In adoption, Chicago family felt helpless to combat little girl's special needs
Tuesday, January 25, 2011
Lori Gertz walks gently through her daughter's fairytale bedroom, as if the little princess were taking her afternoon nap.
She glides past a sign trumpeting "Ellie" underneath a queen's crown. She pats the fluffy pillows, adorned with animal prints, and glances fondly at the walls, painted with soft-as-a-kiss pastels of smiling pets, dancing flowers and fluttering butterflies.
But it's been more than seven months since Gertz and her husband, Craig, sent their adopted 7-year-old daughter, Ellie, to live with another family across the country. Like a phantom limb that's been amputated to rescue a dying body, Ellie had to be removed from the family's idyllic home in Long Grove.
"Ellie may have left months ago, but she is still here in many, many ways," says Gertz, walking past a telltale poster in the hallway outside Ellie's bedroom: "Always kiss me good night."
Easier said than done for Gertz, the first to hold and feed Ellie, an 8-pound bundle of joy born to a 34-year-old New Jersey mother. Immediately after birth, Ellie cried and screamed as if she knew her tortured fate in life. But Gertz had no idea.
"I couldn't soothe her from her first cry. We just assumed she had colic," Gertz recalls. "But it wasn't that."
Unknown to Gertz throughout the open adoption process and for years afterward, Ellie was conceived in a crack house. Her mother was a self-medicating user with mental illness. After years of doing LSD, PCP, crystal meth and drinking alcohol, she was forced into sobriety behind bars.
"That's how Ellie even survived the pregnancy, because her mother was jailed for half of it," Gertz says.
Ellie, however, came into this world with brain damage from Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder (caused by in-utero exposure to alcohol), severe emotional problems and a heart-wrenching detachment from her new parents and older brother, Jonah, then 4.
"Ellie is a cute, lovely and beautiful girl," Gertz says. "Until she isn't."
This mercurial behavior went on every day, every week, every month for years.
Tantrums. Screaming. Aggression. Anger. Meltdowns. Frustration. Rage.
"She was locked and loaded from birth," Gertz says with a sigh. "But I blamed myself for the first three years of her life. What mother wouldn't?"
Ellie's biological mother, whose demons returned after giving birth to the girl, committed suicide in September 2006 from a drug overdose. Ellie was just 3, yet she had already pulled her adoptive mother-who was eight months pregnant with her second biological child-down a flight of stairs.
Things only went downhill from there.
Missing puzzle piece
The Gertzes used a private, open adoption to obtain Ellie, conducted piecemeal through attorneys, social workers and adoption agencies. The adoption was finalized when Ellie was 7 months old, but by then the couple already had their hands full.
They went through nannies and babysitters like babies go through diapers and formula. They also sought help from dozens of doctors, specialists, therapists, neurologists and psychiatrists who diagnosed myriad possibilities. But none of the experts suggested the birth mother suffered from alcohol abuse or drug addiction or that Ellie was a victim of Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder.
The birth mother was no help. Neither were her medical records. The Gertzes only found out about it later in Ellie's life, from the birth mother's brother.
"The mother told us she only smoked one cigarette a day, and that she had a back problem," Gertz recalls. "I'm not naïve, but I wanted to believe everything she told me."
The Gertzes learned they didn't do enough of their homework beforehand.
"We learned we never really had the social welfare piece to this complex puzzle," Gertz says. "If we did, someone would have noticed the birth mother's mental illness problems or addiction issues, and we would have explored the possibility that her baby may have serious problems. We would then have had a choice to go through with it or not."
Their choice was made with their hearts more than their heads. With Craig being an attorney and Lori a writer and marketing specialist, they were able to pay whatever it cost.
"We paid people to do due diligence and they didn't do it thoroughly," Gertz says. "They did their legal job but not their social welfare job."
The Gertzes would still have adopted Ellie, but the information would have made things easier early on.
Since Ellie's birth in 2003, legal safeguards have been put into place for adoptive parents in similar situations.
In 2005, Illinois passed House Bill 3628, also known as the Adoption Reform Act, providing sweeping new protections for adoptive families and birth parents alike. The bill also required all adoption agencies to become nonprofit organizations, moving Illinois to become a national model of protecting families during the adoption process.
"It was too late for us, but it doesn't have to be for other adoptive parents," Gertz says.
To 'think the unthinkable'
Ellie's behavior problems worsened through the years. Almost every road trip, daily errand or family outing ended prematurely, often with her kicking or screaming. The couple even began driving two vehicles to every outing-one an "escape vehicle" to drive Ellie back home.
Piles of toys, horseback-riding lessons, countless hugs and kisses, and even a classroom-like art therapy room in the basement didn't lessen the outbursts or the anger. Ellie's IQ stood no chance against her mood swings. By 6, she had already attempted suicide several times.
"This was her nature-versus-nurture legacy," Gertz says.
She also became combative to her family, including her two siblings, Jonah, now 11, and Talia, 5, who was beaten often-and influenced profoundly-by her big sister's disruptive antics.
Jonah would often be the young voice of reason during Ellie's explosions, telling his mother, "Remember, Mom, she has brain damage."
Ellie struggled through multiple visits to clinics, hospitals and specialists to remedy her uncontrollable outbursts. Prescription drugs didn't work. Psychologists didn't get through, either. Residential treatment was recommended but at a possible cost of $160,000 annually and with no promises.
The Gertzes had already paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for various treatments. None worked, at least not enough to bring peace and safety to the edgy household.
This past spring, the volatile situation exploded in the family's faces. Ellie told her teachers her mother was abusing her. Although untrue, it prompted the Gertzes to finally follow the recommendation of a Washington State therapist and "think the unthinkable"-sending Ellie away.
On June 8, Lori and Craig sent 7-year-old Ellie to live with another family in Washington State. The family is believed to be better equipped to deal with Ellie's mental illness and behavior problems. Craig, who was also adopted at birth, drove Ellie to the airport.
"Two days ago, I had to give up guardianship of my adopted daughter, who has been diagnosed with FASD, bipolar [disorder], and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder," Gertz told Chicago Parent in June.
"She went to another family in another state because I could not get her the services she needed in the state of Illinois. We suffered at the hand of her domestic violence for the past four years without so much as a smidgen of help from our community."
Since Ellie left, the Gertzes figured things would become more quiet and peaceful. They didn't figure that ripples from Ellie's existence there would still rock their world.
"Although there is a new quiet here, we all have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder," Gertz says. "You can take the trigger away, but the programming remains and we are still responding to one another as though the trauma is still happening."
She compares it to an earthquake.
"During such a frightening act, there is total loss of control and only the most animal instincts to save oneself and those beloved around us," Gertz wrote in her blog, which for four years has served as a personal journal and resource guide for other parents.
No one in the family has gone unscathed from the tremors, but especially Jonah and Talia. The whole family is in therapy and grief counseling.
"I'm happy that Ellie is happy," says Talia, through her mother.
The formal contract with Ellie's new family in Washington State is called a third-party guardianship, transferring every facet of her upbringing for one year. The Gertzes still pay for her care, including a monthly stipend, medical needs and schooling. This June, both families will reconvene to decide what's best for her.
"Ellie is an incredibly difficult, oppositional and challenging little girl who would, for example, run out into traffic for no reason," Gertz says. "But we don't regret adopting her, and we still love her with all our hearts."