Read Lori Gertz's blog about her family's struggles at gertz-pileofideas.blogspot.com. She also
has a book in the works, Not of My Womb: Parenting the Legacy
of an Addict
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Lori Gertz walks gently through her daughter's fairytale
bedroom, as if the little princess were taking her afternoon
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
"Ellie is a cute, lovely and beautiful girl," Gertz says. "Until
This mercurial behavior went on every day, every week, every
month for years.
Tantrums. Screaming. Aggression. Anger. Meltdowns. Frustration.
"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
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.
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
"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.
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
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
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
"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
No one in the family has gone unscathed from the tremors, but
especially Jonah and Talia. The whole family is in therapy and
"I'm happy that Ellie is happy," says Talia, through her
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
"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."
Jerry Davich is a Chicago-area dad and writer.
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