Julie and Mike Deitch, 34 and 36
After ten years of marriage and four kids, high school sweethearts Julie and Mike Deitch were settling into easier times. They had moved from California to Phoenix, where Mike, a retired Army specialist, had landed a job overseeing computer systems for several McDonald’s restaurants. Then one night in May 2003, Julie had a dream that changed their lives. “A nurse handed me this baby,” she recalls. “And said, ‘Here he is. You know what to do.'”
Deeply religious, the Deitches took the dream as an instant message from God. And one that had meaning for Julie, who years ago had helped care for children of a relative who had a methamphetamine addiction. Seven months of classes later, they were licensed foster-care parents for drug-addicted and abused children. In early 2004 they took in three siblings whose parents were hooked on meth: newborn Levi, James, then 3, and Michelle, 4. The couple have since adopted all three—and taken in two more kids, meth-exposed 16-month-old Baby J and 6-month-old Baby M, a child of schizophrenic parents. (Because these children are wards of the state, the Deitches can’t disclose their names.) The Deitches, says Toneilia Williams, a Phoenix child-protective-services specialist, “are the best foster family I have ever had.”
A typical day shows why. With Mike out of the house by 5:30 a.m. (he is back by 3:30 p.m.), Julie has to get the kids fed, into their 15-passenger van, then drop off their biological kids—Todd, 11, Taelor, 10, Noelle, 8, and Nalanie, 7—at school. (One sacrifice: Julie had been homeschooling but no longer has time.) Four mornings a week, a physical, speech or occupational therapist comes to the house to work with Levi, who has been late to crawl, walk and talk. After school everyone’s back, doing homework, playing outside or bouncing off the walls. The commotion can overload Levi’s fragile sensory system and bring on a screaming fit, which Julie calms with a massage. “It’s been a roller coaster,” she admits.
The ride began in January 2004, when Levi arrived as a 2-day-old—barely able to suck or swallow, his tiny limbs rigid. And even as he grew, he was terrified of common sights and sounds. At 10 months, he was pounding his head against the floor. He eventually was diagnosed with sensory integration deficit, a condition common to meth babies—though it’s unclear how much is attributable to that drug alone (see sidebar). Now 4, he recently began to speak in sentences and sing. “It just warms my heart,” Julie says.
Even as they bonded with Levi, the Deitches faced a new challenge. Case workers, ready to place his older siblings in foster care, approached the couple about taking them too. Warily, they agreed, and life in the Deitch household turned upside down. Apart from meth exposure, James and Michelle had been severely abused by their parents—beaten, molested, malnourished—and bore the psychic scars. Both have been diagnosed with obsessive-compulsive and social-adjustment disorders. “They’d throw fits. They bit and hit the others,” Julie says. “Sometimes I would get into the car and start crying. The kids would say, ‘Mom, Mom, what’s the matter?’ And I would say, ‘It’s been a long day.'”
With therapy, James and Michelle slowly started to improve—even as some of the other children started to voice resentment about the whole arrangement. “My mom was always busy,” Todd says. “We play softball and baseball, and she didn’t have time to practice with us.”
Mike and Julie questioned whether their children were paying too high a price for this one-of-a-kind family. “At times I felt their innocence was robbed,” she says. In March 2005 they called a family meeting. The agenda: whether to adopt Levi and his sibs. Three Deitch kids were in favor; one was afraid. “Your foster brother and sister,” Julie recalls saying, “we know they make you angry and sad…. With our love, they can change.” The no vote became a yes.
And the Deitches themselves have seen something of a turnaround. The older kids have embraced their new siblings. “You learn to be very forgiving,” says Todd, who now shares a bedroom with James. Progress is also evident at an August dinner at the Outback Steakhouse, where all the kids colored or chatted happily—no screaming or crying. And last year Michelle won student of the week in her kindergarten. “She was so proud,” Julie says, tearing up. “We took her to a basketball game, got her all dressed up. That night I said to Mike, ‘Can you imagine if she wouldn’t have been ours, where she would be right now?'”
Know a hero? Send suggestions to HEROESAMONGUS@PEOPLEMAG.COM. Please include your name, phone number and return e-mail address.