Nowhere Boy

His biological parents didn't want him -- but to get him the help he needs, his adoptive parents must give him up.

"Most people going into these adoptions don't understand the impact that these children can have, even when they have some information as adoptive parents," says Maura Klene, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Fetal Alcohol Syndrome Resource Center. "Or they think that the problems will be easy to get out of. They'll think, 'Oh, he'll be all right. I've heard about trouble with adoptions, but not my kid.' When that reality sets in, it can be very, very difficult."

"A great many children that come through the system are abused or neglected, if not exposed to drugs and alcohol," says Jan Tomski, clinical director of Adoptive Family Resources, an outreach and advocacy agency in Denver. "People don't understand the amount of trauma that a lot of these kids have been through."

According to Tomski, many adoptive parents don't understand the trauma that children with problems as serious as David's can inflict on their new families. And many parents who find themselves unequipped to deal with their troubled children say they don't receive support from a system or a society that places responsibility for a child's problems on the parents.

Anthony Camera
A family affair: After eight years, Susan and Paul 
Mallamo say they can no longer care for their adopted 
son, David.
Anthony Camera
A family affair: After eight years, Susan and Paul Mallamo say they can no longer care for their adopted son, David.

"The attitude is, 'Why can't the parents take care of this kid?'" Tomski says. "But you get a kid who was abused horrifically, you put an attachment disorder on top of something like fetal alcohol syndrome -- it's something that cannot be cured with parenting. It's like trying to make eyeglasses for your child, or trying to treat cancer at home."

No official count exists on the number of adoptions that fail each year in this state. But some parents who find themselves unable to care for their high-risk child feel they have no choice but to give him up, terminating their parental rights and putting the child back in the system. In addition to the emotional upheaval caused by such a move, individuals who terminate their parental rights in Colorado also risk having their names added to a central registry of child abusers.

The Mallamos say that giving up on David was never an option. Their confidence in their ability to help him was bolstered by protections guaranteed as part of his adoption contract, which originated in Pueblo County and was finalized in Jefferson County in 1998. In addition to a monthly stipend for child-care expenses, the contract guaranteed David full coverage under Medicaid, the state- and federally funded health-care program. That entitlement would cover everything from David's general health needs, such as eye exams and immunizations, to specialized mental-health-care treatments. It was their safety net, their assurance that they'd always have help, no matter how bad things got.

But when they needed help the most, the Mallamos say, the system punished them for asking.

"It's just so cold the way things work," Paul notes. "When you're there and you're one of the parents that comes along who's interested in adopting a child -- and those are few and far between -- it's so sweet and cozy and ŒWe'll give you this and that.' That's until you sign on the dotted line, and then it's, 'See ya.' There's very little distinction made between infant and older adoptions, but the differences are tremendous, and by the time you figure that out, you're pretty much on your own."

As adolescence dawned, David's troublesome behaviors escalated. There were new, sexual undertones to his personality, and the Mallamos worried about leaving him alone with Molly, the newest addition to their family -- a young girl adopted from Denver County in 1999. On a trip with members of a church youth group, David asked two girls to remove their tops and was incredulous when the horrified girls reported the incident to a church leader, who told the Mallamos. Paul once found David downloading porn on a computer in the middle of a busy public library, completely unaware that it was inappropriate.

"I remember being that age and how crazy that whole time is," says Paul. "You think about a child who's already got such severe confusion about the world coming into that period, and you've got a real problem on your hands."

There was also a new violence to David, who was no longer a little boy but a lanky young man. One day at church, he pinned an adult member of the congregation against a wall and wouldn't release him for several minutes. A male therapist called Paul after an upsetting session with David, who'd shown up with satellite photos of the man's home that he'd downloaded from the Internet.

"He asked me, 'Is this something that I should be worried about? Is he going to come and do some harm to me or my family?'" Paul recalls. "I've always felt that he wouldn't really do anything to hurt anyone -- and if he did, he would feel terrible about it. But the older he got and the bigger he got, it became a real concern, because it's an untested area. You just don't know what he would do."

David was slated to enter Dunstan Middle School in the fall of 2002, but his parents questioned the school's ability to deal with him. They requested that Jefferson County Public Schools put him in a facility for special-needs kids, but they were convinced by the school and the district that Dunstan would be able to handle whatever problems David had. Dunstan had a comprehensive program for special-needs students and employed a full-time psychologist, who saw David weekly.

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