By Danny Wicentowski
By Lindsay Toler
By Lindsay Toler
By Danny Wicentowski
By Anne Valente
By Lindsay Toler
By Ray Downs
By Lindsay Toler
He was a well-built, 6-foot-tall social worker, and yet Jim Holland's arms ached from holding the flailing, angry 9-year-old boy. But he wasn't about to let go. "I'm here and won't let you hurt yourself," he said again and again while he tried to stop Frank Coutts from beating his own head on the floor.
Frank had spent more hours in the concrete confines of the isolation room at Edgewood Children's Center than he had outside them. The room, with its tile floor, bare mattress and observation window, resembled a prison cell. Violence-prone children were sent there. "They looked very normal on the surface," Jim says. "They would run and play and do their kid stuff. Strangers would pass and say, 'Oh, look at those cute children. Why are they here?' It was the rages and really difficult behaviors that we got to see. That's why they were there."
The first time Jim saw the boy, in the spring of 1997, Frank seemed like just another energetic, active child with a story Jim didn't know. His trained eyes could see what most didn't. "He was this kid with an intense and driven look," Jim says, "the look of someone who is really trying to keep moving and stay busy to keep from feeling." Even after a year at Edgewood, Frank's outbursts continued. Festering inside the little boy with full cheeks and chocolate eyes was red rage. Frank was his own angry volcano, frequently spewing a string of foul words and thrashing fists, demanding distance. The staff had numerous scars and bruises from their many dealings with him. One worker ended up at the hospital when Frank's small-balled fist delivered a powerful blow that fractured her cheek. "He was a very aggressive kid, one of those that we thought was a sociopath -- he seemed not to have a conscience," says Jim. "Some people there thought he would be the next Jeffrey Dahmer."
Not Jim. In the many hours he spent with Frank in the isolation room, Jim held the boy tight until he calmed down. Later, when he went home, Jim thought about Frank, had nightmares in which the boy was trapped in a burning building and Jim was helpless to save him. "I couldn't stand that he hurt so much and that he had nobody else," Jim says. "I felt connected with this kid who couldn't be comforted. He would be in a rage, and all I could do was move my head back so I didn't get my teeth knocked out and just hold him. Eventually he would stop. He had a lot of sadness and grief, and he expressed it with rage. It just felt more powerful than being sad."
Neither Jim nor anyone else at Edgewood knew what had led to this.
"You wanted to take him out of the feeling because he didn't understand it," Jim says. "You knew something bad happened. You just didn't know what it was."
Whatever it was, Jim knew that Frank's family background might explain his violence. "I was always fascinated with how families work because my family didn't work very well," Jim says. "If my family was a business, it would have gone under."
Jim spent years trying to reckon the public face of his father the firefighter with the drunk he saw almost every night, trying to grasp how his mother, a registered nurse, could stay in the 25-year marriage. "He'd arrive home drunk in the evenings, and my mother or I would wake him up 30 minutes later and help him out of his truck," he says. "He'd often pass out during dinner and slump at the table. My mother, with pursed lips, would say, over and over, 'Wake up, get up.'" Jim did what he could to stop the drinking. He poured bourbon and beer down the sink. "Once, I checked out a library book on living with an alcoholic and left it on the dining-room table," Jim says. "I left it where my father was sure to see it.
"The family of my childhood organized itself around my father's alcoholism and my mother's depression," he continues. "There were good times, but the hard times are more deeply ingrained in my memory and more deeply felt." Outrunning his family dynamic, however, proved much harder than putting miles between him and his parents.
In 1996, at the age of 25, Jim realized that he carried in him both the best and worst of his parents: a desire to help others and a thirst for alcohol. While employed at Edgewood as a child-care worker, in the midst of getting his graduate degree in social work at Washington University, Jim found himself buckling under the stress. His drinking spiraled out of control. With the help of friends and co-workers, he checked himself into an outpatient dependency program at Barnes-Jewish Hospital. After successfully kicking the alcohol habit and realizing that a social-work career stretched out before him, Jim thought he had finally reached a peaceful place in his life.
Then he met Frank, and he felt unsettled all over again.
Frank Coutts was always on the move. The first child of a teenage mother, he was born in Florida, but by the time he turned 2, he had lived in three different states. When he was 3, his family settled into a trailer in Overland, but the oldest of Sheri Coutts' three children kept moving. Frank roamed the trailer park, eating Froot Loops off the ground and doing the best he could to care for his younger brothers, 2-year-old Alex and 7-month-old Stephen. His mother was neglectful, but her boyfriend was physically abusive, often hurting Frank. When a worker from the Missouri Division of Family Services arrived on April 24, 1991, she reported bruises and bite marks all over Frank's body, along with a fresh red handprint on his face. Alex was thin and dirty; his collarbone had been broken and was healing on its own. He was developmentally delayed. The baby, Stephen, had no injuries. All three boys were immediately removed from the home and placed in foster care. Alex, who had special needs, was placed in the home of Mark and Shelia Wheeler, experienced foster parents. Frank and Stephen went through two foster homes before being placed with Michael and Lisa Anderson (not their real names) in North St. Louis County. (By December 1993, the boys' mother had shown no signs of improving her life, and her parental rights were terminated.)
Frank doesn't remember the trailer park or the abuse he suffered there. His memories only go back to the Andersons, with whom he and Stephen lived for five years. "You don't want to know what my first memory is," he says, shaking his head. "You really don't." He sighs heavily, then adds: "I was 5 or 6 and was tying my shoe. When I couldn't do it, [Michael] pushed me over." There are other memories of happier times: riding his bike with his brother down the street; moments he felt a sense of being loved, fleeting as it was. "[Michael and Lisa] loved me in the beginning, but when I was bad, they stopped. [Michael] never told me he loved me, but [Lisa] used to tell me all the time," he says. "Once she even held me."
One day, Frank apparently didn't clean his room to Michael Anderson's satisfaction. "He came in and dumped over all my toys and started throwing Legos at my head," says Frank. The boy couldn't take it any more and ran out the back door. His small feet pounding the pavement furiously, he didn't know where he was going. He just started running, tears streaming down his face. "When I got to the corner," he says, "I decided it was really stupid because I didn't have anyplace to go."
In 1996 Frank's life was disrupted again. The Andersons decided to adopt Stephen but chose not to adopt Frank. The decision broke Frank's heart, and he started acting out even more. "My belief is that if they had adopted him, he really would have settled," Jim says. "He needed a permanent family, and to see his brother adopted when he wasn't, I think, almost did him in."
Frank's temper flared out of control. "Sometimes I would just get mad," he says. "I could feel my stomach get all tight. I would try not to think about it or try to get it to go away, but then I would just blow up." One day, Frank pushed one of the Andersons' daughters down the stairs. Another time, the Andersons reported that Frank had tried to stab his brother with a knife. "They told me I did that, but I don't remember it," Frank says. "I wouldn't try to hurt my brother. I just wouldn't do that."
The Andersons say they tried to work with Frank but that his past abuse and violent behavior were obstacles too great to overcome. "I know that when he was in my home, I gave him nothing but love, and I know that that wasn't enough," says Michael Anderson, "and I know it ripped our heart apart to send him away." He declined to comment further on any of the specific allegations. "We were very hurt," he says. "We don't want to say any more."
What happened at the Andersons may never be fully known, but it's clear that Frank, already a troubled kid when he arrived at the foster home, only got worse in the five years he lived there. In retrospect, Frank's therapists say, it is easy to see why. As the oldest, Frank suffered more abuse in his birth home. He had an "attachment disorder": The closer he felt and the bigger his need, the stronger the fear and the harder he would push. He also has been found to have "oppositional defiant disorder," bucking authority at every turn.
Although she cannot talk specifically about Frank's case, Sally Carpenter, a supervisor at DFS, says that matching a child's needs with appropriate parents isn't always an option, especially for children such as Frank who have a host of behavioral problems. "In the 1960s, when a child came into our care, I could pick from five families and match them with the child's needs," Carpenter says. "Today, I am lucky if I can find a bed."
When Frank's allegations of abuse in the Anderson home were brought to the attention of DFS in January 2001, the agency conducted an investigation but was unable to substantiate them because the incidents in question had allegedly taken place three years earlier. Nevertheless, the Andersons voluntarily relinquished their foster-parenting license a month later.
In any case, by May 1997 the Andersons were clearly afraid of Frank's explosive rage, and the decision was made to send him to Edgewood. His last night at the home he had known for five years and the home he would be leaving -- in addition to his brother -- was not easy on him. While the family -- Michael and Lisa Anderson, their two birth daughters and Frank's brother -- slept behind a locked bedroom door, Frank roamed the house. Jim later brought up that night in a therapy session, and Frank sobbed. "He asked me, 'Why did you tell me that? Why do you tell me things that make me sad?'" says Jim. Frank still cannot talk about that night. Asked about it, he grows quiet and rubs his eyes. "I have something in my eye," he explains. Moments later, he adds softly: "I would rather talk about something else."
And so the next morning, 9-year-old Frank found himself without a home and without his brothers, all alone at the doors of Edgewood Children's Center. For the next three years, he never stopped hoping that the Andersons would bring him home -- especially during those lonely hours in the isolation room. "The room was all concrete and only had this little window. Once I was in there for 12 days," Frank recalls. "I would hide in my shirt -- tuck my arms in like I didn't have any and cover my head. I would think again and again, 'Why am I here? I want to go home to [Michael and Lisa].' I wondered a lot if anyone was ever going to come get me out."
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."
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.
Lee admits that Niles has had its share of abuse-hotline investigations but says there have been no more than at any other residential center. "The perfect environment for a child to grow up in is a home, so there is no way to make residential perfect -- it's impossible," he says. "In the absence of that, all we can do is try to deliver the best service possible for that child, and that is what we do with the limited resources we have. Residential treatment serves clients en masse. That is the system in place."
Despite the environment, says Foreman, some children managed to settle in and find a sense of home. Frank wasn't one of them. "He was very angry and extremely needy," she says. "He just wanted someone to pay attention to him and say anything the least bit positive."
Even harder to watch was Frank's unwavering devotion to his former foster family, who had clearly distanced themselves from him. "It had been two years and still, what he really wanted was to be back with [Michael and Lisa]," says Foreman. "I was very disappointed and frustrated with them because they made very little contact. Frank would send letters, and they wouldn't answer. They would promise they were going to drive down and didn't do it. He would ask about them every time we met, and he would almost always cry. They did nothing but damage him, from my point of view."
Even as Frank tried to work through his feelings of abandonment and grief, his anger proved his greatest obstacle. Sometimes, simply being told to do something was enough to trigger an explosion. But often it was other kids who set him off. "The kids there would bite me and stuff," he says. "That's when I would get into fights."
Nevertheless, Foreman saw something in Frank she didn't see in many of the other children -- genuine kindness. "He would show me something he was really proud of, and when I commented about it, he would say, 'If you like it, you can have it,'" she recalls, adding that he wanted to send toys and Pokémon cards to his brother.
The image didn't match the one Edgewood had painted, either. "I spoke to someone on the phone about him, and they mentioned he was a lost cause and that there was no way he would ever be able to live in a foster home," Foreman says. "I remember thinking maybe that person was burned out. Frank definitely had a hard time being consistent, but I believed all he needed was an adult who cared for him and who was not going to leave. I never felt he was hopeless; I just felt his situation was. It was really sad because he was there and I didn't see anyone jumping at the chance to adopt him out."
Then, out of the blue, Foreman got a call from a social worker who once worked at Edgewood. His name was Jim Holland. He was looking for Frank.
It took Jim three months and every string he could pull at DFS to track Frank down and get permission to contact him. On Feb. 16, 2000, he called the Niles Home for Children and talked to Foreman, explaining that he wanted to be a resource for Frank and a consistent part of his life. Foreman updated Jim on Frank's progress and suggested a letter as a good way to break the ice.
Jim didn't tell Foreman, but the word "adoption" had already planted itself in his mind. Although Jim is gay, he has always wanted to be a parent and knew that someday he would adopt a child. His work with the adoption agency made him realize he was far more prepared than he thought. Susan Peach was supportive of his idea, but some DFS workers were not, telling him Frank was too "disturbed" and "broken."
Within hours of speaking to Foreman on the phone, Jim sat down and wrote a letter to Frank. "I talked to Leslie today and am delighted to hear that you continue to work on making your life a good and happy one. I'm proud of you and know that you must be proud of yourself," he wrote. He mentioned he had left Edgewood and now worked with people who wanted to become parents. "I rode my motorcycle to Colorado again last summer and thought of you when I saw a lot of cool rocks.... I'd like to keep up with you, wherever you are, by writing and calling. Let Leslie know how you feel about this idea and she'll be able to help us stay in touch if you'd like. Keep working hard and keep taking care of yourself!"
A week later, he called Niles again, and, for the first time in 14 months, talked to Frank. "He sounded lost, little and unanchored," Jim says. The conversation didn't exactly flow. "Are you OK?" Jim asked. "Yes," Frank said. They talked briefly about the roller coasters at Worlds of Fun. "Would it be OK if I sent you another note every week or so?" Jim asked. "It doesn't matter," Frank said before hanging up.
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 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."
And part of who he was was an institutionalized kid. "He would ask if he could go to the bathroom," Jim says. "I would tell him, 'Frank, you just go when you need to -- you don't have to ask.' After dinner, he would ask if he could take his tray up. He had no idea that you cooked food in a kitchen and then washed dishes afterwards."
Then there was the minefield of Frank's memory to traverse. One day Jim mentioned a Thanksgiving tradition, in some adoptive families, of giving thanks for the birth mother. Frank started to cry. "To keep himself from crying, he pounded his legs with his fist to turn the grief into something else and to shut himself up," Jim recalls. "He was not going to feel that, and if he hit himself hard enough in the legs, he would stop feeling that. I told him it was OK to be sad about that and that he didn't have to stuff those feelings. He didn't respond to that. He has a lot of grieving to do."
In August, Jim moved to a two-bedroom apartment in University City so that Frank could have his own room when he came for overnight visits. The first time Frank stepped into the apartment, he told Jim, "My belly is tingling."
"It was kind of endearing," Jim says. "It was something a little kid would say. He didn't interpret the body sensation as a feeling by saying, 'I am excited.' He described the sensation. I felt pretty grateful to make his belly tingle." That weekend, the two went to Wal-Mart. "We spent $300 and bought Pokémon sheets, some posters and a lamp," Jim says. "It made it very real. It was the beginning of putting his needs before mine."
While the adoption process crept along through the system, Jim and Frank had settled into a routine of overnight visits four times a week. For a 29-year-old single man used to a life of books, coffeehouses and playing dominoes, the adjustment wasn't easy. "He would just never stop chattering," Jim says. "Hours on end of 'Come do this' or 'Come look at this.' I would just be panic-stricken. I would be so emotionally overwhelmed by his need that I would just lie in bed and think, 'Oh my God, what have I done? I don't know if I can do this.'"
Frank, for his part, was making some adjustments. "I was trying really hard," he says, "because I really wanted to go home with Jim. I had my own bedroom over there, and my own toys."
But Frank was still in residential treatment. Jim wanted him to come home permanently. On Nov. 27, he wrote another letter to Judge Block. "Without your intervention, Frank may have a full beard by the time I have navigated DFS's obstacle course," Jim wrote. "Frank's case should have been transferred to the adoption unit at DFS months ago.... I am grateful to DFS for bringing Frank back to St. Louis from Kansas City, and his foster-care worker, Carolyn Kirk, has been helpful and interested. Other than those two positives, the best DFS has done has been to stay out from under my feet as I've worked to bring Frank home." He asked Block to expedite matters.
Less than a month later and three days before Christmas, Frank moved into Jim's apartment for good. "It was really fun," Frank says. "It was the first time I got to decorate a tree almost by myself. Me and Jim put the lights up together." On Christmas Day, they opened presents. "He got another bicycle," Jim says. "He wanted a mountain bike. He thought it would be easier to ride. He got a GameBoy and games. I wanted to get him some cool rites-of-passage things, so I got him a watch and a wallet." Frank got Jim a glass cat. "He had two cats, so I thought he would like a glass one," Frank says. "And I got him a pen because he writes a lot of stuff."
Not everything was picture-perfect. One day in January, Jim got a call at work from Litzsinger School: Frank was acting out. He was out of control. He had hit his teachers and kicked a nurse. "I walked in the door, and he gave me one of those 'Fuck you' smiles. Everybody was getting that smile. He was being real aggressive and just kind of nasty."
Jim gathered Frank's things and said, "Frank, come on -- it's time to go."
"I'm not going anywhere with you," Frank said. "I'm not leaving with you."
"I was at a loss," Jim says. "I didn't expect that at all. I didn't know what to do. I was kind of in that place of 'Fuck this -- if he wants to be a badass, he can deal with the cops.'" Two hours later, Jim found himself wearily following a police car as it took Frank to juvenile detention.
The police tried again to get Frank to go home. Frank refused. "I figured I would let him sit in detention and think about it," Jim says. He numbly walked out the door. "Maybe this is it," he thought when he got home. "Maybe he is going to say he doesn't want to come back here. I can't do this if Frank doesn't want to be here." That evening, Jim went back to the detention center under the guise of taking Frank his medication. They brought Frank out. "Frank, you can stay here if you want," Jim said, "or you can come home with me." The detention center was serving meatloaf for dinner. Frank only ate chicken. He wanted to come home.
The next day, while Jim was at work, Shelia Wheeler watched Frank. In her motherly way, she asked him what was going on. "Why didn't you want to come home with Jim?" she wondered. Frank was silent for a bit, then answered: "Once, when I got in trouble at school, [Michael] brought me home and made me drink a bottle of shampoo. I threw up four times." Suddenly it all made sense.
All through the winter, Frank saw a therapist specializing in attachment therapy. Just as at Edgewood, Jim sat with Frank and held him tight while Frank tried to spit at Jim or hurt himself, repeatedly telling Frank, "I am not going to leave you. I am not going to throw you away. You can't push me away, no matter how hard you try." Unlike when he was at Edgewood, Frank had reason to trust those words.
Then came another setback. The Andersons, who had adopted Frank's brother Stephen, had occasionally allowed Frank to visit him. That stopped as soon as the allegations against them surfaced earlier this year. Frank hasn't seen Stephen since and has no hopes of seeing him in the near future, nor any legal right to do so. "I really miss my brother," he says. "How come brothers don't have rights?" His brother occupies his mind a lot these days, and Frank dreams up elaborate plans to track him down sooner or later.
On July 17, just days before his 13th birthday, Francis Scott Coutts became Frank Albert Holland when the adoption was finalized. The small courtroom was packed with DFS social workers, therapists, friends and family, including Shelia Wheeler and Franks' brother Alex. As a celebration, Jim and Frank headed for Six Flags and rode roller coasters until the park closed. As Jim drove home, he could hardly believe that the begging, pleading, letter-writing and advocating was finally over. He looked over at the passenger seat: Frank was sound asleep.
Two weeks later, father and son rode Jim's motorcycle to Florida, partly to visit Tampa, where Frank was born. Frank got to see the ocean for the first time. He stuck his feet in the water "like a cat in a bathtub," says Jim. "The waves would drag me," Frank says, smiling. "I got a bunch of sand in my swimming trunks. Even that was fun."
Their shared experiences these days extend to bedtime readings of Harry Potter books, playing Nintendo and, much to Jim's chagrin, sports. "I am trying to teach him football," Frank says. "But I think he needs to get a book or something, because he still doesn't understand."
And Jim drives Frank to Little League baseball games. "I never thought I would be sitting at a Little League game surrounded by straight white people in South County," says Jim. "I think it has opened me up to experiences. Having Frank be a part of my life lets me appreciate not just Frank but everybody."
And Frank appreciates having a dad, one who says his name in his own unique way. "The first time I met Jim, he said, 'Fraaaank!' He really did. He said my name like he knew me. He still calls me that, except now sometimes he calls me Little Bear. I know Jim loves me even when I am bad, and I love him, too."
Jim lights up on hearing that: "It makes me furious when I think about all the people who said he was too broken. It makes me want to stand on rooftops and shout, 'You were dead wrong about Frank! He is living the life you said he could never have.'"
As for Frank, he doesn't think about life before Jim: "I just think about now."