Grandparents say twins paid price for a disabled mother's rights.
Published May 24, 2008|Updated May 24, 2008

Kelley Harkins loves being pregnant, a full bulging belly, a growing life inside her. She loves having babies. She loves thoughts of motherhood.

But there is a problem. She has trouble being a good mother.

Kelley Harkins is 30, with borderline mental retardation, cerebral palsy and seizure disorder. She has lived much of her adult life in a netherworld between temporary housing and the streets.

She admits she cannot live alone. She has two boys - twins - who are now toddlers. They were taken from her a few months after their birth. Kelley's parents are now raising the boys, who have myriad emotional and developmental problems.

The course of their lives from birth until now raises a question. It is not: What is a good mother? It is: What is an adequate mother? Who decides this? And with what consequences for mother and child?

The twins, Louis and Daniel, were normal at birth. "Perfect, little healthy boys,'' remembers their grandmother.

After the babies' delivery at Bayfront Medical Center in St. Petersburg nearly three years ago, a nurse rolled Kelley out to the curb in a wheelchair. The boys went with her. They were her first born, the result of a passing affair. "A shocker,'' Kelley says with a smile.

But seven months later, after an anonymous call to an abuse hotline, the Florida Department of Children and Families took the twins into custody. They were placed with Kelley's parents, Richard and Susie Harkins of Largo, where they remain today. But the Harkinses say something happened to the boys in their first few months of life that changed them.

"They're not right," says Susie Harkins, 58.

Psychologists, psychiatrists and neurologists are trying to figure out the extent of the boys' problems. Among them: sensory issues, anger outbursts, hyperactivity, aggression and obsessive compulsive behaviors. Now, the Harkinses question everyone - doctors, nurses, social workers, agencies, administrators and aides - who believed Kelley could be a good mother, from the time she got pregnant until the day sheriff's deputies removed the boys from her care in the middle of a spring night.

"None of this had to happen,'' Susie Harkins says.

The couple say the boys never should have been allowed to live with Kelley. They are angry her rights as a disabled woman seemed to trump the rights of her children. They are angry the children missed out on a life with loving, adoptive parents because some people believed Kelley's ability to give birth equaled an ability to provide care to her babies.

They are angry the boys' personalities, abilities - their very lives - have been forever altered. Spend a day with the family, or just a few minutes, and you'll understand their fury.

Like windup toys

Midmorning. The sun shines through the miniblinds of the back bedroom of the Harkinses' mobile home in an over-55 community.

The little blond-haired 21/2-year-olds sleep in cribs covered with tents to keep them safe. They turn their mattresses upside down and tear holes in the netting. They're like windup toys that don't wind down.

"Mommy up. Mommy up. Mommy up,'' says Lukie to his grandma after a diaper change. "Push button. Push button. Push button.''

Later, Danny joins the repetitive chorus of demands: "Mommy up. Mommy up. Mommy up. Push button. Push button.''

Susie Harkins puts them in clean outfits and lets each boy push the button on the electric air freshener on the dresser, as requested. When she puts them on the ground, they run.

Since the boys moved in with her and her husband, she has lost 50 pounds. She had to quit her job to care for them. The boys spend much of their day in an extra playroom with a plastic gate that runs the perimeter - to keep them from pounding on the computer, climbing out the window or knocking over the TV.

The only time they sit still is when they are strapped in their chairs for snacks and meals. When the family shops for groceries, they use three carts; one for each boy and another for the food. During outings, the boys wear harnesses to keep them from running away.

"It's something I've never seen in my life,'' Susie Harkins says one evening, as the boys tear from room to room.

"Walk. Walk. Remember,'' she urges, showing them an exaggerated march. "Don't run.''

Case by case

The main purpose of the country's child protection system is just that: to protect children and keep them safe from abuse, neglect and abandonment.

When abuse is alleged, investigators look to see if parents are doing something definably wrong: beating their children, sexually abusing them, refusing to take them to school or failing to feed, clothe or shelter them.

But some abuse and neglect issues occur subtly, over time.

Laws don't require parents to bond with their children, to love them unconditionally, to cuddle them when they're scared, to wipe away their tears - things some child development experts say can be as important as food and shelter for the rapidly growing brains of infants.

Laws don't require parents to be great or even good. They require them to be adequate.

But is adequate enough?

Kelley Harkins' disabilities did not automatically disqualify her from getting a chance to parent. If they had, it could have been discrimination.

When caseworkers investigate allegations of abuse, a parent's developmental disability is but one item on a checklist they use to assess family safety, along with substance abuse and criminal background, among many others.

"We recognize some people with developmental disabilities are excellent parents, maybe better parents than those of normal intelligence,'' said John Harper, DCF's child protective investigations manager who did not speak directly about Kelley's case because of confidentiality. "That being said, it's a case-by-case basis.''

In Kelley's case, her parents believe her inability to parent was clear because of her disabilities. How can you discount that when two young lives were at stake? they ask.

They say they warned everyone they could - DCF, hospital nurses, doctors and the Medicaid-funded agency, ADEPT, that employed her live-in aide.

"She's like a little girl,'' her mother says.

Nationally, researchers estimate more than half of all mentally retarded parents experience permanent or temporary removal of their children, according to the Arc of the United States, a Maryland-based advocacy group for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Unlike Kelley's kids, children of the mentally retarded are often taken immediately.

"I've heard of them taking them from the hospital right when they're born, when the parent has not even been evaluated,'' says Leigh Ann Davis, the Arc's assistant director of professional and family services.

But the mentally retarded can parent if given adequate support, she says. A mother's ability to care for a child should be evaluated first.

"We're not saying the child's needs are not important,'' Davis says. "That's primary. Just saying a person with a disability can't parent is just not true.''

In Kelley's case, someone - many someones perhaps - decided she could take on motherhood. And then, seven months later, the decision changed.

In Florida, anyone can alert DCF - the state's child welfare agency - to abuse or the threat of abuse. Even if no abuse has occurred, the state can oversee families, including providing an extra pair of eyes and parenting classes to help struggling parents.

Kelley's father says in her case, that never occurred.

Richard Harkins, a 60-year-old accountant, said he called DCF from the social services office at the hospital. The person who answered wanted to know: Are you aware of any abuse?

Well, no, he told them. The mother is still in the hospital, he said, but I'm afraid of what will happen.

"We'll look into it,'' Richard Harkins says he was told. "Nobody wanted to take responsibility.''

Problems at birth

Richard and Susie adopted Kelley as an infant, fulfilling a desire of having a daughter after already having a son of their own. Because her biological mother had strep throat at the time she delivered, Kelley had high fevers at birth, leaving a hole in her brain that resulted in the retardation and cerebral palsy, her parents say.

Kelley learned to walk, though doctors had said she never would. She went to school and attended special education classes. Records show her IQ is below average.

Kelley says she's not as smart as most people at some things, but says she's smarter than a lot of people at other things. She may not read very well, but she knows how to use cell phones, text messaging and e-mail. She knows where to find free meals. She knows bus routes around the county.

Though she walks with a limp and talks with slurred words, her disabilities are mostly on the inside. Her parents say they often surface in the social arena, as someone who is too trusting.

She admits to having an abusive ex-boyfriend. Her parents say she befriends homeless people and criminals.

"Some of the people she's friends with, you'd be afraid to meet on the street,'' her mother says.

In 1998, this became obvious when Kelley disappeared for six days after riding a city bus to her job as a grocery bagger at Albertsons in Belleair.

Instead of going to work, she met a mentally impaired homeless man on the bus and lived with him in the woods behind a Largo convenience store. Stories ran in the newspaper to help find her. Television spots aired.

Afterward, her parents took her to Morton Plant Hospital, where, they say, a psychiatrist encouraged them to have her tubes tied to prevent pregnancy.

They consulted an attorney, but in the end realized it would be difficult to prove Kelley's incompetence in court. Kelley eventually moved out of her parents' home and into her own apartment with an aide. She got by on disability checks. She dated.

Then, she called her parents one day with news. She was pregnant.

"She was thrilled,'' her father says. "It was our worst nightmare.''

Oddities are noticed

The Harkinses say they visited the babies regularly when they were with Kelley and would take one and then the other on the weekends, to give her a break.

They quickly noticed oddities about her parenting: how she would whine if one of them poked her in the eye, as if the baby was trying to hurt her. How she didn't seem to bond with the babies. How she picked up one of the boys by the neck.

Kelley says she was a new mother, learning how to raise babies.

She says she bathed them three times a day to keep them clean. She says she spoiled them with treats and clothes.

Records show when one of the boys got sick and received antibiotics, she gave both of them the medicine.

The night the abuse call was made and the boys were taken, Kelley says she got into a fight with her live-in aide over the temperature on the air conditioner.

When the Sheriff's Office delivered the boys to her parents the next day, the Harkinses noticed how the boys would pull away when being held, as if it hurt. The boys would scream in terror at bath time and stare at the showerhead above.

Her parents can only speculate as to why.

Kelley can still see the boys, but only with her parents' permission. The relationship between Kelley and her parents is often strained.

She recently met a reporter in a St. Petersburg park near where she is staying to talk about the boys. When asked if she hurt her sons, Kelley denied it.

"They say I'm an unfit mother,'' she says about her parents' allegations.

Was she?

"No one's perfect,'' she says, letting out a sigh. "I did what I could do.''

Kelley says she's glad the boys are safe with her parents, but she misses them. And she wants them back.

Midway through the conversation, a pregnant woman in blue shorts walks by. Kelley stares. She runs her hands over her belly.

"I want to look like that,'' Kelley says, her eyes lighting up.

"I just want one more so I can prove to the state and to my parents I can raise (a baby) and be a good mom.''

Recently, Kelley went to the hospital because of a miscarriage. She says it was her fourth since the boys were born. Triplets.