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When the bough breaks: CYS fights family's adoption, then opposes benefits

Last in a series

Wednesday, December 15, 1999

By Barbara White Stack, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Few people asked about the red scar that ran down baby Laura Lynn Morrison Gruzinski's top lip. Most never got past her big blue eyes.

  Marge Morrison holds a 13-year-old photo of her granddaughter, Laura Lynn Morrison Gruzinski. (Annie O'Neill, Post-Gazette)

As Laura grew, though, her schoolmates took note of the scar, even though it was fading. By the time she reached middle school, some of them were calling her "harelip" and pressing pens against their mouths to cruelly mimic the mark left by surgery to fix her cleft lip and palate.

To conceal the scar, Laura needs plastic surgery. Her adoptive parents, Kathy-Jo and Thomas Gruzinski, used their medical insurance and a special government program to cover most of the costs of her previous surgery and dental braces. And they're prepared to pay the entire cost of the plastic surgery, which isn't covered by insurance at all.

But the Gruzinskis, who are the sister and brother-in-law of Laura's biological mother, believe Laura deserves the same kind of federal adoption assistance that other parents in their situation get -- money that could be used to pay for those medical expenses.

Yet Beaver County Children and Youth Services has fought the Gruzinskis' request for adoption assistance for five years.

Beaver County CYS took Laura away from her mentally ill mother, Suzanne Morrison, shortly after Laura was born in 1984, and placed her with Linda L. McGaffic, who was then a CYS board member, and her husband Kenneth. Within 6 months, CYS told the McGaffics they could adopt Laura, even though the baby's relatives also wanted her.

Eighteen months after that, a judge ruled in favor of Laura's relatives.

Years later, the Gruzinskis learned that Laura might be eligible for adoption assistance, and asked CYS for it. Although CYS and the state welfare secretary said Laura didn't qualify, a hearing officer from the state Department of Public Welfare and Commonwealth Court have both ruled that she does. Now, the case is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Opposing the family

Three days after Laura Morrison was born on Nov. 11, 1984, CYS took her from the hospital and placed her in foster care with the McGaffics in Rochester.

  When the bough breaks, Part Three:

Amanda Kolle still hoping to get her son back

Part One: A mother of five, a parent to none

Part Two: Beaver County moves faster than average to sever parents' legal rights to their children

Part Three: Mother asks CYS for help; it takes her children

About the authors


Suzanne Morrison's family believes CYS ignored family members from the beginning when it decided that Suzanne could not care for her newborn. They say Suzanne's sister or brother, her mother, or even her grandmother could have taken Laura.

When Laura was six months old, CYS told Suzanne it was going to ask a judge to terminate her parental rights. Then, the McGaffics could adopt her. For Suzanne, the prospect of being legally severed from her daughter was bad enough; worse would be Laura's adoption outside her family.

So Suzanne asked her brother, Scott Morrison, and his wife, Vanessa Eldridge, if they would adopt Laura.

Scott and Vanessa, who lived in Connecticut, were eager to take the baby and contacted CYS immediately. That was in May 1985. They flew to Beaver County for interviews at CYS. An adoption agency certified their home as suitable. Then, on Oct. 18, 1985, CYS rejected them in favor of the McGaffics.

"Our decision in this matter is based on our concerns that the child has psychologically bonded to her current family, and that a disruption of this arrangement could have serious detrimental effects on her," Thomas Mangino, then CYS executive director, wrote the Morrisons.

The way the Morrisons saw it, Laura would have been bonded with a family member if CYS had just placed her with them at birth, or at six months when it decided to terminate Suzanne's rights. Scott and Vanessa prepared to fight for their niece. They hired Beaver attorney Nancy E. Carr, who discovered that Linda McGaffic was on the CYS board of directors.

Carr filed a petition pointing this out to Beaver County Common Pleas Judge Robert C. Reed and asked him to give Laura to the Morrisons to adopt.

The Morrisons, who met the McGaffics, acknowledge that the McGaffics loved Laura. "They really liked this baby. Laura was a lot of work, and they were attached to her," Vanessa said.

But she also felt Linda McGaffic was using her position to keep Laura from her family: "She was friends with people at CYS and she decided she wanted to adopt a baby and she liked this one and CYS was going to let her do it."

Linda McGaffic said she doesn't believe her position on the board aided her in any way, although she concedes she had CYS director Mangino's support. A former foster child herself, McGaffic said she did not become involved in foster parenting with the idea of adopting. In fact, she said, she and her husband had another, older child in their home for a year, and they declined CYS' request that they adopt that child.

When they got Laura, she said, it was supposed to be temporary. She learned to feed Laura from a special bottle. She nursed her through her first surgery, feeding her every two hours with an eyedropper. She grew to love the baby.

"The more you have to go through with a child, the closer you get," she said.

Going to court

So when Laura was six months old and CYS asked if she and her husband would adopt, they said yes. At that point, McGaffic thought Laura's relatives were disinterested.

When she found out later that the Morrisons were trying to get Laura, she fought them. "We took it to court because Scott, well, his wife was 19 and pregnant with their first child. We just didn't think that they were capable of taking care of [Laura] and taking care of their own baby."

Officially, it was not the McGaffics but CYS that was battling the Morrisons in court. Months passed and legal and travel bills began piling up for Vanessa and Scott. One time they flew to Beaver County, only to be told the hearing had been canceled because the judge was sick. They doubted they'd ever get Laura. They told Carr they couldn't afford to fight anymore.

Carr, who saw the dispute as more of a cause than a case, offered to stop charging the Morrisons if they would continue the struggle. They agreed and flew to Beaver again on Oct. 24, 1986, a month before Laura turned 2.

At that hearing, Reed ordered CYS to give Laura to Scott and Vanessa.

Both Linda McGaffic and Marge Morrison, Laura's grandmother, believe the turning point in the trial was testimony by Victor Colonna, who was then a caseworker but is now director of CYS.

When asked for CYS' position, he said the agency believed Laura should remain with the McGaffics. But when asked for his personal feelings, Colonna said he believed the baby should go to the Morrisons. He said because Laura was only 2, she wouldn't suffer long-term harm from the move.

When he got back to the office that day, Colonna recalled, Mangino reprimanded him for giving testimony contrary to the agency's position.

CYS warned Vanessa and Scott that Laura was a "special needs" child who would require extra care and several surgeries. The agency did not, however, tell them that her special needs status might qualify her for adoption assistance.

It didn't matter then to Scott and Vanessa, who both had good jobs and were not interested in assistance. But within a year and a half, information about those benefits would have helped Laura.

Changing families again

By the time Scott and Vanessa got Laura, they had a 7-month-old daughter of their own. They began raising the two as sisters while they pursued adopting Laura.

The first step was to obtain termination of the rights of her father, who had never been involved with her. Reed ordered that on Sept. 15, 1987.

Next, Laura's mother Suzanne was to voluntarily relinquish her rights, but before that could happen, the Morrisons' own family life went into a crisis.

In the spring of 1988, Scott and Vanessa filed for divorce. Vanessa wanted to keep Laura. But, she said, her lawyer told her CYS might try to take Laura from her because of the divorce. And Suzanne wrote to Vanessa, asking her to give Laura to Suzanne's sister, Kathy-Jo Gruzinski, and her husband Thomas.

Vanessa didn't want CYS to get an opportunity to place Laura with strangers again, and she felt she had to respect the wishes of Laura's birth mother. "She was the mother and had the right to make that choice, I felt," Vanessa said. Scott then drove to Ohio and gave Laura to his sister in May 1988, when Laura was 3 1/2.

On Nov. 9, 1989, Reed confirmed Suzanne's consent to termination of her rights, and granted formal custody of Laura to the Gruzinskis. The following month, on Dec. 6, he presided over the Gruzinskis' adoption of Laura.

Laura was the most precious gift Suzanne could have given her sister.

Kathy-Jo had survived three open-heart surgeries, but doctors had told her a pregnancy probably would kill her. Within a year, Suzanne, who had become pregnant again, gave Kathy-Jo and Thomas an infant son as well. This time, CYS did not interfere.

Shortly before the Gruzinskis got Laura, Thomas had found work in Cleveland. But they were still far from financially secure. For a time, when they first got Laura, they received welfare payments for her because of their low income.

Physicians told the Gruzinskis that Laura would need surgery at specific developmental stages. The first would be when she was nine or 10, to correct a cleft in her upper jaw and palate. Kathy-Jo began searching for help to pay the medical costs that her husband's insurance would not cover.

She found a program in Cuyahoga County that pays those expenses for adopted children with disabilities. With that assistance, she and her husband have had to pay only $500 of the charge for Laura's four years of dental braces. But the program will not cover the thousands of dollars in cosmetic surgery that Laura needs to conceal the scar.

An adoption expert with the Ohio Department of Human Services, Timothy O'Hanlon, told her she should contact Beaver County about getting adoption assistance to help pay for the plastic surgery. She should call CYS there, O'Hanlon said, because Laura's mother had lived in Beaver County when she was born, and it was Beaver County CYS that placed Laura in foster care.

Hitting a wall

When Kathy-Jo Gruzinski asked Beaver County CYS about the benefits, she got nothing but resistance.

Victor Colonna, who by then was CYS executive director, told her Laura didn't qualify. O'Hanlon suggested she seek a hearing from the state Welfare Department, which provides the state and federal money that makes up 91 percent of adoption assistance.

At the hearing on Sept. 27, 1995, Colonna and CYS Solicitor Robert Masters argued that Laura could not get adoption assistance because those benefits must be negotiated before adoption is completed. In addition, they said, she did not qualify because CYS did not place her with the Gruzinskis and she was not in CYS custody when they adopted her.

Finally, they contended, even if Laura did qualify, Connecticut or Ohio funds should be used because that's where Laura's caretakers had lived.

Gruzinski and O'Hanlon countered by quoting federal regulations saying parents may seek the assistance after an adoption if the child welfare agency neglected its federally-mandated duty to inform the adoptive parents that the child might qualify. They said CYS should have told Scott and Vanessa, who were the potential adoptive parents, about Laura's possible eligibility, and they would have told the Gruzinskis.

O'Hanlon also provided the hearing officer with copies of federal regulations saying a special-needs child does not have to be in the custody of a child welfare agency to qualify. The rules say special-needs children may be eligible if adopted by relatives whose income was low enough for welfare at the time of the adoption. O'Hanlon and Gruzinski also argued that while CYS may not have had custody of Laura when she was adopted, the Beaver County courts had maintained control over her.

Finally, O'Hanlon produced federal and state regulations saying the agency in the county of the birth mother's residence is responsible, not the state where the child's adoptive parents live.

A year later, on Aug. 15, 1996, hearing officer Katrina L. Dunderdale ruled in Laura's favor, saying that denying benefits would be contrary to the intent of the federal legislation.

Beaver County immediately asked DPW Secretary Feather O. Houstoun to reverse the hearing officer's decision, and on Jan. 7, 1997, she did. She said Laura should be denied the benefits because CYS originally had chosen an adoptive family, the McGaffics, who did not want adoption assistance.

The Gruzinskis appealed Houstoun's decision to Commonwealth Court. Carr provided them with free legal help again. She would die of cancer before the case was concluded, but she set in motion a victory for the Gruzinskis.

Last June, in a decision critical of Houstoun, Commonwealth Court ruled that Laura qualified for adoption assistance.

The court said Houstoun's order reversing her own hearing officer was "illogical, contrary to law, contrary to the administrative regulations and contrary to reason."

After receiving the ruling, Kathy-Jo called Colonna to work out details of enrolling Laura for benefits. He did not return the call until after Houstoun had appealed the case to the state Supreme Court.

Then he told Kathy-Jo he couldn't talk to her while the matter remained in litigation.

The Gruzinskis were devastated. It seemed as though CYS would never stop fighting. And this time, the Gruzinskis would have to get a loan to pay for a lawyer.

It could be years before they get a final decision.

The Gruzinskis say they will somehow find the money to pay for Laura's plastic surgery, as soon as Laura musters the courage to go through with it, regardless of whether the Supreme Court has acted or not. But the fight with CYS has frustrated and angered the family.

"Laura is 15 now," Marge Morrison said, "and we are still trying to get some justice out of them."

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