HUDSON, Ill. — In the end, Bette Winks may simply have loved children too much. So much, some believe, that she wouldn't let anything--not even the law--prevent her and her husband, Charles, from making as many children as possible part of their comfortable rural life here in the American Heartland.
After rearing eight children of their own, the Winkses began adopting severely handicapped youngsters, prompting the governor of Illinois to honor them in 1982 as an Adoptive Family of the Year--one of 12 statewide.
'Couldn't Turn Down a Child'
Eventually, the family brought in as many as 22 youngsters, most of them handicapped infants who were born as far away as New York and Oregon, or poor toddlers from the streets of Tijuana, Mexico.
"We just couldn't turn down a child," Bette Winks once remarked.
Today, the Winkses' once-expansive family is shattered, its dissolution documented in voluminous court files, reams of newspaper clippings and comments from law enforcement authorities in Illinois, California and Mexico. Bette Winks, the former family matriarch and elementary school teacher, now bides her time in a Tijuana prison cell, far from her well-ordered home. Dispirited but unwilling to tell her story to reporters, she is awaiting the outcome of charges that she attempted to buy a 1-year-old Mexican girl for $3,000.
Authorities in Illinois and California have taken custody of 16 children formerly in the Winkses' household--including 12 believed to have been Mexican-born--asserting that the youngsters were not adopted legally or were left without adequate care.
Ran Afoul of Regulations
Two other children have been returned by the family to a social service agency in Illinois, while three more are living with a baby sitter in this rural township. In her obsessive desire to have children, authorities say, Bette Winks ran afoul of the myriad regulations governing adoptions--particularly international adoptions, which involve a number of federal immigration procedures.
"I don't think anyone doubts that she loved children," said Ronald C. Dozier, the chief prosecutor in McLean County, Ill., whose office went to court and succeeded in preventing the Winkses from regaining custody of six of the seized children.
"But on the other hand, it gets to a point where it becomes pathological. . . . I think it became an obsession with her. . . ."
Added McLean County Sheriff Steve Brienen: "It was kind of an illegal 'Cheaper by the Dozen.' "
The Winkses have denied ever buying or selling a child, insisting that they have just provided money for the care of the children and have never done anything illegal. No family member has ever been charged with a felony in the United States.
"I think my mom just wants kids so bad that she wants to get 'em before the law'll let her," said Charles Howard Winks, 25, the eldest son and the only family member here who agreed to talk even generally about the case, as he manned the cash register of the family gas station in nearby Bloomington. "She really wants kids so bad she can't wait."
Legal Difficulties Cited
Law enforcement authorities cite legal difficulties to explain why neither state nor federal officials have lodged any formal allegations against the Winks family, beyond a local obstruction of justice charge pending against Bette Winks. Officials note the lack of a felony baby-buying statute in Illinois and the virtual absence of federal adoption oversight, other than the immigration law applied in international adoption cases.
The singular tale of the Winkses, offering glimpses into the murky world of underground adoptions, is spiced by details in state and federal court documents of quick trips to Tijuana and Louisiana in search of children and an alleged money-for-baby exchange at a suburban Chicago motel room, of the spirited efforts of a middle-aged schoolteacher and mother who apparently couldn't stop acquiring children--and is now paying for it.
So convoluted are some details, and so glazed over with layers of questionable documents and purportedly false statements, that U.S. and Illinois authorities say some parts of the riddle--such as the true identities of the 12 Latino children taken from the Winkses--may never be solved.
Here in central Illinois, where corn and soybean fields stretch as far as the eye can see, two strongly divergent portraits have emerged of Bette Winks, herself an only child, who was the clear motivating force behind the family's accumulation of children.
Friends, Critics Disagree
"In my opinion, she's bullheaded, stubborn, opinionated, one-sided, and could care less about anything but herself," said Sheriff Brienen, a law enforcement veteran of 19 years in Bloomington, the McLean County seat.
On the other side are the Winkses' friends, family and other admirers, who portray her as a loving soul who simply has too much to give in a mistrustful world.
"They were a loving, close family," said Margaret DeRosa, a longtime family friend who taught piano to the young Winkses.