Dead Wrong About Frank

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

In a letter that day to Foreman, Jim wrote: "I'm frequently slow on my feet and regret not having said that it does matter to me and that I hoped that it would matter to him someday. But he did a fine job of reminding me that he's no easy sell and that he'll be tough to convince that I won't disappear as quickly as I popped back up."

For three months, Jim sent weekly letters. Frank never wrote back. He did, however, start waiting by the phone in anticipation of Jim's frequent calls.

In April 1999, Jim made his next big move: He drove to Kansas City. It had been 16 months since he had seen Frank. "He was waiting by the door and was dressed kind of shabby and was pretty heavy from his medication," Jim says. "He was in this institution that looked kind of rough and dark. I looked at him and thought to myself, 'This kid could be my kid.'"

Jim Holland says Frank had "the look of someone who is really trying to keep moving and stay busy to keep from feeling."
Jennifer Silverberg
Jim Holland says Frank had "the look of someone who is really trying to keep moving and stay busy to keep from feeling."

Jim took him out to eat, and Frank chose the Old Country Buffet, not a place Jim would ever have picked. Frank piled four fried chicken breasts on his plate and ripped into them with both hands. Jim winced. "I had built up some fantasies about him that were not accurate," Jim says. "All he wanted to do was eat, eat, eat, and Old Country buffet is where he wanted to go. It made me sick. It was gross to me, just a bunch of cafeteria grease."

During that visit, Frank proudly showed Jim the gang signs he had learned at Niles. Then he showed him how to spell his name in sign language. They bought new shoes. Jim suggested a visit to the aquarium. "I've been banned forever from going back there," Frank said sheepishly. "I accidentally killed a soft-shell turtle." Jim learned later that Frank had "accidentally" dropped a rock on it. They went to the zoo instead and watched the big cats.

"The snow leopard looks like he's in lockdown," Frank said. "He needs more room."

Between April and June 2000, Jim made four visits to Kansas City. Every time Jim pulled up, Frank was by the door, waiting. Frank had watched other kids leave for visits with their families and wanted to make sure everyone knew that he finally had someplace to go, too. "I'm going with my mentor," he would announce loudly as he was leaving. "'Mentor' was such an institutional word," Jim says. "I felt like I was so much more than that. I told him, 'You know, Frank, it's OK to say I am your friend.'" The visits did as much for Frank as they did for Jim. "He was starting to open up," Jim says. "He was pretty walled off at first because he thought I would show up once, or call once, and not show up again. I would have driven to Kansas City sick. I would have walked. It was that important."

Jim didn't tell Frank that he had already started the adoption process with DFS. Jim wanted to tell him when the moment was right. As they were driving away for another excursion, Frank stopped adjusting the radio and turned to Jim. Without hesitation, and with the conviction of someone who'd been asked a question, Frank said, "Yes, I would like you to adopt me."

Two days later, Jim wrote a letter to St. Louis Family Court Judge Susan Block, affirming in writing his desire to adopt Frank despite DFS concerns. "Frank's 'dangerousness' is exaggerated and based on a rap sheet that doesn't include his successes, his strengths and his very clumsy but very real desire to connect with others," Jim wrote. "I am also convinced that many of Frank's behaviors are symptoms of institutionalization and disconnection, neither of which should be treated with further institutionalization and disconnection."

Jim told the judge his goal was to bring Frank back to St. Louis, where he belonged, and eventually adopt him. Jim found Child Center of Our Lady, a residential-treatment center in St. Louis that would accept Frank. "Even though I didn't have any legal claim to him yet," Jim says, "I felt like I was bringing my son home."

On May 31, Jim received his first letter from Frank: "Dear Jim, I am glad we got to meet. This is what I know about Worlds of Fun. The Mamba is 250 feet high. And it goes 75 miles an hour. I like Leslie Foreman a lot. She is a good therapist. And I am sad that she is leaving. What I would like to do with you. I would like to go see Flintstones. And I would like to go to Chuck E. Cheese. And go fishing. And go play Frisbee. I can't wait. Frank Coutts."

Judge Block cleared the way for Frank to be moved to Child Center of Our Lady in St. Louis while Jim's adoption process dragged on. Now, Jim and Frank began spending more time together with thrice-weekly daytime visits.

Jim wanted Frank's 12th birthday to be something special. He bought Frank a bike and planned a ride on the Katy Trail. He figured they'd do a 20-mile trip and have a nice lunch along the way. Not so. Ten minutes into the ride, Frank complained that the seat hurt his butt. Jim tried to cajole him into having fun: "Frank, I'm fat and smoke cigarettes, and I could do this all day. What's up with this?" Frank didn't care. "The seat was really hurting my butt," he says now. "I liked the bike, but I was tired of pedaling. I wanted to go home and play with my new remote-control truck." The birthday, although anticlimactic, was another lesson in acceptance, says Jim: "Part of this whole process has been about me tempering my expectations, letting go of fantasy and just letting Frank be who he is."

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