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Bonds of adoption loosen under strain of a child's mental illness

TAMPA — In March 2006, Christa Kelley drove to Joshua House in Lutz to pick up a young relative, a red-headed girl who was 8.

The girl's clothes were torn and didn't fit. Her socks were black with dirt. It hurt Kelley to see her this way, so Kelley made a home for the girl and two years later adopted her.

But there were problems that soap and water couldn't fix.

In the years that followed, the girl behaved in ways that frightened Kelley. She seemed to like knives. She said a Beanie Baby had ordered her to kill the family cat. The cat was unharmed, but Kelley worried about the mental state of her adopted daughter.

Now the girl is 13 and back in an institution — this time a psychiatric facility in east Hillsborough County.

She has been there for six months. Medicaid paid the bill while Kelley hoped for a cure.

Today, the state money runs out, Kelley said.

Today, it's time once again to pick up the red-headed girl.

Kelley doesn't think it will happen. She doesn't think she can do it this time.

• • •

The girl, whom the St. Petersburg Times is not naming, spent most of her first 10 years in and out of foster care, according to caseworker notes from an adoption study.

Her biological mother gave up parental rights in 2006. The mom has been arrested several times in Pinellas County and spent nearly two years in prison starting in 2007 for grand theft, forgery, fraud and drug charges.

Kelley knew the girl had psychological issues. She was aggressive and had trouble making friends.

But Kelley, who had two adult daughters, adopted her in March 2008. The four went on a celebration cruise to the Bahamas.

Kelley tried to give the girl a normal family life. They went swimming and played board games.

At first the girl did well in school, Kelley said.

About a year ago, her behavior took a dramatic turn for the worse. At school, she was suspended for bullying. At home, she brought knives into her bedroom and started small fires outside. She hoarded piles of food and seemed to intentionally burn herself in the shower, Kelley said.

One night, Kelley awakened to find the girl crawling near her with a knife.

Then came the cat episode. The girl tied a noose around the cat's neck, Kelley said. "I was totally freaked out," she said.

Kelley tried to have the girl held under the Baker Act, but authorities decided she wasn't a threat to herself or others. A children's crisis center accepted the girl at Kelley's request but released her within 24 hours.

After months of searching for help, Kelley found the Tampa Bay Academy.

On June 4, Kelley drove her adopted daughter to the campus in Riverview.

Kelley cried. She said the girl didn't.

Kelley is aware the academy has had problems in recent years. The state is trying to revoke the facility's license.

But the arrangement worked. She got to see the girl without having to keep her at home.

"I'm afraid of this child," she said.

• • •

Only Kelley is free to publicly discuss the red-headed girl.

Privacy laws keep the state from talking about her condition or treatment.

The state-operated Agency for Health Care Administration oversees Medicaid funding. Agency spokeswoman Shelisha Durden, speaking only in general terms, said in-patient psychiatric treatment for adolescents typically lasts no more than six months.

Kelley's adopted daughter has spent nearly six months at Tampa Bay Academy.

When services are denied or reduced, Durden said, parents can appeal. But Kelley said she learned only last week that an appeal was possible.

With the academy at risk of closing, she looked into another facility. But it would cost her $54 a day. A month's stay is almost half of her take-home pay, she said.

The Department of Children and Families doesn't often get calls about parents refusing to pick up their children, spokesman Terry Field said.

He said officials try to work with the parents — by suggesting other facilities or special foster homes — but if the parents don't cooperate, they could be charged with child neglect.

Kelley knows all that.

But she worries most about breaking the news to the girl.

She pictures her still standing in too-small clothes, waiting for someone to come.

Times news researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Jessica Vander Velde can be reached at (813) 226-3433 or

Bonds of adoption loosen under strain of a child's mental illness 11/29/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 30, 2010 7:57am]
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