By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
For David Mallamo, fantasy has always been kinder than reality. At fifteen, with scruffy brown hair and glasses, he resembles his hero, Harry Potter -- a boy who's abused by his family but finds power and adventure in an alternate world.
Now living in his tenth home since birth, David learned early of the impermanence of human bonds. He says he doesn't have a single friend in the world: Other kids don't get him, and neither do adults.
"I like a lot of things that other kids don't like, so we don't get along a lot of the time," David says. "My dad has always told me that I am special. I have my own way of looking at things, because I have imagination. A lot of the people, the kids, they don't use their imagination."
When David uses his imagination, he dreams of being a different person, living a life much different from his own.
Paul and Susan Mallamo didn't know much about seven-year-old David when they adopted him through Pueblo County in 1996. But they knew that they wanted to enlarge their family, and they were willing to take a chance on the brown-eyed boy so many others had given up on.
The first time the couple met David, he struck them as small and hyperactive -- so excited he couldn't stop moving.
"His whole body was shaking," recalls Susan. "He was bouncing off the walls. He said he just wanted a family, but he'd been afraid no one would adopt him because he had freckles."
Because David was an older child who had spent more than half his life in Colorado's child-welfare system, he was considered at high risk for developmental and behavioral problems. A caseworker in the Pueblo County Department of Social Services suspected that his biological parents suffered from mental illness and had abused David. The foster parents he'd been living with most recently said he'd been disciplined at home and school for "strange behaviors" and had a hard time separating reality from make-believe.
But the Mallamos wanted David anyway. "They probably could have told us that he was the son of Dracula and it wouldn't have mattered to us," Paul says. "That was our inexperience. We were living in a small town; we were very unrealistic and maybe even cocky in our parenting. We thought, 'Well, he hasn't been our kid yet.' Let's see what we can do."
They felt uniquely equipped to deal with whatever came along. Paul holds a degree in psychology from Brigham Young University, where he and Susan met as students; they were married in 1973. Before moving to Colorado from Utah, Paul worked at both a residential-services program for youths and in a psychiatric hospital. In Pagosa Springs, where the family was living at the time of David's adoption, Susan worked as a substitute teacher and also studied alternative healing therapies. The Mallamos already had three children -- one biological son, then eighteen, and thirteen-year-old twin girls adopted privately as infants in Utah -- and considered themselves able parents. (The names of the children in this story, including David's, have been changed.)
But David challenged their parenting right from the start. On his first night in the family home, he spent most of his time in the bathroom, screaming uncontrollably. Soon he began fighting with Paul and Susan, threatening to call social services when they disciplined him. Although he resisted the couple's attempts to show him affection, he hugged complete strangers.
Two months into his stay in the Mallamo home, David tried to hang the family dog.
The thoughts that David shared with his new parents were peppered with disturbing recollections. He said he remembered sleeping on a department-store bed after his birth parents had abandoned him at the mall; he said he'd called 911 numerous times by the time he was three. Confused by the interplay between his biological mother's fervent Christianity and his new family's Mormon beliefs, he was afraid to go near air ducts because he feared the Devil would pop out of them.
"You have an idea that whatever is going on with the child, you can find a way to love it out of them," says Paul. "We thought that maybe by exposing him to a new world of stimulation and taste, we might be able to open him up, to tap into some of the charm and brightness that we suspected was there."
"He had absolutely zero intellectual stimulation in his earliest years," says Susan. "We thought we could just redirect him."
In late 1996, the family moved to Lakewood, and Paul got a job as a counselor and case manager at Lookout Mountain Youth Services Center in Golden, one of the primary facilities used by the Colorado Department of Corrections. They took in a succession of foster children -- an arrangement that brought in additional income and allowed Susan to stay home with the kids. Soon after the move, David enrolled at Hutchinson Elementary School, where he repeated first grade because of his poor reading skills. When the Mallamos first met him, he could spell only about ten words.