No Good Deed

Heather Merrifield adopted an abused boy. Now he's back where the abuse started—and she's being blamed.

In 2006, Heather Merrifield tried to rescue a 6-year-old boy named Daniel.

The boy had been so severely abused by his mother and father that the state of Oregon terminated their parental rights when he was 3.

Daniel's first adoptive parents gave up on him when he was 5 because they couldn't stop him from sexually touching his little sister.

But Merrifield believed she could make a difference in Daniel's life.

She's been paying for that decision ever since.

She adopted the boy, shouldering the legal and financial responsibilities of caring for him. Four years later, when his problems became so severe she could no longer handle him, she returned him to the custody of state child welfare officials.

Merrifield is still legally responsible for Daniel, now 13. But she has watched in disbelief as the Oregon Department of Human Services sent Daniel back to his birth mother, in whose care he was traumatized.

"I was shocked that you would put a child back with a parent who did that," Merrifield says.

Child abuse in Oregon is a large and growing problem. The number of reported incidents soared 85 percent over the past decade to nearly 75,000 a year. In 2011, the state took nearly 13,000 children into protective custody. State officials are charged with finding permanent, safe homes for these children—and doing so quickly.

"The cases in the child welfare system have become increasingly complex," says Kathy Prouty, permanency director for DHS. "[And] children who do enter foster care have more serious abuse or neglect histories."

State officials declined repeated requests to discuss Daniel's case.

Daniel's story includes many of the elements common to the state's efforts to protect children: the hidden cost of abuse, the powerful institutional drive to find permanent homes for Oregon's most traumatized kids, and the difficulty of navigating a system shrouded in secrecy.

Merrifield has taken the unusual step of going public with her story and making available hundreds of pages of normally confidential documents—including half a dozen evaluations that link the boy's abuse by his birth parents to his later psychological problems. (WW is not using the boy's real name.)

In retrospect, Merrifield, 41, a Milwaukie resident and project manager for a health-care company, wishes she had been given more training and resources to help Daniel. But she also says she was not told how serious his problems were before she adopted him.

Today she is fighting the state's allegations she was an unfit parent. She contends it's Daniel's birth mother who is unfit.

"I always had faith the state sets the rules and does the right thing—especially for kids," Merrifield says. "But I don't have that faith any more."

Merrifield grew up in Gladstone, the oldest of three girls. Her parents divorced when she was 16, but her dad moved in next door and the family remained close. Merrifield was outdoorsy, studious and empathetic.

"She's the type of person who is always there for other people," says her mother, Francie Petrone. "She'd play with the kids other kids wouldn't play with."

After graduating from Gladstone High School, Merrifield served a 2½-year Army hitch at Fort Sill, Okla., providing computer support for the base. She earned a graphic design degree from Portland State University in 2004. She then worked as a creative director at a design firm, and got her Master of Business Administration at night. Then she went to work for her family's chemical business.

In her early 30s, Merrifield was moving up the professional ladder, but knew she wanted to have a child with her then-partner, Kate. (Kate agreed to speak to WW on the condition her real name not be used.)

"I wanted to either have a baby of my own or adopt," Merrifield recalls.

The couple hadn't yet decided how to have a child when in late 2005, Kate, an elementary school counselor, learned of a family at her school struggling with a 6-year-old boy it had recently adopted.

Merrifield and Kate met the boy at his Washington County home and were smitten. Small for his age, Daniel had a blond crewcut, bright blue eyes and all of his baby teeth. The adoptive parents told them he had been abused by his birth parents. The first sign the women saw that Daniel had developmental problems was the way he walked.

"He dragged one leg," Merrifield says. "It just broke your heart."

Merrifield noticed how the boy's adoptive mother looked. "She was all frazzled," Merrifield says. "When you are looking at it from the outside, you say he doesn't seem so bad. I was wondering how she got to the point where she just gave up."

Then the adoptive parents told their story. They had adopted Daniel and his sister only six months earlier. Now they were desperate to get rid of the boy—permanently. Daniel often intentionally urinated on furniture and clothing, requiring that he wear a nighttime diaper. 

Worse, the adoptive parents said, he displayed a strong sexual interest in his adoptive father (something psychologists would later link to his earlier abuse) and was sexually touching his sister. His pursuit of his sister was so serious his adoptive parents locked Daniel in his room at night.

Today, Merrifield acknowledges she and Kate were unprepared and perhaps naive about what they were getting into. "We had some hesitation based on his sexualized behavior," Merrifield says.

But Merrifield and Kate thought they could help Daniel. Their home would be a good fit for the boy because there was no male figure or younger sibling to pursue sexually. And Merrifield was a hiker, cyclist and snowboarder—interests she hoped would engage a young boy.

"It was a feeling you are giving somebody an opportunity for a better life," Merrifield says. "He can be loved like he's never been loved before."

Within a week of meeting Daniel, Merrifield and Kate agreed to be the boy's guardians and moved him into their Milwaukie home. It was February 2006.

Daniel's behavior was worrisome from the start. "I went in and checked on him, and his diaper was dry," Merrifield says of one of her earliest recollections of him. "But there was pee all over his bed and his clothes. I asked him why he did it, and he said, 'To make you mad.'"

That was their first realization of how Daniel used his bodily functions as a way of acting out. "The urinating on furniture and other places, I didn't realize was every single day," Merrifield says. "And the defecating—he was pooping and hiding it. A lot of it was mind games."

Soon after Daniel moved into their home, Merrifield says, the two women received a copy of a psychological evaluation of Daniel done at the Albertina Kerr center in Portland.

The report told an alarming tale.

"Daniel was removed from his biological parents' home just before his third birthday secondary to their methamphetamine use. It is alleged that he was severely neglected and possibly sexually abused by his father," the Jan. 21, 2006 report stated.

The Albertina Kerr psychiatrist diagnosed Daniel with "reactive attachment disorder," common among children who were abused as infants before bonding with their parents. Daniel's urinating and defecating around the house were symptoms of the disorder. So were his difficulty sleeping, eating disorders, manipulative behavior and cruelty to animals.

"Children with reactive attachment disorder seem bright but can't seem to learn and don't learn from discipline," professor Debra Eisert, an Oregon Health & Science University clinical psychologist, tells WW. "Underneath everything is a belief any relationship won't last."

Merrifield and Kate found hope in the occasional moments when Daniel acted like a normal little boy. He liked to feed the ducks at Westmoreland Park and enjoyed  letterboxing, an outdoor game that is a cross between a treasure hunt and geocaching.

"We took him hiking and we took him to Disneyland," Merrifield says. "We taught him how to read and to ride a bike."

Yet there were enough warning signs to instill caution. Merrifield says she asked DHS if she and Kate could serve as foster parents, a temporary arrangement with fewer legal and financial responsibilities than adoption.

"They said, 'No, you're already his guardian, you need to adopt him,'" Merrifield says.

DHS officials declined to discuss what they told the women. But Oregon's top priority for all children under its supervision is a permanent home.

"I wish we had taken him into our home with DHS assistance," Kate says. "But DHS was already done with him. There was a concern he would be returned to the foster-care system and be labeled 'unadoptable.' It felt like we were locked in."

The women moved forward with the adoption. In February 2007, Merrifield and Kate became his legal parents.

"You don't give up on somebody," Merrifield says, "just because they have problems."

About 1,700 kids a year are adopted in Oregon—730 through DHS, and the rest, like Daniel, through private adoptions.

A private adoption means DHS case workers who would normally evaluate the home and prescribe services are not involved. It also means the new parents—in this case, Merrifield and Kate—might get far less information about the child.

Emily Cohen, a Portland adoption lawyer, says parents often feel they have not been given full information when they adopt. "Some families have told me they did not have a clue as to how serious the child's issues are until they got into the home," Cohen says.

Another local adoption lawyer, Catherine Dexter, says adoptive parents have little recourse if they learn after the fact that key information about the child was withheld from them in a private adoption.

"To my knowledge, there is no right of return," Dexter says. "If they feel they have been misled intentionally, they might have a fraud claim. But I'm not aware of a case where such a claim has been successful."

Daniel's first adoptive parents could not be reached for comment. But when they took Daniel to the Albertina Kerr center, just before they gave up custody, the adoptive parents told officials his medical records "contained information they were seeing for the first time."

Merrifield and Kate began to learn more about Daniel's past as they sought help for him. The two spent thousands of dollars for Daniel to see therapists who specialized in traumatized children. For the first year and a half, the couple took Daniel every weekend to the Northwest Neurodevelopmental Training Center in Woodburn, where experts used "touch therapy" to try to recreate the developmental stages the boy had missed.

The women fed Daniel a healthy diet, and limited his access to television and video games. Still, his behavior worsened. "If you had a holiday or something special, he'd throw up," Merrifield says. "We were worried, so we took him to the doctor. The doctor realized it was a game for him—he was choosing these actions."

Merrifield requested his entire file from Clackamas County and DHS. It contained information that Merrifield and Kate had never seen.

"All we had before was little bits of the file," Merrifield says.

They learned Daniel's birth parents—both meth users—had allowed him to urinate and defecate all over their Eagle Creek home.

They learned Daniel was allowed to eat whatever he found on the floor—usually Top Ramen—and that he had eaten a 2-foot section of wall in his bedroom.

They learned Daniel's birth father had allegedly, in Daniel's words, "threatened to cut off his head and legs and pour gasoline on him," according to a state report. (Court records show Daniel's birth mother sought two restraining orders against his father during this time.)

And they learned his father, according to what Daniel told investigators, had "played elephant with him" and "put a squirt gun" in his buttocks. (Clackamas County investigators were told Daniel and an older sister had been sexually abused, but did not bring charges against the father.)

The revelations shocked Merrifield and Kate. When asked if she would have adopted Daniel knowing what she does now, Kate says, "I don't think so."

Merrifield says if a full range of training and support were available from the beginning, she would probably make the same decision to adopt.

"It's a very difficult question," she says.

Merrifield and Kate soon had to deal with what one therapist called Daniel's "hypersexualization"—specifically, his sexual attraction to men with beards (like his birth father) and to younger children.

In fourth grade, Daniel couldn't be allowed out of the sight of an adult because of his "history of sexualized behavior toward others" and a "history of verbal or physical threats toward others," his five-page safety plan said. "He is not permitted to use any student bathrooms."

Daniel was then 9.

One day in 2009, on the way home from an after-school day-care program, Daniel admitted to Merrifield he had kissed a 3-year old boy.

"I asked Daniel what else happened," Merrifield says. "He said he 'stuck his wiener up the boy's butt' and made him 'suck his wiener.'"

Based on his previous behavior, Merrifield says, she believed the incident occurred. Kate says she reported the incident to a DHS hotline, but was surprised no one from the state followed up.

"The assault was a huge turning point," Merrifield says. "I could deal with the attitude and the anger. But with the whole sexualized part, I didn't know what to do because you can't protect the whole world from him."

A new psychologist recommended Daniel be institutionalized. Merrifield says there were no suitable placements available, so they enrolled him in a therapeutic day program at the Parry Center in Portland.

Merrifield says Daniel made progress, but it was only temporary. "He threatened to shoot a little girl on the bus and threatened to stab me while I was sleeping," Merrifield says.

A Clackamas County Behavioral Health evaluation in 2009 painted a dire picture.

"Daniel made comments during intake that he does not intend to work on his problems and make changes," the caseworker wrote. "He states he wants to continue to be sexual as he has in the past. He does not seem to respond to concerns he will get in trouble, stating he wants to go to jail."

After five years as a couple, and nearly four years of caring for Daniel, Merrifield and Kate split up in late 2009. "If that stress of raising Daniel wasn't there," Merrifield says, "we'd still be together."

Merrifield had few respite options to help care for the boy. Soon, she wore out. Clackamas County Behavioral Health officials advised her to take time away from Daniel. Kate was also exhausted, so in 2010 Daniel, then 10, went back into foster care.

"For me to quit anything is really hard," Merrifield says. "I felt like a failure."

Statistics on how frequently adoptions fail are imprecise. But DHS's Prouty says it is rare for an adoptive family to relinquish parental rights; for two adoptions to fail happens only "in a very small percentage of cases."

Merrifield knew she remained legally and financially responsible for Daniel, but was turning over custody to the state of Oregon. She says she expected the state would send him to a safe place. And DHS did send him into "treatment foster care."

Merrifield didn't see or speak to Daniel for a year. Then, in early 2011, she learned DHS officials intended to reunite him with his birth mother—the woman in whose care he'd been so abused as an infant.

"I said, 'This is completely wrong,'" Merrifield says. "'You can't do this.'"

In late 2011, Merrifield sought a "reunification" to have contact with Daniel, stopping short of taking him back into her care.

But DHS in 2012 moved forward with a plan for Daniel's birth mother to adopt him. In August 2012, DHS officials placed Daniel with his birth mother, who had moved to a nearby state. But Oregon officials determined she could not adopt him because she was still married to Daniel's biological father and previously had her parental rights terminated.

The state then shifted to a different plan—Daniel's birth mother would become his permanent guardian. In order for that to happen, state officials sought to prove in court Merrifield and Kate had been "unfit" parents because they abandoned him.

Merrifield, sifting through public records, determined the birth mother's family included toddlers and babies who'd be living close to Daniel.

Merrifield says DHS officials are disregarding Daniel's safety, and the safety of the children he might victimize.

"I'm a rule-follower," she says. "If a sign says, 'Don't trespass,' I don't trespass. His mother never followed any rules, and now DHS isn't, either."

For the first three months Daniel was back with his birth mother, Oregon officials acknowledge in court, no caseworker checked on him. In January, a caseworker in his new state met with Daniel and his mother.

"Mother spoke of the chaos the family is going through," the caseworker wrote on Jan. 15, 2013. "She states she feels she has lost control over her children."

Nonetheless, Oregon officials have repeatedly said in court they believe that living with his birth mother is the best option for Daniel. His court-appointed attorney and a court-appointed special advocate agree.

"[Daniel] has experienced abuse, rejection and uncertainty," wrote Daniel's advocate, Dan Hortsch, on May 20, 2013. "No other home will allow him a a true sense of belonging."

Under the settlement the state proposes, Merrifield would remain Daniel's adoptive mother, legally and financially responsible for him. He would live with his birth mother with no further DHS oversight.

Merrifield's friends and family tell her she should give in to DHS. But she keeps thinking of the fresh-faced 6-year-old she first met—and all the damage he might someday do.

And she's still the one accountable for his actions until he's 18.

“My right mind is saying, ‘Be done with it,’” Merrifield says. “But I cannot walk away.” 

WWeek 2015

Willamette Week’s reporting has concrete impacts that change laws, force action from civic leaders, and drive compromised politicians from public office. Support WW's journalism today.