Dead Wrong About Frank

Frank was an angry, violent 9-year-old on his way to becoming a sociopath. Jim Holland saw something else.

At Edgewood, Jim Holland and Susan Peach, Frank's therapist, realized that Frank didn't trust adults any more. They experimented with attachment therapy, an intense process of stirring up hard memories and then comforting the subject through rocking and holding. It was a last-ditch effort to get Frank to open up and trust -- but there was one flaw. "We were doing grief and rage stuff, which was really unfair to him because the whole idea was to get this stuff out and for him to be able to attach to a relationship with an adult, but there was no adult except for us," says Jim.

For Peach, who has since moved out of state, it was a heartbreaking dilemma. "I saw a strong desire in Frank to be loved," she says. "I would hold him and rock him and see him yearning. He would reach out, then push me away. He was so afraid, and I didn't blame him. I couldn't promise him that I would be there for him. He knew I couldn't take him home. I couldn't give what he needed most -- a family."

Jim Holland says seeing Frank off to yet another institution "was like witnessing a crime,  the crimes of society -- throwaway kids."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Holland says seeing Frank off to yet another institution "was like witnessing a crime, the crimes of society -- throwaway kids."

At the same time, they couldn't stand by and do nothing. Jim says, "I worried he was going to live his whole life in an institution, and when he got out he would go to another institution, like jail." After several months of therapy, it was clear that Frank was not improving. Worse, Frank had not made any real friends at Edgewood. "He didn't have a lot of people left who were sympathetic toward him," Jim says. "Frank had burned a lot of bridges." They decided that if Frank was going to be fixed, it wouldn't be at Edgewood. It was time for him to go. Peach notified DFS that Edgewood would not continue caring for Frank. That left DFS with few options because Frank was no longer considered adoptable or even fit for a foster home.

Jim arrived two hours early on that cool December morning in 1998. He thought someone should see Frank off. But now, immersed in the maddening normalcy of packing and folding Frank's clothes, Jim felt himself go numb. He walked Frank out to the car. As he watched Frank drive off with Kim Stock, his DFS worker, Jim says, "It was like witnessing a crime, not necessarily the crime of the residential-treatment center but the crimes of society -- throwaway kids. I couldn't watch it and stay intact."

Six months later, Jim Holland, wanting to stay intact, quit his job at Edgewood. Four months after that, he landed in South County at the St. Louis branch of Downey Side Inc. -- an adoption agency with offices in six states that specializes in finding homes for older children -- where, he felt, he would be part of the solution.

Among his new co-workers was Shelia Wheeler, a short woman with an easy laugh who, over the past 12 years, had been a foster parent to many children. She and her husband, Mark, had adopted four of their foster children, including a special-needs child named Alex who had lived with the Wheelers since being removed from a dirty trailer almost 10 years earlier. Jim and Shelia Wheeler, who share a dry wit, hit it off immediately. Jim mentioned that he had worked at Edgewood. Wheeler's face flashed with recognition.

"Did you ever work with a boy named Frank Coutts?" she asked.

Jim excitedly told her that he had.

"What a coincidence," Wheeler said. "That is my son's older brother. I know Stephen was adopted, but I always wondered whatever happened to Frank."

Jim admitted that he did, too. Then he decided to find out.

As Kim Stock pulled into the driveway of Niles Home for Children in Kansas City, Frank felt a small measure of relief. The outside looked nice. It had a playground and a basketball hoop. He could see lots of kids playing. But when he walked in and saw the dark hallway and peeling paint, his heart sank.

Niles was the last stop for children no one wanted. Established in 1883, the home, with its rows of cottages, was located in the urban core of Kansas City. DFS had a contractual agreement with the nonprofit residential center. Unlike more prestigious centers, Niles didn't turn any child away, no matter how troubled. "We do not believe in rejecting children who come to us," says executive director Donald Lee. "We encourage our staff to accept clients who may have had a negative experience at other facilities and see if we can have a positive impact."

At Niles, children lived in a dorm setting, attended therapy and went to public school. Leslie Foreman, a former therapist at the facility, says the Niles staff was overwhelmed, underpaid and not always qualified to deal with the complex problems of the children. "Child-care staff could be abusive and controlling," says Foreman. "Then those same staff would be the ones who would hold the kids and cry with them. It was like an abusive parent at home. It was like a love/hate relationship. It was also one of the reasons I left. Kids would come to residential very sick, and sometimes what they got only added to their dysfunction." Foreman recalls that a worker was fired for beating a child with an extension cord and says kids were locked down in isolation for days at a time or forced to sit in a hallway until they soiled themselves.

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