BRANDON — They gather at dusk on the screened porch behind an old brick home, bearing paperwork and note pads, prescriptions and court reports, burdens that stoop their shoulders.
Some bring their children; sitters watch them in another room. Some come as couples. Single parents arrive alone.
They slump into folding chairs arranged in a circle. They nod to each other. Many have been here before.
They don't know each other's names, but they share similar stories: of alarm systems and bolted bedrooms, of motion sensors and locked-up steak knives.
They have all adopted children. And now those children are scaring them.
• • •
"Welcome. It's good to see you all," says Michele DeLoach, who oversees adoption support at the Sylvia Thomas Center in Brandon. "Tonight, we have a special guest — Dr. Fred Alberts, a child psychologist. He's an expert in evaluating children and adolescents."
The families have driven from all corners of Hillsborough County to take part in this free support group. Some are here for the first time, crying for help. For others, this is a last-ditch grasp at hope after years of struggling and suffering, after seeing countless doctors and therapists, teachers and lawyers and police officers.
"Most adoptions go very well," DeLoach had explained in her office before the group session began. "But for those that don't, we try to work on the problems and get things under control so those families can stay together."
In the last few years, she said, there have been too many stories about parents who adopted children — then had to give them back to the state's foster care system. National studies show between 10 and 25 percent of adoptions are "dissolved." The rate increases with the child's age.
The parents come to these sessions because they see themselves heading down that road. They love their kids and don't want to send them back into foster care. But they're desperate. This is their chance to talk to others who understand.
• • •
"He's not depressed, really. He's very angry. But you wouldn't notice that right off," a man in a Hawaiian shirt tells the group about his son. Many of the parents asked, for privacy reasons, that their names not be used.
"He almost never tells the truth. You can't take your eyes off him. I caught him watching my 4-year-old granddaughter take a bath."
The man and his wife had raised seven kids when someone in their church sent out a call: Dozens of crack babies needed homes. So the man and his wife adopted twins: a brother and sister who were only 10 days old.
Now the twins are 16 and out of control.
"He got a pellet gun," the man says. "Climbed out of his window and went to the neighbor's house. He threatened the man with it, said he just wanted to see his reaction. But there's a little girl who lives over there. I found rounds of .22 ammo in a box beside four Barbie dolls with no clothes on."
The man in the Hawaiian shirt throws up his hands. "I don't really understand any of this."
The woman next to him, a blond in a white blouse, pats his knee. "We know," she says. "You're at home here."
The psychologist had given them forms to fill out: four green spreadsheets, ranking everything from "guilty" and "talk suicide" to "clumsy" and "uses drugs." The checklist, he told them, would help him see behavioral and emotional problems.
"Children express depression in a way we don't see in adults," Dr. Alberts says. "The lying tells us he really doesn't want you to see who he is."
The man in the Hawaiian shirt locks eyes with the psychologist. "My biggest fear is that he's going to hurt someone," he says. "He's going to rape someone, just as sure as I'm sitting here. And I don't know how we can keep watching him 24/7."
• • •
Children who have been abused, abandoned or neglected have developmental and emotional needs that must be addressed, said DeLoach, the adoptions specialist.
"These parents often don't know the background of their children, whether there was substance abuse during pregnancy, a history of mental illness, whatever baggage they carry with them," she had said before the group began. "Often, they feel alone, trying to deal with these issues, not knowing what caused them.
"Sometimes it just helps to know that you're not the only one whose kid urinates all over the house."
The support group meeting continues. A woman in a pink T-shirt is leaning against her husband, looking defeated. This Brandon couple had three children younger than 10 when they met a 6-year-old boy with cystic fibrosis who needed a family.
He also has an attention deficit, the foster worker told them, so he needs these medications.
After they adopted him, their pediatrician told them they'd been duped: The boy's prescriptions weren't for ADD. They were antipsychotic drugs.
"Our son sees people who aren't there," says the boy's dad, a frazzled man in a plaid shirt. "The invisible people tell him to do terrible things. We've got other kids at home who are being affected by this. What is the possibility of my children ever living a normal life?"
The psychologist stares at his lap. "I can't say that," he says. It sounds like an apology. "I don't know how effective medications might be, or behavioral intervention. It could be extreme. Or he could respond to therapy. Anything could happen."
A pale man in a blue polo shirt leans forward and speaks for the first time all night. "How do we even know what normal is?" he asks. "My first two kids were angels. And now . . ." His voice trails off. He shuffles his sneakers. Someone flips on a light, bathing the porch in a golden glow. "The only thing that seems to work is isolation," he tells the group. "Limit the stimulation. One thing at a time."
"There's nothing else to take away," says the mother of the teenage twins. "They haven't watched TV in months. There's no computer. They can't do anything. Even at Wal-Mart, I make them stay right by me."
The psychologist asks, "But how practical is that, down the road?"
"It's not practical," the man in the blue polo shirt says softly. "But it's survival."
The time is over too quickly. Two hours after they arrived, the exhausted parents file out of the screened porch, patting each other on the back, wishing each other luck. They gather their papers, their prescriptions and their children. And they head home, driving into the darkness.
Lane DeGregory can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8825.