kids was I would gravitate toward older people who were successful people--and I would try to imitate them," Salter says.
It was when Salter ended up in a group home in Queens that he thought of Nelson, who also lived in Queens. He looked him up, and asked if he could come by. The two started going places together again. Sometimes Salter spent weekends with Nelson and his mother, who doted on the teen. It was a comfort he had never known.
Without giving it much thought, Salter asked Nelson, "Will you be my big brother?"
And Nelson said yes.
"He would pick me up in his navy blue Chrysler New Yorker, making me feel like I was really something. I started thinking big, dreaming I could become somebody, too.
"He told me, 'I don't associate with failures, so if you're going to screw up on your grades, I don't want to have anything to do with you.' I wanted him in my life so much . . . I was not going to lose that relationship," says Salter, who had already lost so many. "I started taking school seriously."
Before Nelson, Salter was an average student. "My attention span and reading comprehension was horrible," he recalls. "I didn't do homework because I couldn't sit long enough." Instead he'd start writing one of his fantasies on the typewriter a friend's mother gave him, his most valued possession.
But his passion for self-expression didn't translate to good grades until Salter got transferred to a new school for at-risk kids.
"The requirements were rigorous, but they responded to alternative ways of learning," Salter says. "I was able to verbalize more, rather than having to take written tests."
Salter flourished: "I began to think people expected certain things from me. Before, I had never thought anyone expected anything."
He was valedictorian of his high school class and won a partial college scholarship.
Before graduation, he contacted his brother, something the social services agency had forbidden because Shane Salter had been identified as a bad influence.
Now Salter was hoping it might be different, and he was right: The family that had adopted Keith heard of Shane's accomplishments and allowed the two to meet. Salter stopped having epileptic seizures--and has never had them again, he says.
He chose to attend Elmira College in Upstate New York because it was near his brother. Briefly the two relished each other's company. But it soon became obvious that too much damage had been done. No matter how much they both wanted to, they could not bridge the pain of the past.
Salter had believed his brother was happy. But the truth was that he was angry and jealous. The relationship exploded in "a huge physical fight" outside a bowling alley.
Today, Salter says, he often doesn't know where Keith is living. Recently the younger brother called from somewhere in North Carolina, says Salter, but he still doesn't have a phone number or address.
Hope Shattered and Restored
Salter had expected to graduate from college and get a good job as Nelson had. But before he could finish school, his girlfriend became pregnant. The two married, and Salter opted for instant stability by joining the Navy. Years later he would earn a bachelor's degree in health management from Southern Illinois University. But first, he took care of his family.
Tiffany Monique Salter was born on June 8, 1983. The man who had always wanted a father was a father himself. "I looked at her and saw hope," he says.
Yet by the time Tiffany was 2, Salter and his wife had separated. He says they were "going in different directions."
Meanwhile, Salter bought a new car and made arrangements to drive to New York on a Friday to show it, a symbol of his success, to Nelson: "I wanted to show Joe I was beginning to do what he did," he says.
Salter called first, but the phone just rang.
Five days later, someone from the Red Cross called: His "brother" Joseph Nelson had been found dead in his apartment. A mugger had pushed him into his apartment and crushed his skull with a heavy object.
It was April 4, 1985. The man Shane Salter had chosen as a big brother was dead at the age of 28.
"If I could do anything different," says Salter, his voice fading to a whisper, "it would be for Joe to experience my life now and to understand the influence he had."
Within a week after Nelson's death, Salter was granted custody of Tiffany. "Her mother was not financially . . . capable of handling a child," he says.
He took Tiffany to night school with him, picked out her dresses, cooked big Sunday dinners. When Tiffany was 4, Salter met Gloria Holley, a quiet, gentle woman whom he asked the question he asked every date: "What do you think of adopting children?"
By now, he was committed to adoption. He was determined to give a family to a child who didn't have one. He had to marry someone who agreed.
Holley surprised Salter by explaining that she had been adopted and felt as certain as he did that she wanted to adopt children herself.
A Son Called Shane
They married in May 1989. Soon a daughter, Brittney, was born. Then another, Courtney.
In September 1991, Rico, 6, came to stay with the family. The Salters had met him through an adoption agency and fell in love with him immediately.
"He had such a gentle spirit," Salter says. "I felt he had so much promise that if we could just expose him to some things and give him enough love, he would have unlimited possibilities. It didn't hurt, either, hearing people say he looked like me."
A month before he moved in, Rico was in the kitchen with Shane when the boy pointed to a trophy that said "Shane Salter Sr."
"I want my name to be that, too," the boy said.
For a moment, Salter was caught off guard. "What?" he asked.
"I want to be a junior," Rico said.
He knew the boy wanted proof that he would belong to someone forever. But Salter hesitated, explaining to Rico that he should cherish his own name because his mother had given it to him. So the man and the boy made an agreement: They blended their names and became Shane Lenard Rico Salter Sr.--and Jr.
Shane Jr. had been in foster care since he was 1 year old. His father was an alcoholic. His mother suffered from schizophrenia. The Salters were told that Rico might one day develop the disease. But they didn't know that the sons of mothers with schizophrenia were particularly at risk.
"We thought it was possible, not probable," Salter says. "Truthfully, I don't think it would have made a difference in our decision. But we never watched for it or thought about it again."
He says his son "was a challenging child from the beginning, but he was my first son, so I just thought he was different from the girls because he was a boy."
Little Shane was already seeing a therapist, so the Salters continued the sessions.
"At first, he held it together," recalls Gloria Salter. "Then we saw signs for concern. In school, he wasn't focusing on his work."
The school detected nothing more serious than some behavioral problems. But the Salters noticed that Little Shane was having trouble handling anger. At one point, he punched a hole in the wall.
For a while, that seemed to be the worst of it.
An Explosion of Rage
In 1995, Salter saw a 14-year-old boy named David on a television spot that features children awaiting adoption. He was struck by something David said. The reporter had asked why, at his age, he still wanted to be adopted.
"When I'm 32 years old, I'm going to still need to have a place to go back to, a place to take my children back to," Salter recalls him saying. The message resonated.
Once again the Salters went through adoption procedures.
For a while, Salter felt completely fulfilled. With David, he could have serious talks about life and see before his eyes how he could mold a boy into a man. The two shared a huge point of reference.
"I would meet him at the library to tutor him after school," Salter recalls. "We began talking about the frustration we both felt with the counselors in our group homes who didn't seem to really care about us.
"I remember David said, 'Where did they get them from?' and I thought 'That's exactly what I used to think.' "
The whole family went to basketball games at Chantilly High School, to see Tiffany, now 16, play. Salter relished the fact that his daughter, playing organized sports before her cheering family, was doing something that had always been out of reach for him.
His younger girls--Courtney, 8, and Brittney, 9, are always tugging and pulling at him. When he sits at his computer, one of them stands behind him, hugging his neck. If he sits on the sofa, they vie for a seat beside him. When he stands, one of them jumps on his back.
Little Shane satisfied the boyishness in a grown man. At home, father and son wrestled, tossed a football and went fishing.
But the idyll didn't last. Little Shane's temper tantrums grew increasingly frequent.
"He got angry at things that didn't make sense, like if somebody looked at him," Salter says. "The other children in the family started warning me. They would say, 'You should see how he looks at Mom sometimes.' He would look at her with such rage when she told him to do something."
Salter thought back to his own anger at being abandoned as a child. But Shane's feelings seemed more violent. After one argument with his parents, their son broke a window. With his fist.
Then in 1995, he was hospitalized for depression.
"He was flat, not responding to anything," Salter says. "He didn't play, didn't get excited. Now I realize he was hiding a lot of his anger."
Gloria woke up late one night and, not finding Shane in his bed, searched until she found him playing with matches and candles.
The Salters began to consult doctors, not knowing time was running out.
In August of 1996, the couple was on a business trip in Texas when things exploded at home. They got a call from Salter's grandmother, who had been staying with the kids. Even over the phone, Salter could hear glass crashing to the floor and objects smashing against the walls. He told his grandmother to call the police.
"The thought of calling the police on my own child was more than I could have ever imagined," he says. "But it was out of protection for everybody--including Shane."
When the police arrived, Salter told them by phone that, because he and his wife were away, he felt the boy needed to be removed from the home. "They said they would take him to a juvenile detention center," he recalls, pausing for a nervous half-cough.
They put the crying boy on the phone. His father told him they'd straighten everything out when he returned, but now, because he could not behave safely, he had to go with the police. "He said okay. It was like he understood."
The next morning, Salter was on a plane headed home.
David had tried to clean up the evidence of Little Shane's rage. But there was no hiding it. Everything had changed.
The Law Steps In
Schizophrenia, says psychiatrist Peter Weiden, director of the Schizophrenia Research Program at St. Luke's-Roosevelt Hospital Center in New York City, is arguably the most crippling of mental illnesses, afflicting an estimated 2 million Americans. Most are stricken in adolescence or early adulthood.
"We've learned that the recovery process is very slow, measured in years. But that's different than no recovery at all," Weiden says. The cost of treatment generally runs from $20,000 to $60,000 a year, "well beyond the means of most parents. The family is put in an impossible situation."
The Salters' medical insurance did not cover the long-term residential treatment Shane needed. Fairfax County, where the family lived, would pay for it only if he was charged with, and convicted of, assaulting his siblings.
Salter remembers being in a county office where juvenile authorities and detectives suggested that charging Little Shane would assure that he would get appropriate help.
"I was still in shock about what was happening. I was angry, too, seeing how judgmental these people were--to the point of questioning why would we want to keep him anyway."
He and his wife felt too pressured to seek legal advice, Shane said, especially since they couldn't afford it. Time was running out. They had to make a decision.
"We said, 'Right, okay. Whatever it takes to get him the services he needs, we'll do it,' " Salter recalls.
Little Shane was charged with assault and placed on probation.
The Salters have second-guessed that decision ever since. Following police procedures, Little Shane, now considered a juvenile offender, was handcuffed when his parents saw him in court.
"To see our baby in handcuffs . . ." says Gloria, her voice trailing off. "Your heart is breaking."
Free at Last
Inside the Salter home in Chantilly, on a table near the front door, is one of those posed family portraits taken in front of a backdrop by a photographer at Wal-Mart.
Everybody laughed as they struggled to find the right pose. Finally, one worked. Salter and Gloria sat. He held Courtney, Gloria held Brittney. Tiffany stood behind her mom. David stood in the very back, and right behind Dad was his namesake, Little Shane.
"Then we rushed home and got out of those clothes," Salter says.
That was the last family photo taken before Shane Jr. was hospitalized. Now the father can't bear taking another one, not with one piece of the family missing.
"I have gone through the period of disorientation when I felt as if someone had died but there was no funeral," says Shane Sr. "The kid I knew is no longer the kid I have. But I am hopeful my son is coming home one day."
Each Salter misses Little Shane in big ways and ways too small to measure. How he kept them laughing with his corny jokes, his talk about becoming a surgeon like the doctors on "ER." How he tossed out facts about snakes and bugs he learned from the nature shows and books he loved.
Meanwhile there were battles with the District, Fairfax County, the couple's insurance company and social workers over who was paying for Shane's treatment and how much they were willing to spend, Salter says. Fairfax said the D.C. government should pay, since Little Shane had been a ward of the city. The District said it did not have the funds.
In the end, the Salters' insurance covered part of the cost of treatment and the District paid the rest, thanks to a pre-adoption agreement that pledged to cover "expenses related to his emotional illness."
In the fall of 1997, the couple found the KidsPeace center in Orefield, Pa. At the time, it was the closest residential facility for kids with schizophrenia. So for almost three years, making the long drive to visit Little Shane there was a monthly family ritual. They ate dinner at the local Outback Steakhouse, bought CDs and clothes for Little Shane at Kmart, and then drove to the center, where, in the peach orchard, the father played tag with his children.
During one fall visit, the family even went fishing when Little Shane led them to a nearby creek. On that day, he was a gentle, witty, sweet-faced teenager with no sign of illness.
The girls tired quickly of the quiet sport.
"Why do people fish?" asked Brittney.
Little Shane threw in his line and dragged it slowly across the water, concentrating. A few minutes later, his father sneaked up behind him and touched his neck softly. His son jumped.
"What's that for?" the boy asked.
"To see how sensitive you are," his father replied.
"Don't mess with a fisherman," Little Shane said, smiling.
A few months later, he was severely depressed again. His emotions were out of sync with reality, his father says. "He got violent, lashing out at the staff. He had uncontrollable mood swings."
The Salters recently persuaded Fairfax authorities to place the boy in a new facility closer to home.
So now he is at the Piedmont Behavioral Center in Fairfax, a half-hour from his family. They visit him every Sunday. Gloria sometimes drops by for lunch. Little Shane has improved. His family thinks it's because of the more frequent visits. But no one knows for sure.
In fact, his condition so improved that, in July, he earned a pass home. But his probation officer would not allow him to leave the facility. The Salters were shocked and outraged. Fairfax officials would not discuss the case with a reporter.
This wasn't the first point of tension between the family and the county. Several weeks earlier, the Salters refused to allow the probation officer to look at their son's medical records.
"Why should we give full access to his records to people who are going to use it against him?" asks Salter, who believed the records would be used to place his son in a more restrictive juvenile offender facility rather than a treatment program.
Fairfax County responded by subpoenaing the Salters and Piedmont's director Dana O'Connor. Lawyers wanted at least a $2,000 retainer fee, so the Salters walked into the closed hearing alone. A county-appointed lawyer represented the son. Shane Sr. would speak for the family.
"The judge kept talking about how important it was to keep Little Shane on probation," Gloria Salter recalled later. "He went on and on about how the probation officer had rights to go into his record."
The judge warned that probation was the only thing that kept Little Shane from walking away from the hospital.
"You're not hearing what I'm saying," Shane Sr. said.
Gloria Salter thought her husband was stepping over the line, that the judge would react with anger.
But the judge listened.
A dam of emotion broke inside Salter. He spoke for a long time with barely suppressed passion, saying, in gist: The only reason my son was brought through this system was that we were told he would be given certain resources, which we've never received. You wouldn't have known he existed if we hadn't told you. He is our son, and we just wanted to make sure that whatever he needs, he gets. Then once we came to you, we were told, "We don't have any money."
This seemed to catch the judge by surprise, the Salters recall. "He said, 'You mean the incident happened inside your home? You brought your son here to us? Case dismissed. Your son is no longer on probation.' "
By the time they left the courtroom, Gloria Salter was crying. The director of the Piedmont center was crying. "He was awesome," O'Connor said of Salter.
Still shaking with emotion, Salter walked out proud of himself for fighting for his son.
"I did it," he said.
When Salter visited Little Shane the next weekend, he found that the boy had a pass and was ready to come home with him, his first visit home in three years.
"I heard a strange voice in the house and listened, and it was Shane," says Gloria, her voice cracking.
On his next visit, they plan to go to Six Flags.