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With Troubled Kids, Sometimes Love Is Not Enough

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — She is a good girl, her parents say. Pretty, bright, sweet, a joy they chose to bring into their home when she was 9.

Those terrible things that happened to her before they adopted her – the violence of her tattered family, the drugs, the molestation when she was so small, so innocent – appeared to leave no lasting marks.

“They kept saying what a resilient child she was,” her father told me.

Calling All Angels
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But there was damage.

The scars of her earlier life had not shown themselves until adolescence, though looking back now there had been signs all along that all was not right with their angel. She stole from them in those early days, she quietly betrayed their trust as she smiled and set the table they shared. They thought it was simply behavior she had learned from the criminal elements of her biological family. It could be unlearned with example, guidance and love, they thought.

But the behaviors escalated. Pilfering pocket change became stealing cars and diamond rings. On the outside, she was still their beautiful good girl, now 17, but inside she was disconnected and drawing down into a place her parents could not reach.

She was diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder – typical afflictions adopted children suffer because of the grief, loss and trauma they incur in those first crucial years of life.

Thousands of dollars’ worth of therapy, hospitalizations, inpatient treatment, juvenile justice intervention, transfers to different high schools, books, experts, even yoga have done little to stop her descent into darkness and her parents into despair.

“We don’t know where else to turn,” her father told me. “Basically, in New Mexico, there is nothing left.”

I spoke with her parents the day the Journal reported on its front page that a 14-year-old boy named Tony Day had been accused of shooting his adopted mother and stabbing his adopted sister, leaving both women dead in their Tucumcari home.

Why this horror occurred in a family that from all outward appearances seemed devoted to giving foster and adoptive children a good, stable and loving home is unknown at this point, if such a thing can ever be understood.

But to parents of adopted children like the girl’s – like me – such tragedy is extreme but not unimaginable.

For adopted children, especially those who come from abusive and neglectful homes, sometimes love is not enough to heal the wounds. Sometimes, children who do monstrous things are not monsters.

Many parents enter into an adoption with an open heart but closed eyes, unprepared for their child’s traumas, developmental delays, troubling behaviors and an aftercare system that provides little in the way of care or comfort.

Quite often, the ghosts of a child’s origins don’t appear until the teenage hormones kick in, long after the state foster care system or private adoption agency has left the family to sink or swim on its own.

New Mexico has a dearth of appropriate residential treatment centers, child psychiatrists and therapists, and a struggling adoptive family feels isolated indeed.

The girl’s parents placed her in several local treatment centers, most filled with teens more damaged and dangerous than she, until, they say, they were forced to place her in a facility in Utah – at a cost of $400 a day.

Medicaid, which helps pay the health costs of some children adopted from the state foster care system, is balking at the price tag.

“It’s almost as if they would prefer we give up on our child and throw her back into foster care,” the father said. “They make me feel I am the dumbest person in the world to have ever adopted a child like her.”

Adoptive parents often feel defeated, alone, ashamed that the love and stability they thought would result in a happy family and a happily-ever-after ending is simply not sufficient. I know parents who sob each night, hearts broken, unable to lessen the pain their child endures and the collateral damage inflicted upon the rest of the family.

I am one of those sobbing parents, though I am luckier than most: Extended family stepped in to help care for a son who could no longer function as part of my household. He is now 19 and in college, something that seemed impossible just two years ago.

This year, another son has been in a psychiatric hospital twice. He has been on and off medication, on and off the streets. I have had to call sheriff’s deputies twice to my home when our lives were endangered because of his rages.

What happened in Tucumcari seems too close for comfort.

For the parents of the girl, violence has not been the issue. But the frustration of not being able to find something that works for their daughter, that Medicaid will pay for, that keeps her with them, has.

They’ve agreed to allow me to follow their fight to find something that helps them hold on to her, that keeps her safe and keeps them safe, too.

She is worth it, they say. She is their daughter.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Joline at 823-3603, or follow her on Twitter @jolinegkg. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal