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An Adopted Boy--and Terror Begins

January 04, 1988|DIANNE KLEIN | Times Staff Writer

Tom and Janice Colella waited for more than four years before adoption officials finally called with the news that they had found them a son: blue-eyed, sandy-haired Tommy, just shy of his eighth birthday.

But looking back on what was a joyous day 10 years ago, the Colellas today see something else.

They remember that time as the start of an emotionally wrenching ordeal. The couple charged in court documents that the Orange County Social Services Agency, instead of making them happy parents, tricked them into taking a dangerous sociopath into their home, a boy so disturbed that animals instinctively feared him. And even after Tommy was committed to a mental institution, they alleged, his constant death threats against the Colellas eventually forced the couple to flee their home.

'Living Nightmare'

"It was a living nightmare," Tom Colella, a 37-year-old electronics engineer, said.

A few weeks ago, Colella and his wife, a junior high school teacher in Santa Ana, agreed to accept $70,000 from the county rather than continue their lawsuit against its social services agency.

Attorney David J. Brobeck, who represented the county, stressed that "nobody admitted any responsibility or liability" but noted that "they did go through a difficult time. There are no questions that there were problems with Tommy."

But medical and court records show that the problems the Colellas encountered with Tommy were indeed extraordinary.

Almost three years before the recent settlement, an Orange County Superior Court judge granted the couple a rare severance of adoption on the grounds that the county had withheld vital information about Tommy's mental illness at the time they formally adopted him in February, 1979, and when they took him into their home as a foster child in July, 1977.

The Orange County Social Services Agency, however, still doesn't see it that way.

"From our perspective, it wasn't that we were withholding information, it was that we didn't know the significance (of Tommy's problems)," said Bob Griffith, the agency's chief deputy director. "We weren't aware of it either."

But the Colellas believe their settlement with the county is a final victory of principles against a system that dumped an "un-adoptable" child on them. And in the end, they say, everyone paid for that mistake.

"We still have nightmares," Janice Colella, 37. said. "And I still get anxiety attacks. But as awful as it was, we know that Tommy suffered more than we did. He was denied the treatment he needed. The system failed him."

What the system also did, according to the Colellas, was turn their lives upside down in a misguided quest to help a child that they were simply incapable of helping. They offered love and patience when, according to medical records belatedly released to the couple, Tommy needed long-term residential treatment for psychosis.

Even as a toddler, court records show, Tommy would play with knives, abuse animals, set small fires and attack other children. When he was 5 years old, his natural mother gave him up after he reportedly set fire to their home, destroying it. Tommy was diagnosed as suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, which can result when the mother drinks during pregnancy. Its effects can include mental retardation and birth defects. The boy never knew his natural father, and his stepfather allegedly disciplined him with his fists and a belt. His placement in two other foster homes ended because of the child's violent, bizarre behavior.

The Colellas say that they knew none of this when they took Tommy into their home and that not until the adoption was set aside did they learn the whole truth about Tommy, his illness and his troubled past.

Documents in the court file describe one instance when, after only a week in their home, Tommy lunged at his new mother, gouging her with his fingernails and screaming.

But the parents said that county adoption officials downplayed their concerns.

Such violent behavior, they were told, was normal for a newly adopted child.

"Every time a new problem would surface with Tommy, they would say, 'This is normal,' " Tom Colella recalled. "They would say to us, 'We are the professionals. We know what we are doing.' They talked us into adopting Tommy."

The Colellas' tale of adoptive parenthood began like those of hundreds of other American couples. After three years of marriage they were childless and began inquiring about adopting as early as 1973.

They say they weren't too particular; they had ruled out only children with severe handicaps or mental problems.

Only Child Offered

Tommy, the Colellas say, was the first and only child that the county adoption agency offered them.

"He looked wholesome, all American. And they led us to believe that we were really lucky to get him, that he was the very best," Tom Colella said.

But looking back, the Colellas said, they should have noticed that something wasn't right.

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