Today is the Blog Blitz for Evelyn and Stephanie Bennett (see previous blog). After reading the background of the case, and listening to yesterday’s radio broadcast, troubling questions on all sides remain and are too complicated to comment on without more information and clarification. Adoption law can be very complex. What is legal is not always ethical. What is ethical is not always legal. What is right gets lost in the shuffle. Family dynamics are even more tangled.
That said, since the story broke at the end of 2006 that “Baby Evelyn” had been spirited away to the ethically impaired A Child’s Waiting adoption mill, I’ve been very concerned about Stephanie Bennett. Since the Bennetts live in my hometown, Canton, Ohio, I’ve taken a personal interest in the case, though I never got around to writing about it. Certainly mistakes were made all around, and as the facts of the case emerge, these mistakes loom large in ways I never expected. Nonetheless, nobody deserves to lose their child or grandchild over those mistakes. Horrible things have been done to Stephanie Bennett and her family in the name of adoption. These wrongs need exposed and righted. Evelyn needs to come home.
When I read that A Child’s Waiting worked this slight-of-hand trick, I knew it was trouble. ACW is one of those adoption agencies that meet with eye-rolls amongst Ohio adoption reformers. I first heard about ACW in 2004 when the agency offered up a pregnant teen and her as-yet born child to the notorious 20/20 Barbara Walters, Be My Baby lottery. To refresh your memory, a teenage girl “in trouble” was followed around by 20/20 cameras while she decided which of 3 pap (prospectives adoptive parents) contestants…I mean couples… she’d choose to give her kid to at the end of the show.
Now, a lot of media adoption stunts don’t bother me. Although others cringe, I love adoption reunion shows. I see nothing wrong with the latest liberal bete noir The Robinsons. Remember Who’s Your Daddy? (Bastardette 7/25/02–scroll down) which all of AdoptionLand turned purple over except Bastard Nation, Ron Morgan, and Lorraine Dusky? Be My Baby, though, was quite another story. In a rare moment of “agreement” Bastard Nation, the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, and the National Council for Adoption condemned the show. BN christened it Bowling for Babies. EBD called it “tainted by faulty stereotypes and problematic practices.” NCFA compared it to The Bachelorette. Private and public Internet adoption boards and forums, and the ABC discussion board lit up. The press smelled red meat. Pre-broadcast publicity was so bad that ABC is suspected of re-editing the show (and certainly the promo) to tone it down. How dare we not get a kick from bread and circus baybee auction? ACW’s involvement in the show, of course, was not about drumming up business. No…“It is a thoughtful report on the process of open adoption that we think will be of interest to the American people,” ACW told Fox News. It was “educational.” Just like this is “educational” too, I bet!
Later I learned more about ACW. The agency was (surprise!) not a benevolent non-profit but a for-profit limited liability corporation with a bad rep. It had been involved in several questionable adoption cases including some documented by Dan and Elizabeth Case in their own personal and painful adoption horror story, Beware of BBAS!: An Experiment in Literary Investigation (see the Hyer and Ponish stories). ACW conducted the Gerald and Bonnie Hyer home study for the adoption of their daughter Kelsey from Russia. Gerald was later convicted of felonious assault and child abuse for severing Kelsey’s spine and paralyzing her for life; Bonnie, for evidence tampering and permitting child abuse. In 2001, according to the Cleveland Plain Dealer, ACW was involved in the placement of a child in the home of Michael and Sharen Gravelle, convicted in 2006 of child abuse for caging at least 8 of their 11 special needs adopted children in their basement. “We had no reason to believe they [the Gravelles] would do anything inappropriate,” said Crissy Kolarik from ACW. “I have nothing negative to say about the family” Allegedly, the state has investigated additional complaints about the agency, but I don’t have those complaints and can’t verify. Relevant to the Bennetts, though, the Ohio Department of Jobs and Family Services, in an investigation dated December 27, 2006, determined that ACW was out of compliance in Evelyn’s placement. I have a copy of that document. Corrections by the agency are pending.
THE DONE DEAL
100 years ago the “cadet” played an important role in prostitution. He recruited naive women, often without family or social support and unfamiliar with urban life, into the business, through promises of respectable work or even marriage. ACW lists a similar job on its roster: child recruiter. Unhappily, no job description is posted. The term, however, conjures up visions of trench-coated, slouch-hatted adoption agents trolling high schools, universities, malls, shelters, and Starbucks ferreting out young pregnant women, socially isolated, maybe poor, and uninformed about ethical pregnancy plans or just plain confused or scared for their future. The myth of benevolent win-win adoption runs deep. Figures of trust—school counselors, clergy, for example– often just as naive about the lifelong implications of uninformed adoption– seem all too happy to collude with Ms. Whiplash when she approaches them to sell her wares.
This is the wolf nest into which Stephanie Bennett was led on September 8, 2006 by her GlenOak High School guidance counselor Thomas Saltsman. Neither Saltsman nor GlenOak High School is talking. Stephanie says that when she went to him to discuss a class change, the discussion turned to 5-month old Evelyn, who her parents were caring for while she was at school. She says, though I’m unclear if she told this to Saltsman that day, that the baby’s father had made a series of threats against Stephanie and her family warning her to “get rid of the baby” and she was afraid. Saltsman, according to her account, simply reached into a drawer pulled out an ACW brochure, and the deed was in motion. The next day the ACW agent appeared at the school and with allegedly no counseling, no independent legal advice, and no family discussion, Stephanie signed preliminary surrender papers. Saltsman witnessed her signature. Stephanie says now that she felt trapped, and didn’t know that she could have refused to complete the process. Four days later, Stephanie, upon the advice of ACW, she says, ran away from home with Evelyn in the middle of the night to complete the adoption “plan” and turn Evelyn over to ACW. Stephanie was 17 and a minor under Ohio law. Her parents, Judy and Ranza Bennett, knowing none of the back story, called the police when she went missing. Stephanie’s picture appeared on the Ohio Attorney General’s missing children page. If ACW did indeed encourage her to run away, it could in my opinion, be charged with interference of custody. And hopefully, more.
Schools are not supposed to tear families apart. Why was adoption surrender, especially of a much-loved 5-month old baby living with her mother and in extended family care, considered a normal day’s work?
I must sound like an old nanny goat, but what in the world was Saltsman thinking? I cannot imagine my own guidance counselor, the onerous Helen Gatchell at Lincoln High School, taking a task of such importance upon herself. She told girls that they shouldn’t continue Spanish, or reprimanded them for their slutty tight skirts, or helped them choose a career or college path– but “arranging” a fast track surrender and adoption without counseling or legal advice? She probably would have stuck thumb tacks in her eyes rather than commit such a stupid, unethical act.
Stephanie is certainly allowed to make her own informed decision regarding the adoption of Evelyn. She should be allowed to do that. But how legal or ethical or educated is a decision of such magnitude when those who hold the information for right decision-making purposefully withhold that information?
We expect bad behavior from A Child’s Waiting. Saltsman is another story. He is a public employee. His job is to facilitate reasoned discussion, ethical treatment of students and their families, and principled decision making–not to break up families. That he didn’t even pretend to encourage much less require genuine family communication and counseling, real family preservation and adoption counseling, and legitimate legal assistance boggles the mind. Maybe it was late in the afternoon and he and Ms. Whiplash wanted to hit John’s Bar.
I have looked at ethical standards for school counselors. They are general and up to interpretation. Saltsman may hover in a gray area and I wouldn’t be surprised if a compliant Plain Township Board of Education covers his ass, since they’re trying to get a levy passed next month. The Canton Repository, for unknown reasons, has not covered the Bennett case. As the levy approaches, how happy would Plain Township parents and grandparents be to know that their money was going towards stealing babies and students away in the middle of the night and breaking up families?
In October 2006, Stephanie’s parents were granted temporary custody of Evelyn, but the order was overturned. Stephanie has a new lawyer and has filed to revoke her surrender. She will have to prove mistake, fraud, duress, undue influence, pre-journalization, or misrepresentation. From the looks of it, she may be able to do some of that. No hearing date is set.
I have no doubt that Evelyn’s paps love her and hope to finalize her adoption. ACW’s has reportedly told them hold tight.
I have never understood why anyone would hold tight to a child that is not theirs when that child, absent abuse or neglect, is dearly loved and wanted by her or his natural family and belongs with them. As an adoptee, and as a human being, I would not have the nerve— nor the bad morals—to keep that child away from its natural family. Evelyn was thrown into the adoption mill due to the negligence and greed of others and out of fear. She and her family should not be separated and eternally punished for that. Doing the right thing will painful. Evelyn’s paps should listen to their hearts, not an adoption agency with bad mojo who only wants their money. They should send her home.
Ohio is fast becoming the new Florida. The new New Jersey. Its foster care and adoption programs are in disarray. A week seldom passes without some new tale of incompetence, malfeasance, or even death. Russian adoptees Liam Thompson (Columbus) and Maria Bennett (Lancaster—no relation to Stephanie) were murdered by their adoptive parents; Kelsey Hyer (Akron) was paralyzed for life by her adoptive parents. Michael and Sharon Gravelle (Huron County) were convicted of child abuse for keeping most of their 11 special needs adopted children in cages and physically abusing them. In August 2006, Liz and Michael Carroll (Cincinnati) were charged with murder after they bound their developmentally disabled 3-year old foster child, Marcus Feisel, in a blanket with strapping tape and left him in a closet for 3 days when they went out of town. They found him dead when they returned; removed the body to rural Brown county, and incinerated it. They were sentenced to life and 16 years- life respectively for murder.
Ohio needs to clean up its private and public child welfare system. It needs to investigate every county children services and every private adoption agency starting with A Child’s Waiting.
She needs to come home. Now!