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"DON'T CRY, MOM. I'M COMING HOME SOON." "NO, BABY. YOU'RE NOT. YOU'RE NOT COMING HOME SOON.''

Today she goes to court to face the charges against her: Abuse. Neglect. Abandonment. She will stand before a judge while investigators explain how she begged them to take her 12-year-old son.

"There's nothing in their law books that says how you can give your kid away," Cheryl Holley, 42, said. "Not that I want to. I'm just trying to get him help."

Seven years ago, Holley, 35 and divorced, adopted a 5-year-old West Virginia boy who needed a home. He was scrawny and dirty, with a blackened front tooth, but she didn't ask much about his background.

"I figured with enough love and doctors, with a stable home and therapy . . . you think one plus one will equal a happy family," she said. "But it wasn't that way at all."

The boy cut the cords to Holley's computer, TV and stereo. He beat her with his fists, stabbed her with a pencil.

Holley, who lives in Tampa and runs a business selling custom labels, learned her son has fetal alcohol syndrome and is mentally handicapped.

He started acting out sexually; she'd wake to find him hovering over her. At school, he tried to put his hands inside his classmates' pants. By the time he was 8, Holley could count 23 people he had tried to molest.

Three times, officers Baker Acted him. Three times, he was arrested. Holley kept trying to get him help.

But seven years of love and therapy couldn't undo what the first five years had done.

About a month ago, after he stalked another girl and chased his mom with a screwdriver, Holley started searching for a treatment center for her son. Unable to find one she could afford, she decided the only way to help him was surrender him to the state. Her lawyer said she won't go to jail, but she's angry and humiliated that it came to this.

In January, Holley's son was sent to a group home in New Port Richey. On Feb. 1, she was allowed to see him for the first time.

She brought his electric guitar and a bag of peppermints.

She invited a reporter to witness the reunion.

- - -

In the group home parking lot, where the other boys couldn't see, he wrapped his arms around her waist. His head dropped to her chest. She held him.

Finally, Holley lifted her hands to wipe her eyes.

Her son swiped the bottom of his black T-shirt across his wet cheeks. Then he looked up. "Don't cry, Mom," he said softly. "I'm coming home soon."

Holley shook her head. "No, Baby. You're not," she said, her voice breaking. "You're not coming home soon."

She reached for him, but he ducked away and dashed across the parking lot. He stopped beside her SUV, turned his back.

"You're mad, aren't you?" Holley asked. She tried to touch his shoulder. He shook her off. "Want to go get some McDonald's?"

- - -

He didn't. They ended up at a Chinese restaurant instead. "So, what looks good?" Holley asked, pointing to the wall plastered with photos: chicken lo mein, sweet and sour pork.

Without looking, her son shrugged. "What about ribs?" Holley asked. "Those look good."

He glanced up, saw the picture and grinned.

Holley gasped. "You're not brushing your teeth," she said, squinting. "Your teeth are orange. When was the last time you brushed your teeth?"

"When you made me."

"Two weeks? You haven't brushed your teeth in two weeks?"

- - -

She paid for the spare rib combo, sweet and sour chicken for her, then sat at a square table. Her son plopped into the chair on the other side. "No, come sit by me," she called, patting the seat. "I want you close."

Reluctantly, he slunk next to her and stared at the floor between his sneakers.

"What's wrong, Baby?" she cooed, brushing her hand across his hair. "Are you sad? If you're sad, it's okay. Are you scared? If you are, that's okay too." He pressed his lips into a tight line, kept his gaze glued to the floor.

"Look at me, Baby. You're still my son."

She reached to cup his chin. He threw his forehead onto the table, covered his ears with his arms.

"It's going to be okay," she soothed. But she didn't sound like she believed it.

She squeezed her eyes tight.

"Stop crying," said her son, his face still pressed to the table.

"I'm not crying."

"I know you are. I know you."

"It's going to be okay," Holley said again. "I'm going to fight as hard as I can to get you help, to get your brain right."

- - -

His mouth was full of ribs when he next spoke. "I'm going home, Mom," he proclaimed suddenly. "I'm behaving. I am. I'm being really good."

Holley's plastic fork fell into her rice. She took a swig of Diet Coke, changed the subject. "Are you sleeping through the night?"

"Well, they put me in my own room. But I have to sleep with my hand on my cheat codes, you know, for my Game Boy, so no one will take them."

"What about your Game Boy? Do you sleep with that too?"

"Somebody already took that. And all my games."

"Do you cry at night?" Holley asked her son.

"No. But you do. You're a girl cry baby."

"You know why?" She touched his cheek, sticky with rib sauce. "Because I miss you."

- - -

She kept trying to converse, to connect, to understand this place where her son was now, without her.

"Tell me, what's fun there? What's the best thing you do there?"

"My games."

"But now you don't have them."

"Nope."

"Well, what do you hate there?"

"I don't know." He shoved an egg roll into his mouth.

"Are you afraid there?" Silence. "Do you scream at night?" Silence. "You scream at home. It's okay to be afraid. I'd be afraid . . ."

He pushed his Styrofoam plate across the table. "Stop asking me these questions!"

- - -

"Oh, we gotta call Grandma. I promised her you'd call," Holley said.

"I'm not talking to her."

"You don't want to talk to her? I'm going to tell her you said that."

"Okay."

"You want to call your teacher? She wanted to talk to you too."

"No."

"She keeps asking about you. Let's call her."

"No." The boy leaned back in the plastic chair, flung one leg across his lap.

"These people all care about you. They miss you," she said. He studied his sneakers. She bent to see his eyes. "You're not going to shut me out too, are you?"

"No."

"If anyone is mean to you there, tell me. If anyone wants to touch you, you better scream. Even if they say they'll beat you up, you gotta tell."

The boy fingered his shoelaces. "Okay."

"And you better not touch anyone. Ever," she said. "Even if you want to." Silence. "Okay?"

Her son nodded slowly. He seemed to slip away.

- - -

Half of the spare ribs were left, plus most of her chicken. "Let's save this," said the boy. "For you and me for dinner tomorrow. We can take it home."

Holley's face fell. Did he really not understand?

"You're not coming home," she said gently. "Not for a while."

Unfazed this time, her son said brightly, "Well, let's take it to Jack's."

Jack is his uncle. "We can't go to Jack's," Holley said. "Don't you remember?"

"Why?" asked her son.

"Because you bad-touched there. We can't go there anymore. That's why you're here. Because you bad-touched."

The boy turned to his mom. "Why?"

"Why did you bad touch? I don't know why. But that's why you're here. That's why I'm trying to get you help."

Suddenly, her son shoved back his chair and stood up. He stomped across the restaurant, parked himself by the door.

"I understand why you're mad," said Holley, tossing their food in the garbage. "I'm mad too." She stepped past him and pushed open the door.

"I'm mad because someone hurt you. I don't want you to hurt."

Silence.

"And I don't want you to hurt anyone else."

Lane DeGregory can be reached at degregory@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8825.

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