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A boy's nightmare odyssey: Who will give him love, care?

The blue-eyed little boy lived in a small house with his schizophrenic mother, a one-legged old man and some 30 street cats. One night there was a gunshot. A policewoman came to the door.

She found the boy, 3, naked and bruised. He was playful but strange. When she asked him questions, he did not speak. He meowed. And growled. And crinkled his nose like a kitten.

The boy sometimes ate dried cat food from bowls on the floor, she learned later. For hours at a time, he played at the end of a child's harness while the grown-ups watched TV.

The boy "was being raised as one of 32 cats," his court- appointed advocate, Linda Binder, later told a judge.

His mother adamantly denied it.

In the secretive world of family court, the uncommon plight of the child shocked almost everyone who heard about it. That was four years ago -- when the state took custody. What has happened to the boy since is appallingly common.

His story is an allegory of Florida's child-welfare system. It is a system that too often fails the 8,000 neglected and abused children it is entrusted to protect.

Florida law itself often fails to balance the needs of children with the rights of mentally ill parents, children's advocates say.

In ruling recently that he could not sever the mother's rights to her son, Juvenile Judge Bruce Levy said, "It was the most agonizing decision I ever made. I sent one man to the electric chair. This was worse."

This account of the boy's odyssey through the child-welfare system is based on extensive interviews and documents that almost never become public: court records containing medical evaluations, reports of the state Department of Health and Rehabilitative Services and trial transcripts.

John Farie, HRS administrator for Dade and Monroe counties, said confidentiality laws prohibit him from commenting on the case.

The boy, identified here as J., the initial of his first name, was born in Miami on April 21, 1982. His mother -- a plain, stocky woman named Dinah -- said she did not remember the father's name.

She was 38 years old and came from Washington, where she worked on and off in clerical jobs. She began having mental problems in her 20s, once destroying furniture at her therapist's office. Psychiatrists at the Georgetown University hospital diagnosed her as paranoid schizophrenic.

To doctors, she portrayed her mother as "cold and unloving" and her father as "cruel . . . he roughed me up, touched me in the wrong places. He was sort of sadistic, liked to enrage me, make me cry."

HRS records for the first two years of J.'s life are sketchy. He was 4 months old when someone first reported that he was not being supervised adequately. Two more complaints followed when J. was 2. One alleged sexual abuse.

"There is no indication in the file that this case was investigated," an HRS report stated.

Mother and child shared a boxy house in Northwest Dade with a 79-year-old amputee and the cats. Dinah said she waited on the man and, in exchange, he paid for cat food.

One evening in June 1985, Metro Dade Police officer Maria Caro Ponte responded to a report of gunfire at the house.

The way Dinah told it, the old man wanted her to be his lover. She refused. In a rage, he pulled a gun and fired at her. He missed.

The boy ran outside and hid under the house. When he came back in, his mother put him in the bathtub. She left the room. The tub overflowed. She got angry and hit him with a metal-handled fly swatter, hard enough for the plastic end to break off.

Caro Ponte found welts and bruises on the boy's back, chest, neck, stomach and legs -- some new, some old. The mother denied all but the one beating.

"The mother was blaming a 3-year-old for the tub overflowing. She wasn't making sense. She kept saying the boy was a con artist," the officer said.

The house reeked of cat urine, Caro Ponte said. The old man had sores all over his body, she said, and slept in a bed smeared with feces. The boy slept with him.

"That was the way the old man wanted it, and the mother didn't see anything wrong with it," Caro Ponte said.

Cat food dishes were in reach of the child. Sometimes, he ate from the bowls. Dinah said she pulled his hand away. The officer said the mother told her cat food was "not unhealthy."

HRS took the toddler from his mother and placed him in a temporary shelter. Thus began the child's life as a ward of the state.

Workers at the shelter initially thought J. was autistic. He did not talk but made odd noises and sniffed the walls. When his mother visited, he sat on her lap almost motionless.

One day, not long after the state took J. away from her, Dinah grabbed her son and took him home, contending he was pale and sickly. Officer Caro Ponte found him asleep with the old man.

When psychologist Simon B. Miranda evaluated J. later that summer, the boy did not utter a single word. At first, Miranda thought he was deaf.

The child "sobbed softly but without tears," Miranda wrote.

The psychologist observed the boy with his mother. They sat apart at first and stared in different directions. Then she showed "mild and timid affection," lightly stroking his head and back.

Though the boy did not speak to the psychologist, he was overheard talking quietly to other children.

Dinah became increasingly frightened of losing her son. She said demons visited her in her sleep. She phoned Caro Ponte and told her J. would die Sept. 19, 1985 -- the day of a court hearing.

In October Dinah again abducted her son, on command of the Angel Gabriel, she said. They made it to Philadelphia. Police there found her and the boy hitchhiking at 4 a.m. Dinah ranted about Nazis trying to kill J. She said his HRS caseworker was a puppet of the Mafia.

HRS flew them back to Miami -- separately. As a Philadelphia social worker put her on the plane, Dinah spat out, "I'll see you in hell."

In Dade the welfare agency put J. with his first set of foster parents, who had no special training to cope with an emotionally troubled child. As many as 2,000 emotionally disturbed children live in foster homes where parents do not have such training, according to a 1989 state audit.

The Mailman Center for Child Development, of the University of Miami Medical School, evaluated J. on Nov. 7, 1985, and recommended he be placed in a preschool program, such as Headstart, so he could play with other children.

"The sooner the better to avoid even more regression of this youngster," wrote social worker Maruja Silva.

HRS did not put him in preschool.

J.'s mother showed up at the Mailman Center the next day. She had a gun and wanted to kidnap her son and his caseworker. Neither was there.

She checked herself into the Jackson Memorial Hospital mental health clinic and was hospitalized. The diagnosis: chronic schizophrenia, paranoid type.

She was released a month later, placed on anti-psychotic medication and given weekly group psychotherapy.

In March 1986 J.'s case came before Juvenile Judge Adele Faske, then 70 and technically retired. At that time, she conducted virtually all "judicial reviews."

The law requires such hearings each six months for foster children under 13. The idea: return a child home or put him up for adoption. State law says no child should remain in foster care more than a year.

Three times in J.'s first 18 months in foster care, Faske postponed her final decision. The judge kept giving Dinah the chance to fulfill state requirements to get her son back.

In April 1986 Dinah signed a contract with the state. She agreed to get therapy at Jackson, take her medication and attend parenting classes and vocational training.

In September 1986 HRS caseworker Nelly Martinez reported to the judge that Dinah had "partially complied." The judge gave Dinah another six months.

In December 1986 the state put J. in a second foster home. He arrived dirty and infested with lice.

His new foster parents, Jon and Shelley McLeod, lived in a roomy home in Miami Shores with a big back yard. Jon McLeod owns a gun and scuba shop. Their two children are grown.

They knew nothing of the boy's emotional problems. He looked like Tom Sawyer, with his blond hair, blue eyes and upturned nose.

"HRS brought him to me saying, 'This is a sweet little boy who just needs nurturing.' That wasn't so," said Shelley McLeod.

J. was an athletic 4 1/2, but he acted half his age. Shelley McLeod, a preschool teacher for 20 years, was astounded J. had never attended preschool. "The obvious things that ought to be done weren't."

She took the boy to the preschool at Miami Shores Presbyterian Church, where she was the administrator. The McLeods paid $1,300 from their own pockets.

In January 1987 the Mailman Center re-evaluated the boy. He did not recognize colors. He was unable to draw a square.

About the same time, Dinah got a job as a typist. She quit psychotherapy and stopped taking medication as her contract required.

"During the time (the mother) participated in the group, it was evident that she was extremely ill," wrote Jackson social worker Steve Barsky and Benjamin Brauzer, director of adult psychiatric ambulatory services.

"The patient disclosed that people were against her and that an organization (the Mafia) would be after her 'diary' . . . it would seem highly improbable that (she) could sustain the kind of care and consistency that her son would need."

J.'s court-appointed advocate, Linda Binder, argued the boy should be put up for adoption. His mother "has no family, no friends, no church and no support system" and had failed to fulfill her contract.

Nonetheless, a caseworker reported to the court that the mother was in compliance because she attended parenting classes and counseling.

In March 1987 Faske gave Dinah another chance, stalling adoption.

That summer, the boy, now 5, became compulsively neat. He wouldn't sleep under the covers because he would mess up the bed. He lined his shoes up precisely. A piece of paper on the floor made him want to vacuum.

When he talked, he was difficult to understand and got frustrated. The McLeods turned to charity, not HRS, for help.

North Shore Medical Center donated $700 for speech therapy. The Optimists gave $500. The McLeods paid $450 for summer camp. J. took gymnastics but had to be withdrawn from the class because of constant clamoring for attention.

The McLeods asked HRS to classify J. as a child with special needs so they could get a modest increase in board payments. It didn't happen.

The diagnostic center at Miami Shores Elementary concluded that J. was severely emotionally disturbed. He whined and cried and threw things on the floor during the evaluation.

The recommendation: full-time special education class. But there were none at the public school. And Shelley McLeod, who worked, felt J. was not mature enough to catch a bus to another school.

So instead, J. attended class for the learning disabled for 1 1/2 hours each morning, then joined a regular kindergarten class.

He was the only child who could not print his name. When other kids sang The Star-Spangled Banner, he made peculiar noises. When they lined up to go outside, he banged on the piano keys. During math, he lay on the floor and stared at the ceiling.

"There are many times when I had J. by the hand, but he's in a class with almost 30 children, and it's impossible to give that much attention to one child all the time," his teacher Sue Becker said.

J. flunked kindergarten that year.

Judge Levy got the case in the fall and was faced with this question: Should the court sever the mother's rights and put J. up for adoption?

Dinah wanted her son. She showed up regularly for treatment at Douglas Gardens Community Mental Health Center.

But the clinic concluded: "There is serious concern that returning child custody rights to (her) at this time . . . could provoke a psychotic episode."

Even so, a psychologist declined to predict whether she might be a competent mother if treated properly.

Levy put the case on hold.

The turning point came in December 1987 when psychiatrist Josephine Perez declared that Dinah would probably never be a good mother.

The doctor had asked Dinah what she would do if her son was returned to her. "Well, take him to Disneyland. Watch TV. That's it. What else do you need?" Dinah replied.

Concluded the doctor: "It is highly unlikely that she will ever be capable of providing adequate parenting because of the severity and chronicity of her mental disorder and maladaptive life style."

Finally, 2 1/2 years after the state took custody of J., HRS abandoned efforts to reunify mother and child.

Now the goal was adoption.

The mother opposed the termination of her parental rights. She knew she would never see her child again if that happened. For years, she had faithfully showed up for monthly, hour-long visits with her son, bringing him a toy and a snack.

"This child is the only thing she has in the world," said her lawyer Arthur Luongo, who has represented her for four years without pay.

It would be Draconian for the state to take away her child forever simply because she is mentally ill, Luongo said. Society is wrong to "grind into dust" the rights of its most vulnerable members.

The trial occurred in dribs and drabs in the autumn of 1988. Dinah was living in a residential hotel on South Beach. Her room, 15 feet by eight feet, had no stove, only a bed, table, sink, hot plate and refrigerator. She survived on a monthly $630 disability check.

Wouldn't J. spend his entire childhood as a ward of the state even if the mother's rights were severed? Luongo asked.

"Only if this drags on, and he gets so old that he becomes impossible to place because of his age, because of his emotional problems," replied HRS worker Susannah Becker.

Isn't it possible the boy's situation won't improve? Luongo asked.

"No, I won't agree with that," she said.

"OK, why not?" he asked.

"Because he's a nice-looking, normal-looking, lively, charming, white young boy, and there are adoptive families out there willing to take him."

Judge Levy agonized. Florida law does not explicitly say what to do about the children of mentally ill or retarded parents, as do the laws of many other states.

Levy ruled he could not free J. for adoption. The mother, he reasoned, was too mentally ill to comply with the state requirements to get her son back.

The law did not allow him to sever the rights of a mother because of circumstances beyond her control, he decided.

HRS appealed the case to the Third District Court of Appeals, which has yet to rule.

In December 1988 the McLeods decided they did not want to be J.'s foster parents anymore.

"I don't feel that I'll be able to control him when he gets to be 11 or 12 or 13. Presently, when he has temper tantrums, I can't physically control him. So, I don't want to be responsible," Shelley McLeod said.

Shuffling from home to home hurts a boy, she said. She witnessed the poignant evidence of J.'s nomadic childhood.

At the zoo one day, he raced up to a woman and threw his arms around her. He thought she was his earlier foster mother.

When one of the McLeods' foster daughters left home for a day, J. and another child divided her toys. They figured she would never be back.

McLeod is worried. "They're going to piddle around until this child is unadoptable."

Last January the McLeods wrote HRS, Gov. Bob Martinez and Judge Levy.

"It is tragic that the state, for so long, has failed to determine J.'s needs and to provide him with the intensive psychological and educational therapy which he so desperately needs.

"It is extremely discouraging to see a life so in need of help wait in limbo for over three years. . . . Foster care should not be used as a 'holding pen.' "

No one replied.

When J. found out he would have to leave the McLeods, he asked his caseworker to find a "kind and friendly" family. He packed up quickly, without emotion.

HRS delivered him to a neatly kept mobile home on a man-made lake in Southwest Dade. His new foster parents, Gary and Patty Goodrich, have two adopted sons, an adopted daughter, an old yellow cat, a flop-eared rabbit, a white duck and two dogs.

Gary Goodrich is associate director of the Christian Community Service Agency. Patty Goodrich is home with the kids.

J. was terrified the Goodriches would not want him. He tried to be perfect. He was unnaturally polite.

"Will I be here when Santa comes?" he asked. "Will I be here for the Youth Fair?"

Over and over, he asks his foster father, "Daddy, can I stay here forever and ever?"

The Goodriches want to adopt him.

J., now 7, is in a full-time class for emotionally handicapped kids. "This is not a child we expect to pass on," Patty Goodrich said.

In summer school in July, J. fibbed that his sister had been shot and his brother hit by a car. His foster mother suspected he wanted to express some buried sadness.

When she sat down to talk to him, he began to ask questions. What does my real mother do? Where does she live? How long ago did I live with her?

"Someone can still love you and not be able to take care of you," his foster mother explained.

During the talk, J. made it clear he wants to be adopted. That's what he told Dinah, too, on a recent visit.

On Aug. 28 Dinah contacted her son's caseworker. She would be willing to let the family adopt J. She would also like visitation rights.

Unlike some states, Florida has no "open" adoption law that allows contact between a child and natural parents after adoption.

Dinah's lawyer and the state have not yet talked about a settlement. They plan to.

For now J. endures in legal limbo.

His mother lives a world away on South Beach. She walks through the crowded foyer of her apartment building without speaking, her face expressionless.

"She's a silent woman," said Sheilah Leva, who works at the building. "She has her own world."

Day after day, Dinah steps outside and sets out little dishes filled with water and cat food on the sidewalk. Neighborhood cats follow her. She caresses them.

"She lives for the cats," Leva said.

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