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First of three parts

Choices of the heart

Faced with family crisis, parents struggle to make the right decision for their children

After a series of troubles, Kathleen Usher struggled over whether she should keep her 15-year-old son in her family. She had to consider the needs of her five other adopted children.
After a series of troubles, Kathleen Usher struggled over whether she should keep her 15-year-old son in her family. She had to consider the needs of her five other adopted children. (Dina Rudick/ Globe Staff)

OAKHAM -- Kathleen Usher sat on a wooden bench in juvenile court in Worcester last winter, as her 15-year-old son stared blankly, answering questions from the judge. The week before, he had disappeared with the family's Ford Explorer, joyriding around the countryside for hours until he hit something and smashed the passenger's side.

His behavior had been getting more reckless by the day.

Blinking back tears, Usher barely recognized this child she had adopted more than a decade earlier.

Usher had the most forbidden thought that an adoptive mother can have: I want to give him back.

. . .

USHER FIRST SAW DAVID, then almost 4, playing at a city park in Pittsfield. He was shy and slender with a face full of freckles, and he clung to his 5-year-old sister, Crystal. They had become each other's lifeline after being pulled from an abusive home by the Department of Social Services. Social workers, who had brought the siblings to the park to meet Usher and her husband, Tom, recommended the two be adopted together.

"The reason they wanted Crystal and David to go together was because they were so close," Usher remembers. "When they were at day care, they would fall asleep holding hands."

Soon the couple brought the two children home.

When Crystal entered kindergarten, her little brother was at a loss. For months afterward, he refused to look his adoptive mother in the eye. To get David dressed or into the car, Usher says, "I had to make games out of everything." She worried he might never bond with her.

But then, about year after David joined the family, he began to relax in his new home, frequently hugging his mother and playing happily even when his sister was not around. He even asked a preschool teacher to write on a card to his parents, "I will never move out of the house."

. . .

USHER LOVED BEING A MOTHER.

So much so that when her three biological children were grown and she was in her early 40s, she did what many of her friends thought was crazy: Over a period of a decade, she and her husband adopted six foster children - Crystal and David were the second and third - who filled the empty bedrooms in the couple's suburban home outside Worcester. Each child came with a pained history. But Usher didn't mind taking the children to their slew of appointments with social workers and tutors.

With her husband working as a mechanic, she ran the household. She took pride in being the steady hand at the helm of a big family. She didn't have much use for how-to-raise-kids books; she trusted her own instincts. The house was organized, the children wore clean clothes and each had a daily assigned chore. Everyone said Usher was meant to be a mother.

. . .

THROUGH MOST OF ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, David blended well into family life. But things changed around the time he turned 10. Suddenly, he began stealing loose change from his siblings. Over the next several years, problems escalated: He forged a signature on a check. He distributed some racist literature from a website at school. He created a "hit list" of people at school, which prompted a swift suspension. He was caught with bomb-making instructions.

By the time David was 15, Usher knew his behavior was more than typical adolescent acting out. His relations with Crystal and his other siblings were strained. He made everyone in the family nervous.

Usher usually kept her emotions to herself, but she started spending hours on the phone, crying and confiding in her best friend from childhood, Randy Crompton. She couldn't bear it, she told Crompton, when David looked at her as though she meant nothing to him.

Increasingly preoccupied with David's problems, Usher couldn't sleep many nights and began losing her temper with the other children. She struggled to keep up with her lengthy daily to-do list.

Eventually, Usher found herself privately wishing David were not part of the family. Beyond the distraction, beyond the consuming worry, there was something else: "I'm getting afraid of David," she told Crompton.

Usher knew she was not alone in thinking about giving up an adopted child. Over the years, she had heard of adoptions that fell apart because parents became overwhelmed by the complex problems that surfaced. But she often felt alone, isolated by her pain and shame.

Like many parents struggling with a difficult adoption, Usher often blamed herself for failing David. And she held onto the hope that she could figure out how to combat the distrust - and anger - between them.

"We promised David when he came here, we would be his parents and that he would do all his growing up with us," she kept telling herself. "I'm still his mother."

Her best friend had never before seen Usher so distraught. Just after Christmas last year, Crompton was so concerned that she decided to lay out her best unvarnished advice in a letter. She did not care if it seemed judgmental.

"Don't give up on him," Crompton wrote to Usher. "Someday, he'll be grateful that someone cared, someone really wanted him, and no matter what, he is part of your family."

Usher wanted to believe her friend was right.

. . .

A WEEK LATER, Usher and her husband returned from breakfast at a restaurant and found the family's Ford Explorer missing from the garage. David, who had been alone in the house, was gone. Frantic, his mother called the police. Then she raced to the police station to wait for news.

About four hours later, police received a phone call.

"You must be looking for me," David said. Unharmed and unashamed, David told police he had taken the car for a drive and left it on the roadside when it stopped running. Police arrived to find the passenger side badly smashed and one wheel dangling. David said he did not know how the damage had occurred.

On that January day in juvenile court in Worcester, Usher and her husband sat grimly. Charged with stealing the car, David faced a month in a juvenile lockup. Without expression, David told the judge he didn't care if he went to jail.

As she wept in court, Usher also felt some relief that David would be out of the house for a month. She needed respite. And with a mixture of anger and guilt, she also thought to herself: Maybe he should never return home at all.

"That was rock bottom," she recalled of that day.

. . .

WHEN DAVID WAS RELEASED from the lockup in mid-February, social workers recommended that he live temporarily in a special foster home, where he could receive counseling and other services for his behavioral problems. The Ushers agreed. The arrangement would give the couple more time to think about what to do with David.

Usher established a routine of visiting David every other week. She also began discussions with social workers about the possibility of returning David to the Department of Social Services so that he could be placed permanently in another home. The Ushers would have to terminate their parental rights. Still, a different family, perhaps one with fewer children, might be a better fit for David.

But she wasn't there yet, her mind constantly swinging wildly back and forth. How can we give him up? He had already been abandoned once in life - what would become of him if we gave up on him? But how can we let him ruin our family life?

Usher and her husband agonized but could not decide.

"After he stole the car, I thought, I don't know if I can deal with this boy anymore," Usher recounted later. "I don't know if I have the emotional resources to help him. I was so tired. I didn't know if I have the strength to go on."

. . .

BUT USHER HAD THE STRENGTH for one more phone call. She contacted the Attachment Institute of New England, which has helped many adoptive families through intense family therapy. Therapists met with David and concluded that he suffered from "attachment disorder," which prevents adoptive children from bonding with their parents. In March, the Ushers and David began therapy together.

The first session was excruciating. Not only were David and his parents barely speaking to one another, but the boy was required to lie across his parents' laps on a leather couch, part of the tactile therapy designed to help children and parents trust each other.

Over several months, the family took part in two-hour therapy sessions up to twice a week. Slowly, David began opening up, often asking questions about his past.

Why was I adopted? Tell me about my birth parents - even if it's all bad.

The therapists explained to Usher and her husband that many adopted children, when they move into a home around age 4, are old enough to have faint memories of their past, but too young to know why they were moved. They blame themselves for being "discarded" by the birth families but often do not recognize those powerful feelings until adolescence. The therapy helps them understand their sense of abandonment.

Usher realized that her neatly organized home life had not been enough to help David. The boy's emotional life had needed order of a different sort. She wished she had obtained help much earlier.

"It goes back to him being 4 years old, harboring anger toward us, blaming us for why he feels unimportant and lost," Usher later recalled. "He came with these feelings as a 4-year-old, and he's still dealing with those."

As she came to understand David's problems, she also began to wonder whether he could come back to the family. But she was also still hurt by his behavior, and she knew that her family's life without David was smoother, more tranquil. The other five adopted children seemed more at ease. Usher slept better at night.

She didn't know it, but David also had begun to think about coming back. He missed his home and his brothers and sisters, he later recalled. He said he often thought to himself - but was too stubborn to say - "I need my parents to take care of me."

One day in May, returning from an errand in the car, David blurted out to his mother that he was not happy about his clothes. He said his foster parents had promised to buy some new things, but hadn't.

Usher had noticed that many of his pants and shirts were tattered hand-me-downs. She immediately turned the car toward the Wal-Mart, walked him into the boys' clothing department, and bought him a pair of black-and-white sneakers, two pairs of pants, and a pair of shorts.

"I didn't like my children looking like someone else's kid," she remembered.

When they said good-bye that day, David gave his mother a long hug.

. . .

A COUPLE OF WEEKS later at the Attachment Institute, the therapists announced that David had a letter he wanted to read to his parents, something he had written in his foster home. Usher and her husband looked at each other in surprise: Never before had their son written them a letter.

"Dear Mom. You are important to me because you took me in and made me feel loved," David began. "You protected me when I needed it, and you helped me when I was sick. You stood by me when I pushed you away. You comforted me in hard times. You gave me a home and other things that any other kid would dream to have.

"You never treated us like we weren't your kids. . . . You did not just give up on us, which showed that you cared about us enough to not throw us away. . . . I don't act it, but I have always loved you. You are worth more than how I have treated you and I'm really sorry. . . . Love David."

When he finished reading, David began to weep, the first time in years in front of his parents. He said he wanted to come home. Usher hugged him. They all cried together.

. . .

ON A SUNNY JUNE AFTERNOON, Usher brought platters of tunafish sandwiches to the kitchen table for lunch. She glowed as her children filled the empty seats.

Usher looked at her calendar, reminding herself of the appointments for that week - medical and dental visits, camp appointments, therapy sessions. Pouring lemonade into glasses, she turned to David. Just a few days earlier, he had packed his bags at the foster home and returned to his family.

"Your dentist appointment is at 3:30," Usher said. "You need to brush your teeth after lunch."

Tomorrow: A father's custody dilemma.

Patricia Wen can be reached at wen@globe.com

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