By JACK FRIEDMAN Kristina Johnson Dan Knapp
July 11, 1988 12:00 PM

Tom and Janice Colella wanted nothing more out of life than a child. Each time they saw a baby go by in a stroller, they felt a pang, a little bit of heartache. After seven years of marriage—and seven years of trying—Janice had been unable to get pregnant. And her doctors had finally said that it would take a miracle for her to conceive.

The Colellas decided to adopt; they had planned to adopt a child eventually, even if they had been able to have their own. Says Janice, now 38: “So many children need homes, we felt we should provide one.” Unwilling to wait six or seven years for an infant, they agreed to accept a child as old as 10, though they knew the problems such an adoption can pose—or thought they did.

The Colellas had a great deal to offer. They had a comfortable house in Garden Grove, Calif. Tom made an excellent living as an electrical engineer; Janice was an elementary school teacher. Above all, they had what a child needs most—love. “We’re outdoors-type people,” says Tom, also 38. “We’d go into the mountains and say, ‘Gee, wouldn’t this be wonderful to share with a child?’ ”

After four years of endless paperwork and repetitive, sometimes humiliating interviews, one late June afternoon in 1977 their prayers were seemingly answered. Janice was called out of her classroom. The caseworker at the Orange County Social Services Agency was on the phone: A 7-year-old boy was available for adoption and needed a home—immediately. “We were elated but confused,” Janice says. “They asked me if we could take a child that day. As I look back, I should have been a lot more suspicious.”

What the caseworker didn’t tell them, according to the Colellas, was that the boy had a long record of sociopathic behavior and had just been removed from another would-be adoptive home when he tried to pour urine over the couple’s daughter. A psychologist would later state in a deposition, “The child was deeply disturbed, unsuitable for adoption and needing intensive treatment.”

That longed-for phone call plunged the Colellas into a hellish ordeal that would lead to a rare, perhaps unprecedented, court decision reversing their adoption—an ordeal that may never really end. Even now, a decade later, they live in hiding, with a gun, out of fear that Tommy, the boy they so wanted to be their son, may one day come calling.

The Colellas insisted on a face-to-face meeting with Tommy, which took place on July 1, then agreed to take him in. The boy they met had bright blue eyes, corn-silk hair and a profoundly troubled look. He sat virtually silent during that first interview, at the end of which he sullenly demanded, “So where do I sleep?” The caseworkers said that all he needed was a stable home. The Colellas believed them.

At first Tommy seemed subdued. “He was withdrawn and quiet,” says Tom. “He gave you that kind of beaten-puppy feeling.” The quiet did not last. A few days after he arrived, Janice told Tommy to stop watching TV and get ready for school. “He attacked me,” she says. “He pulled my hair out, gouged me and hit me with his fists. I had bruises all over my face and breasts.” A week later Janice asked him to make his bed. She recalls that Tommy became enraged and swung a croquet mallet—an 8th-birthday gift—at her head. “If I hadn’t ducked, it would have hit me,” she says. “It went right through the wall.”

The Colellas called the Social Services Agency with the idea of sending him back. “They kept saying he’s a misunderstood child that needs a lot of love and affection,” says Tom. “When you have professionals tell you it’s going to work out, you figure maybe this isn’t as bad as you think.” Adds Janice: “They made us feel like we were overreacting—like it’s nothing he tried to hit me with a croquet mallet.” At the suggestion of the agency, they took Tommy to a play therapist, but he only got worse. They asked Social Services for more information. Tommy’s medical records, they were told, were incomplete.

Tommy mutilated a hamster. He’d pay other boys to scratch him. “We’d have company over,” says Janice, “and he’d take his feces and smear it all over everything. And he’d get the ‘stares.’ He’d gaze blankly into the distance. When he’d come back, he was either violent or depressed.”

Still the Colellas wouldn’t quit. Janice tutored him in reading and writing seven nights a week. “Working with Tommy became our whole lives,” says Tom. They taught him to use silverware—when he arrived he ate only with his hands—and they completed the 8-year-old’s toilet training. Once, Tommy even told Janice he loved her. “But then he said he couldn’t let himself love me because I wasn’t his real mom,” she recalls, “and that if he ever told me that again, I would have to remember he didn’t mean it.”

To ease the strain Tommy was creating in their family, the Colellas went into therapy. “If I had to rate them on a scale of 1 to 10 as potential adoptive parents,” says their psychologist, Lawrence Hedges, “they’d clearly rate a 10.” In time, they also sought the counsel of their local priest, Father Clif Marquis, who says, “As a couple they did everything they knew how.”

After a year, the Colellas say, the Social Services Agency began to pressure them to finalize the adoption proceedings. “They were relentless,” says Janice. Despite grave qualms, the Colellas consented, and the adoption was completed in February 1979. “Everybody kept assuring us the adoption was going to work,” Janice explains. “And we really did love him.”

But Tommy immediately got much worse. The stares became a daily occurrence. He began cutting himself and drawing designs with his blood. He’d walk down the middle of the street as traffic whizzed by. Then the Colellas discovered he was practicing Satanism. “We caught him chanting,” says Janice. “He’d light candles and call to the powers of darkness. It was really scary.”

For Tom the point of no return came that fall—ironically over something rather benign. Tommy had pestered his adoptive father to let him join the Boy Scouts. Tom agreed and with his customary zeal soon became the scoutmaster of Tommy’s troop. When that happened, Tommy quit. “That’s when I decided I wasn’t going to give any more effort to this child,” says Tom.

Tommy’s violence escalated. On occasions “too many to count” says Janice, he tried to hang or stab himself. Despite taking prescribed psychotropic drugs—”enough to stop a charging elephant,” said the pharmacist—he nearly strangled a boy to death. “He tried to kill the paperboy in our front yard,” says Janice. “When I got there, he wasn’t breathing. I had to revive him.” In November 1980 the Colellas checked Tommy into a psychiatric unit of the Huntington Beach Inter-Community Hospital. Janice recalls Tommy saying to a staff psychiatrist, ” ‘I think I need the hospital because I think I’m going to kill somebody.’ ”

At a routine counseling session there, Janice reached her breaking point. “Tommy was saying he hated me because I made him eat dinner every night, brush his teeth and do his homework,” she says. “Those are all things any parent would do.” Furious and in despair, Janice thought, “I just can’t do this anymore.”

The Colellas say a caseworker at the hospital showed them some of Tommy’s medical records that they’d never been allowed to see. One report concluded, “The youngster’s dependency (and subsequent rage) are very deep and need to be dealt with…”

“The records led us to believe that he’d be in an institution for the rest of his life,” says Janice. But after four months at Huntington, despite lack of any real improvement, Tommy was sent home because no long-term institution could take him. His rages grew even more violent, his suicide attempts more frequent and earnest. Finally, after he tried to hang himself in April 1981, the Colellas summoned the police, and Tommy was admitted to Camarillo State Hospital, where he would remain for 16 months, before being transferred to a group home.

At Camarillo, Janice says, Tommy told the staff, ” ‘I just want you guys to know that these people’—he didn’t say Mom or Dad—’did everything they could to help me. What they really wanted was for me to be their son. But I can’t be anybody’s son.’ ” He never lived with the Colellas again.

Tommy’s already hefty medical bills grew to staggering dimensions—”over $300,000,” says Tom. The Colellas put together a final, desperate plan. They would try to annul Tommy’s adoption—a legal action they were told had never before been attempted. They eventually also sued the Orange County Social Services Agency for negligence, fraud and infliction of emotional distress, as well as for reimbursement of $138,992.72 in out-of-pocket expenses for the care of Tommy.

In May 1984 the Superior Court of the State of California granted the Colellas’ motion to set aside Tommy’s adoption. (The Orange County Social Services Agency, citing the child’s best interests, supported the motion without admitting any wrongdoing.) Last fall the agency settled the Colellas’ suit out of court for $70,000, insisting that its insurance company advised against paying the costs of litigation. “We’ve had adoptions of kids much more disturbed than Tommy,” says Bob Griffith, the county’s chief deputy director of social services, “and they worked out fine.” The agency insists the Colellas had been informed about Tommy’s background. “The truth of it is that Tommy’s an abused child who’s suffered terribly in his young life,” he says. “The emphasis should be on his problems, not the problems of the adoptive parents.”

Tommy came into the world in Fremont, Mich., on a sultry July morning in 1969. His mother, 18-year-old Barbara Johnson, had a weakness for the wrong men. His father disappeared when he found out Barbara was pregnant, but not before he raped her, she says: “He was trying to force me to lose the baby.”

Barbara remembers Tommy as a difficult child. “Even as a small baby, he’d just sit and stare with this empty, faraway look in his eyes.” When he was 4, she caught him urinating on his 2-year-old half sister. One afternoon Barbara came home to find him “playing” with the family cat. “I walked into the bedroom,” she says, “and he’s twirling the cat by the tail. The cat’s screaming and Tom just thinks it’s the neatest thing.” Barbara tried to discipline him, as did his stepfather, Barry, whom she had married shortly after Tommy’s birth. “Barry was always on him,” she says. “He could make no noise; he was not allowed to cry. Barry loved Tom, but it was in the wrong kind of way—the way he was raised himself.”

Then Barry, she says, became abusive to her and her daughter, and Barbara left, eventually moving to Orange County, Calif. Yet Tommy became even more unmanageable. He developed a fascination with matches and fire. One morning, after Barbara sent him upstairs to his room, a blaze broke out there. “I knew he needed psychiatric help. And I knew I couldn’t afford it.”

One day Barbara found herself in a rage, pinning Tommy down on a bed, shaking him. “He looked at me with this hateful look in his eyes,” she recalls, “and he told me, ‘I want to be adopted.’ I said, ‘You want it, you got it.’ I couldn’t take it anymore.” She said goodbye to him at the agency: “As I walked out of the room, he was hollering, ‘My mom! My mom!’ I’ll never forget that ringing in my ears.” Barbara herself came from a broken family and had bounced from home to home. “It’s just unreal how our lives turned out so much alike,” she says.

Little Tommy Colella is now 19, and, at 6’1″, 240 lbs., little no longer. Living on his own, after leaving Hill House Home for Boys in the fall of 1986, he has seen more than his share of trouble. He says there are warrants out for him, “nothing major,” for driving without a license and disorderly conduct. “It’s kind of ridiculous for people to portray me as the devil incarnate,” he says. “I don’t remember doing a lot of the things the Colellas said I did. I do remember being scared a lot and not knowing what was going to happen next.” He appears perfectly conventional: He rents an apartment, works as assistant manager of a fast-food restaurant in California, has earned his high school equivalency diploma and would like to go to college, maybe become a lawyer. If his 16-year-old girlfriend is pregnant—as they both suspect—he plans to marry her. He’s aware that abused kids often turn into abusive parents, but he’s determined to be a good father. “I can’t wait to have a son,” he says. “I can see us going to the ball game, to the park. What I can’t see is doing to him what was done to me.”

Tommy’s feelings about the Colellas seem generally warm. “They were nice to me,” he says. “They tried everything to help me.” He pauses. “I don’t love them but I like them. I could see getting together with them sometime.”

The Colellas can’t. When Tommy left, happiness came. Janice got her miracle: a healthy pregnancy and a son, now 5. “I think we’re better parents because we’ve been through hell,” says Tom. “I didn’t realize parenthood was so much fun.” They last saw Tommy four years ago, at Camarillo. Janice brought her child, then a year old. “Tommy sat in the car with our son,” she recalls. “He gave him a gift—I can’t remember what—but it clearly meant a lot to Tommy that he picked it up and played with it.”

Three weeks later the telephone threats started. “It’s like something snapped,” says Tom. “Tommy said he was going to burn our house down and kill us and our son. We decided to move when his social worker called and said, ‘There’s something I have to tell you: Tommy means it.’ ”

Their anger is directed at the Orange County agency, not Tommy. “I feel they deliberately placed him with us, knowing how bad he was,” says Janice. “I regret that we were so easily misled. But Tommy suffered more. I had an emotional attachment to him. I still do. But I’ve let go. He’s not my son. He’s never going to be my son.”

—By Jack Friedman, with Kristina Johnson and Dan Knapp in California