December 15, 1986 12:00 PM

Evenings are a time of happy tumult for Paula and Larry Mick of Kellogg, Iowa. At day’s end, their modest clapboard house is filled with the shouts and laughter of five rambunctious children. But when the call comes for dinner, all is suddenly quiet. The children—Anna, Amanda, Sarah, Samantha and Justin—join hands around the kitchen table with Paula and Larry. “Bless this food to our bodies,” prays little Sarah, taking her turn at saying grace. “Let us have a safe night.” Then after a short pause, she adds: “And please, God, let us stay with Mom and Dad forever and ever.”

Heavenly intervention might well be required if this scene of family togetherness is to continue even a few weeks longer, let alone forever. Though Sarah and her siblings call Paula and Larry “Mom” and “Dad,” the Micks are in fact foster parents with a special claim on their young charges. In the 21 months the children have been with them, the Micks have come to feel like a family and wish to certify that feeling in time through adoption. But now the children’s natural mother, Karen Cooper, 31, a mental patient whom the kids say neglected and frequently abused them, is asserting her legal right to have the children taken from the Micks and eventually returned to her care. News that two of the children had plotted to commit suicide rather than return to their mother galvanized the town of Kellogg, whose citizens have petitioned in behalf of the children against relocation efforts by state officials. This week Associate District Court Judge Thomas Mott will be called upon to make a Solomonic decision in the case: between the right of a mother to rear her own children and the right of her children to the love of their foster family.

The tug-of-war over their future has been wrenching to the children and has cast a pall over the Mick household. “When this started,” says Paula, 32, “the kids went through a period of constantly fighting each other.” Justin, who has never known his biological parents, climbs into Paula and Larry’s bed every night and sleeps with his hands touching both of them.

The children call their natural mother “Karen,” and according to Anna, life with her was a constant torment: She frequently beat her children with a chain and a belt or pulled them by the hair. “She treated us like dogs,” Anna says. The children have also testified that similar abuse was meted out by Karen’s boyfriends. Of one, Anna says, “He threatened he was going to pour Drano down our throats, and when I sassed him, I got smacked in the jaw.”

Cooper, who bore her children by three different men, was apparently never able to hold a job for long. “She worked at a Kmart once, but got fired in a day’s time,” Anna remembers. “What we survived on was food stamps.” The worst toll of their life with mother, though, was emotional. “When you don’t have love in a family,” says Anna, “you know it. That hurts, like a big blast of cold air in winter.”

In March 1985 Cooper allowed the state’s Department of Human Services (DHS) to place her children with a foster family, and according to Anna, a week later entered the psychiatric ward of the Mary Frances Skiff Memorial Hospital in Newton, Iowa. Arriving on the Micks’ doorstep in tattered clothing, the children were deeply suspicious of their new guardians. “Emotionally they were like one big fist,” says Paula, who had previously fostered a teenager for one year. “They acted like one, with Anna the leader. Every time Justin, who was 3 months old, cried, Anna was there. When the kids woke up, Anna fixed them breakfast.” Having grown up in a family that adopted three foster children, Paula knew she had to win over Anna without usurping her role: “I let her think I was helping her,” Paula explains. Of the five children, Sarah was the most troubled. “She used to say how ugly she was,” Paula recalls. “So we started calling her our Miss America. That boosted her confidence.”

A childless couple who always dreamed of having a large family, the Micks made ideal foster parents for the Cooper children, and in time began to consider adopting them. After two miscarriages, Paula is pessimistic about her chances of having children with her husband, Larry, a 29-year-old construction worker, and the Cooper children have more than filled the void. “I love ’em like my own,” says Larry. The children have come to feel the same. At an early court hearing, child psychologist Eva Christiansen said the young children had “super-glued” to their foster parents. “We love Mom and Dad,” says Anna. “They have given us the love and care we needed.”

Earlier this year, Karen Cooper was transferred to a halfway house in Cedar Rapids and has been making the 100-mile journey to Kellogg once each month to pick up her children for a day visit at her father’s home. “We kids go out and ride our bikes,” reports Anna. “We don’t have anything to do with her until it’s time to go home.” Despite this rejection, Cooper has never given up hope of being reunited with her children—and last fall the DHS ordered that the children be moved closer to her. “The laws of this state,” says DHS Deputy Commissioner Larry Jackson, “clearly indicate that children and their natural parents are to be reunited whenever possible.”

DHS officials made plans to place the children with foster families in Cedar Rapids, to make it easier for Karen to see them. As the day of their departure from the Micks’ home neared, Anna and Amanda pooled their allowances and went to a drugstore to buy sleeping pills, planning to commit suicide. “We were going to lock ourselves in our room,” says Anna, “and take a lot of it.” An alert clerk refused to sell them the drugs and called the Micks. Paula gently counseled the girls, then cried with them.

After the two girls were caught trying to buy the pills, neighbors reached out to the family. Joyce Faircloth, one of Kellogg’s leading citizens, launched a petition drive. “I felt compelled to take action,” says Faircloth, explaining that she was abused as a child. “I wanted to even the odds for these children.” Finally the public outcry reached Gov. Terry Branstad, who intervened with the DHS to delay the children’s move temporarily.

In a final effort to keep the children, the Micks will appear in Jasper County District Court this week to ask that Cooper’s parental rights be terminated on the grounds that she is psychologically ill and that her children’s strong ties to their foster parents should not be disrupted. Cooper and her attorney refuse to comment on the case, but the children’s court-appointed lawyer, Jane Harlan, frankly admits that the odds are against her young clients. “The law should allow greater consideration for children’s rights,” says Harlan. “If kids don’t want to go back to their natural parents after a period of time in foster care, it’s just common sense not to send them.”

While the Micks await the court’s decision, they have tried to make the youngsters’ home life as nearly normal as possible. Amanda, Anna and Sarah continue to attend nearby Kellogg Elementary School, while Samantha and Justin spend their days with Paula and two beloved friends—Annie, a silverish cat, and Tasha, a huggable St. Bernard. The Micks show no bitterness toward Cooper. “Now that I’m faced with losing the children, I can better realize the pain Karen must have gone through,” says Paula. “I’m not an ogre. If the kids could stay with us, I’d still let Karen come and see them. What we have done has not been out of anger towards her. It’s only because we love the children so much.”

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