An Adopted Boy--and Terror Begins

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Times Staff Writer

Tom and Janice Colella waited for more than four years before adoption officials finally called with the news that they had found them a son: blue-eyed, sandy-haired Tommy, just shy of his eighth birthday.

But looking back on what was a joyous day 10 years ago, the Colellas today see something else.

They remember that time as the start of an emotionally wrenching ordeal. The couple charged in court documents that the Orange County Social Services Agency, instead of making them happy parents, tricked them into taking a dangerous sociopath into their home, a boy so disturbed that animals instinctively feared him. And even after Tommy was committed to a mental institution, they alleged, his constant death threats against the Colellas eventually forced the couple to flee their home.


‘Living Nightmare’

“It was a living nightmare,” Tom Colella, a 37-year-old electronics engineer, said.

A few weeks ago, Colella and his wife, a junior high school teacher in Santa Ana, agreed to accept $70,000 from the county rather than continue their lawsuit against its social services agency.

Attorney David J. Brobeck, who represented the county, stressed that “nobody admitted any responsibility or liability” but noted that “they did go through a difficult time. There are no questions that there were problems with Tommy.”

But medical and court records show that the problems the Colellas encountered with Tommy were indeed extraordinary.

Almost three years before the recent settlement, an Orange County Superior Court judge granted the couple a rare severance of adoption on the grounds that the county had withheld vital information about Tommy’s mental illness at the time they formally adopted him in February, 1979, and when they took him into their home as a foster child in July, 1977.

The Orange County Social Services Agency, however, still doesn’t see it that way.

“From our perspective, it wasn’t that we were withholding information, it was that we didn’t know the significance (of Tommy’s problems),” said Bob Griffith, the agency’s chief deputy director. “We weren’t aware of it either.”

But the Colellas believe their settlement with the county is a final victory of principles against a system that dumped an “un-adoptable” child on them. And in the end, they say, everyone paid for that mistake.


“We still have nightmares,” Janice Colella, 37. said. “And I still get anxiety attacks. But as awful as it was, we know that Tommy suffered more than we did. He was denied the treatment he needed. The system failed him.”

What the system also did, according to the Colellas, was turn their lives upside down in a misguided quest to help a child that they were simply incapable of helping. They offered love and patience when, according to medical records belatedly released to the couple, Tommy needed long-term residential treatment for psychosis.

Even as a toddler, court records show, Tommy would play with knives, abuse animals, set small fires and attack other children. When he was 5 years old, his natural mother gave him up after he reportedly set fire to their home, destroying it. Tommy was diagnosed as suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome, which can result when the mother drinks during pregnancy. Its effects can include mental retardation and birth defects. The boy never knew his natural father, and his stepfather allegedly disciplined him with his fists and a belt. His placement in two other foster homes ended because of the child’s violent, bizarre behavior.

The Colellas say that they knew none of this when they took Tommy into their home and that not until the adoption was set aside did they learn the whole truth about Tommy, his illness and his troubled past.

Documents in the court file describe one instance when, after only a week in their home, Tommy lunged at his new mother, gouging her with his fingernails and screaming.

But the parents said that county adoption officials downplayed their concerns.

Such violent behavior, they were told, was normal for a newly adopted child.

“Every time a new problem would surface with Tommy, they would say, ‘This is normal,’ ” Tom Colella recalled. “They would say to us, ‘We are the professionals. We know what we are doing.’ They talked us into adopting Tommy.”


The Colellas’ tale of adoptive parenthood began like those of hundreds of other American couples. After three years of marriage they were childless and began inquiring about adopting as early as 1973.

They say they weren’t too particular; they had ruled out only children with severe handicaps or mental problems.

Only Child Offered

Tommy, the Colellas say, was the first and only child that the county adoption agency offered them.

“He looked wholesome, all American. And they led us to believe that we were really lucky to get him, that he was the very best,” Tom Colella said.

But looking back, the Colellas said, they should have noticed that something wasn’t right.

When the caseworker phoned Janice Colella at work in the summer of 1977, calling her out of her class to take the call, she was told that she and her husband had to accept Tommy, sight unseen, that day.

“I told them that we didn’t even have furniture (for Tommy’s bedroom), that we didn’t even have a bed for him to sleep on,” she said.


They persuaded the adoption agency to wait until they could set up an appointment to talk about it. They met Tommy, very briefly, a few days later.

Although Janice Colella said their caseworkers were “cagey” when she asked about the reasons behind the rush to place Tommy, she pushed any doubts about the adoption into the back of her mind.

“We were just so happy that we were getting a child,” she said. “I was decorating his room and telling everybody at work that I was getting a 90-pound baby.”

So the Colellas took Tommy home on July 8, 1977, as an “adopted placement”; the boy would live with them as a foster child until the adoption was made final.

The forms they signed with their caseworker stated that the county had no medical information on Tommy beyond the fact that he had been born with rickets and had had a severe bronchial infection shortly after birth and a broken collarbone in 1976.

The couple say they were told that Tommy was a “misunderstood child” whose minor adjustment problems could easily be overcome with love and understanding.


“It was an emotional game they played with us,” Janice Colella said. “They knew how desperate we were to have a child.”

But soon the couple’s desperation turned to another kind. The boy they had hoped would make their family complete instead began to terrorize them, often physically attacking Janice Colella and threatening much worse.

Even before the adoption was finalized, the couple said, he killed his hamster and later mutilated the ear of the family dog. During the four years that Tommy lived with the Colellas, they said, he would repeatedly hallucinate, pray to Satan, set fires, sleepwalk, eat garbage, steal food and hide it throughout his bedroom. When he became upset, he would defecate in his pants and smear his clothing, bedding and the walls of his bedroom with feces.

The Colellas say the first clear indication that the county had withheld information about Tommy’s mental illness came in late 1980 when a social worker at a Huntington Beach psychiatric unit where Tommy was hospitalized for four months showed them part of the file he had received from the county.

“He said to us, ‘Well, what do you expect from a child like this?’ ” Janice Colella said of their conversation with the social worker. “We didn’t know what he was talking about. What did he mean, ‘a child like this?’ ”

Since then, several mental health experts have confirmed Tommy’s psychosis. Court files contain several such diagnoses from psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors that Tommy has seen over the years.


In April, 1981, near the end of the Colellas’ involvement with their adopted son, Tommy was confined to the state hospital at Camarillo for 16 months after a suicide attempt. The cost of that stay helped push the total expenses for the child’s psychiatric care to $300,000, more than $55,000 of it paid for by the Colellas. Even after years of treatment, Tommy was far from cured when he was released from a Riverside boys home early last year at age 18.

Tom and Janice Colella say they began their legal battle against Orange County to make a point, not money.

When it became clear that Tommy had mental problems that they were not emotionally, financially or physically equipped to handle, they decided to ask that the adoption be voided. But when the Colellas’ attorneys obtained the complete county files on Tommy during the course of those legal proceedings in 1984, the couple were so distraught by the breadth of information that had been withheld from them that they decided to sue.

An Orange County Superior Court judge ruled against the county’s motion to dismiss the case in August, 1987. But on Nov. 23, the day that the case was scheduled for trial, the Colellas instead decided to settle.

“We were not in it for the money,” Colella said. “We wanted to make a point, and we did.”

“We want to tell people who are adopting children that they have to be really careful,” Janice Colella said. “They should get a court order to release all documents on the child to them.”

Orange County officials say the young man may be living with his natural mother in Michigan, but they don’t know for sure. And neither do the Colellas, who still fear him.


The last time they saw Tommy was in September, 1982, when a counselor at the Riverside boys home suggested a meeting would be a good idea. They took their 3-month-old natural son, unexpectedly conceived while Tommy was hospitalized, on the counselor’s suggestion.

But that encounter, the Colellas believe, was a big mistake. According to their lawsuit, immediately after that meeting Tommy began sending letters threatening to kill them and their son and burn down their house.

In January, 1985, the couple got another call that terrified them. It was from the same counselor at the Riverside boys home who had suggested they meet with Tommy.

“He said that state law forced him to call us and warn us that Tommy really did intend to kill us and our son,” Janice Colella says.

The Colellas sold their Garden Grove home and moved. Today they still have an answering machine, and their telephone numbers are a closely guarded secret.