Tom interviewed on adoption case

From WFAA.com

MARICOPA COUNTY, Arizona — When you first meet them, "Phillip" and "Sara" seem to have the kind of family other people envy.

The Arizona couple has five biological children; the oldest, at 14, is ready for early acceptance to college. Her younger sister loves cooking and music. "I really want to be a conductor," she said.

Their younger brothers are twins, whom Sara likes to call her "mad scientists." When asked, one said, "I would like to be an engineer."

The baby of the family is four years old, but already playing the violin.

Beneath the surface, however, are deep wounds. Names have been changed to protect their privacy.

Their story begins two years ago, when Phillip and Sara decided to adopt a baby. "We wanted to add to our family," Sara said, "but pregnancy's been really, really hard."

In November of 2008, they said they were shown a flier from the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services. It shows four siblings, ages 6, 5, 4 and 3. They're described as healthy, and not in therapy or on medications.

"We got together with them and felt like we had a close bond," Phillip said.

The couple decided to adopt all four of the siblings, expanding their family to nine children.

Less than two weeks later, they said, the children had moved into their Arizona home, and the adoption process began.

"We had been told that there was some neglect and physical abuse," said Phillip. The couple, however, said they had not been informed about any sexual abuse.

The flier said the siblings would get along well with other children. But soon after the children settled in, Sara knew something was wrong, saying the prospective adoptees were "trying to get children into secret clubs that involved them under blankets, always trying to get into crawl spaces... under tables, hiding, wanting them to keep secrets."

The two oldest prospective adoptees, Sara said, began acting out sexually, molesting Phillip and Sara's three youngest biological children.

She described some of their behavior: "Wanting to take the baby's diaper off; wanting to take the baby up the stairs down the hall, around the corner into the bedroom; locking the door, into the lock-in closet, with the door barricaded to take the diaper off, things like that. It was hard."

The couple contacted the Arizona placement agency that was working with Texas to find homes for the children. They said they were put in touch with the Texas caseworker and supervisor.

But it wasn't until the end of January — two months after the children arrived in their home — that Phillip and Sara said they received the childrens' psychological evaluations.

The words sent them reeling. It was proof, they told News 8, that the system had failed them.

"The psychological evaluation was really a big blow to the gut," Phillip said.

Tom McKenzie is the family's lawyer. "It was the diagnosis of the psychologist that they were abused," he said, and "were perpetrating on each other, were acting out."

Many details are too graphic to share. "I remember feeling I understand what suffering is now better than I ever have before," Phillip said.

In court records, the prospective adoptees' court-appointed lawyer backed up Phillip and Sara's story, telling a judge the family did not receive the sexual abuse records.

The Arizona placement agency signed an affidavit saying it did not get them, either.

Texas DFPS policy says the full case history should have been given to the agency.

"Texas CPS failed us," Phillip said.

In court filings, Texas has argued that the caseworker and her supervisor have official immunity. The Fort Worth federal judge has not issued any rulings in the case.

The Texas Attorney General's office argues that if any harm was done to the Arizona family, it was the fault of the adoptive children or the Arizona agency they worked through — not the Texas caseworkers. Further, the state attorney argues, Texas families don't have a legal right to know the histories of the children they adopt or foster.

That stuns Phillip and Sara.

"Have they no morals?" Sara asked. "I was very surprised to hear that."

Phillip and Sara were distraught, not wanting to give up the children they had planned to adopt, knowing that they were victims as well.

"These kids are not throwaway kids," Sara said.

The couple's oldest biological daughters, who were not victims, assisted in 24-hour monitoring of the seven younger children, trying to keep everyone safe. Relatives came to help.

"You cannot sleep, you cannot go to the bathroom, you must have eyes-on attention on these children at all times," Sara said.

But in the end, Phillip and Sara said lawyers, therapists, and Arizona caseworkers warned them that keeping the prospective adoptees would likely mean having their biological children taken from them because of an unsafe environment.

"In the end, they allowed us to make the worst decision of our entire life," Sara said.

In February, Phillip and Sara said goodbye to the four children they had thought would join their family forever. They are suing the Tarrant County-based Texas caseworker along with her supervisor, hoping to prevent the same thing from happening to someone else.

The Arizona couple has been told the children they tried to adopt are now getting the help they need. Their own children are also in counseling.

Reflecting on their ordeal, Phillip and Sara said they don't know if there are issues that will recur for their family in five or 10 years.

"You can never say. We'll have to see,” Sara said.

And so the family that seemed to have it all, now wants one thing: The ability, one day, to leave their pain behind.

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