Chris (not his real name) seemed like a polite, shy kid the first time Keith Cordell Robinson met him at a local McDonalds on a chilly Sunday in March 2003. Robinson, a licensed foster parent, “wanted to be a dad in the worst way,” he says. “I wanted to have the Christmas trees and the toys and go to hockey games and Broadway shows–all that stuff.”
For the first few weeks after they met, the then-10-year-old Chris and Robinson seemed a perfect fit. The two hit the movies and a toy store in Seattle. Robinson says Chris immediately took to his two cats. He thought he had found his son.
But Christmases and Broadway shows were not to be. Six years later, Chris is back in foster care and Robinson is waging a court battle with the state Department of Social and Health Services, seeking to undo the adoption and recover the money he paid the agency for Chris’ care after the boy allegedly attacked Robinson and his husband (Robinson is gay) in their Vancouver, B.C., home.
According to Chris’ DSHS file, a previous attempt to adopt the boy failed. Robinson claims case workers told him there was a problem with the parents’ ability to care both for Chris and a natural daughter. They discouraged him from contacting the previous adoptive parents, saying the father had “issues” and wouldn’t give an accurate picture of the child. Chris’ file also included notes that he might have attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder and possibly Tourette’s syndrome.
Robinson told case workers he just didn’t have the ability to take on an extremely high-needs child. But case workers assured him that the previous adoption had failed because of the parents, not Chris—and the other notes were nothing to worry about. In court documents, Robinson claims case workers assured him Chris was “one of the good ones.” In July 2003, Robinson became Chris’ legal parent. Later that summer, he and his son moved to Canada with Robinson’s partner so the couple could get married.
It wasn’t long before Chris started having trouble. An assessment showed him to be well behind in school, and his behavior became increasingly problematic, Robinson claims in court records. Making matters more difficult, Robinson was diagnosed with prostate cancer and underwent surgery during Chris’ first year at home. After the surgery, he says, Chris became increasingly violent—lighting fires, stealing knives from the kitchen, and threatening Robinson and his husband.
In October 2005, Robinson says in court records, his son attacked him, though he doesn’t include details of the debacle. After that, he had his son involuntarily committed to Fairfax, a psychiatric hospital in Kirkland, for several months. Chris was then moved to a Children’s Home in Seattle, where the people treating him didn’t believe Robinson could handle his son’s “extreme mental health needs,” Robinson says. So Chris went back into the DSHS foster care system.
Robinson hired an attorney and attempted to have the adoption rescinded, claiming DSHS officials misled him about the extent of Chris’ problems. They were unsuccessful, so Robinson still lives in British Columbia while his son bounces among foster homes in Seattle.
But Chris is still legally Robinson’s son, and state law allows DSHS to charge child support to anyone with a kid in the system. The state assessed Robinson monthly $708 child-support payments for the care of his son from December 2006 through March 2008, when Robinson first hired an attorney to contest the legitimacy of the adoption. In December, Robinson sued DSHS in King County Superior Court to recover the money he paid to support Chris, collect damages for allegedly misleading him, and overturn the adoption.
DSHS spokesperson Thomas Shapley (formerly a Seattle P-I editorial writer) says he can’t comment on the specifics of Robinson’s case, but that similar problems with adoptions are “very rare.” Currently there about 13,000 adopted kids living in the state whose placements were handled by DSHS. Of those, says Shapley, around 60 are back in the system at any given time, temporarily or permanently, either because the state removed the child for abuse or neglect, or the parent was unable to care for the kid, as in Robinson’s case.
When a parent has a child go into the system, Shapley explains, the state has the right to collect child support. “You’re still, as a parent, responsible for the care of that child,” he says.
Before any parent can adopt a child from DSHS, they have to sign a statement saying they reviewed the child’s entire case file. Gay Knutson, an adoption counselor with Adoption Advocates International who specializes in DSHS adoptions, says that can mean a tremendous amount of information to sift through. “I’ve used the boxes for footwrests,” she jokes.
Knutson adds that even with all that data on a child, adoptive parents, like birth parents, can’t be sure how their child will turn out. “There are caveats—we can’t know everything,” she says.
It is possible to sue for wrongful adoption. In 1993, Bellingham attorney Philip Buri represented a couple in a suit against the state when they discovered, three years after completing the adoption of their daughter, that she had fetal alcohol syndrome. Buri helped them sue under a 1984 law requiring DSHS to make all medical records available to prospective adoptive parents, along with “all known and available information concerning the mental, physical, and sensory handicaps of the child.”
Buri’s clients, the McKinneys, won. “That’s the first case that established the tort of wrongful adoption,” he says. But in that case medical records had actually been withheld, and Buri says he’s unaware of any other current lawsuits alleging similar instances of DSHS withholding information from prospective parents.
Robinson received Chris’ entire file, but claims case workers misled him about the severity of what he saw in those records. “I was told by everybody, ‘Don’t worry about this, you have a great kid and it’s a great match,'” he says. “I was relying on them being totally upright and professional in this case.”
The state Attorney General’s office responded to Robinson’s suit in court last month with a standard denial for each of his claims. No additional specifics were provided.
Robinson says he tried to make things work with Chris—sending him back into the system was a last resort. He says he started keeping a log of incidents, and spent hours on the phone with officials at DSHS, trying to get help with his troubled son. But ultimately he couldn’t manage. “I was afraid of the kind of person he was going to grow up if he didn’t get help now.” he says. “If it’s hard for me, I can’t imagine [how hard it is for] Chris”
Robinson hopes any attention he gets from his case keeps other prospective parents from being blindsided when adopting through DSHS. Says he, “I don’t want any child or parent to go through this heartache.”