May 16, 2013 at 9:30 AM ET
Rachael Clark is OK now. The straight-A student is graduating from the University of Maryland this year, getting married this summer, and excitedly making plans beyond that: To write a book about adoption; to pursue a master’s degree in marriage and family therapy; to become a mom to at least four kids.
The 23-year-old is so focused and busy that she sometimes forgets about the turmoil that’s dogged her since childhood. “Some days, it’s like it never happened,” Rachael said. “But some days, I really do struggle. I have such strong abandonment issues.”
Her issues stem from the way her life began. On Sept. 27, 1989, the day Rachael was born, she was sealed inside a dark garbage bag with her umbilical cord and placenta still attached. The trash bag was then thrown, hard, into a dumpster.
Minutes before she ran out of oxygen, someone heard her cries and saved her. Her abandonment and rescue in Temple Hills, Md., became one of the most widely publicized stories of its kind — so well-known, in fact, that Rachael overheard people talking about it in front of her when she was about 2.
Now, at this especially happy juncture in their lives, Rachael and her adoptive parents are speaking out about their story. They want to let other adoptive families know how normal it is to need help navigating the delicate process of telling adopted children about their violent or tragic pasts.
They’re also making their story public because, in spite of everything, Rachael has a persistent longing to find her birth parents.
“I just want to be able to tell them that I forgive them,” she said.
Found behind a flower shop
The story made headlines for days back in 1989. At 4:50 p.m. on a Wednesday, Thomas Stephenson took out some garbage behind his wife’s flower shop. He paused in disbelief for a moment — were those cries coming from inside the dumpster?
Alarmed, Stephenson ran back inside the shop to tell his wife to call for help. Then he returned to the dumpster and retrieved a knotted plastic garbage bag.
Inside was a beautiful baby girl with an abundance of raven black hair. She was injured; her skull was fractured, and she had hematomas, or poolings of blood, on both sides of her head. Authorities swooped in and began searching for the birth parents, to no avail.
Dane and Jenifer Clark of Dunkirk, Md., had been waiting on their county’s adoption rolls for eight years when the dramatic rescue story broke. The couple, who were in their early 40s at the time, watched the news anxiously and wondered whether this might be their future baby.
Sure enough, the Clarks adopted the little girl just a few weeks after she was found. When they met her in person for the first time, they swooned.
“As soon as I saw her, I felt like she was flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone,” recalled Jenifer Clark, now 66.
“Her foster mother told us, ‘That’s the smartest baby I’ve ever seen in my life,’” said Dane Clark, 64. “I said, ‘How do you know this is the smartest baby?’ She said, ‘I've fostered 43 babies, and that’s the smartest baby I’ve ever seen in my life.’”
As thrilled as the Clarks were to take their baby girl home and as ready as they felt to take care of her, they said nothing could have prepared them for the special challenges that lay ahead.
Rachael experienced night terrors for the first six years of her life. After waking herself up screaming, she’d eventually fall back asleep — but her mother wouldn’t.
“It was a new definition of tired,” said Jenifer, who somehow managed to keep working as an oceanographer despite the sleep deprivation.
Other complications surfaced after Rachael, a highly verbal toddler, overheard baby sitters talking about the circumstances of her birth in graphic detail. When the baby sitters left and her parents came home, Rachael blurted out, “Mommy, I was found in a dumpster and a man found me and took me home!”
Rachael’s mom thought fast.
“I said, ‘You know what happened then?’” Jenifer recalled. “‘We had prayed for you every night for eight years and God wanted us to have you! Thousands of people wanted to adopt you.’”
On another occasion, Jenifer was giving Rachael a bath when the 2-year-old asked, “Mommy, I growed in your tummy?”
“No, honey,” Jenifer responded quickly. “We adopted you and you grew in our heart.”
Nevertheless, despite plenty of love and reassurance, Rachael became obsessed with the idea that her parents would die and she would be left alone. She’d invent ghoulish scenarios and believe them: her father was going to be killed in a car accident; her mother in a house fire.
By the first grade, Rachael became so crippled by anxieties that she refused to go to school. She did not want to let her parents out of her sight.
Rachael’s parents took their daughter to see the school counselor and another therapist. They said Rachael had commonplace separation anxiety issues that would pass — but the Clarks sensed it ran deeper than that.
When, how to tell kids the truth
Around that time, Rachael’s parents heard about the Center for Adoption Support and Education (C.A.S.E.), a nonprofit organization that provides post-adoption counseling for kids and parents. At age 7, Rachael started seeing a licensed therapist there named Debbie Riley who proved to be such a godsend for the Clarks that they view her as a family member.
“Debbie and Dane and I raised Rachael!” Jenifer Clark said.
Over more than a decade, Riley worked with Rachael to help her process what had happened to her and stop blaming herself for it — an all-too-common phenomenon among children removed from abusive situations, Riley said. As Rachael described it: “I just had this feeling like I couldn’t be enough, and I couldn’t be loved, because my birth parents didn’t love me. If my birth parents didn’t love me or want me, how could anyone love me?”
Riley also tried to help Rachael cope with her anxieties and fears. Some never went away completely; as a child, Rachael never slept over at friends’ houses, and to this day she lives in a basement apartment at her parents’ home while attending college.
“Even now, I really struggle with a fear of abandonment,” Rachael said. “When I was younger, to help me get through the school day, my Mom would give me incentives — she’d write poems and put them in my lunch that I could read if I made it all the way to lunch. Or she’d cut a piece of my childhood blanket off and put it in my book bag, so I could feel my blankie if I needed to.”
Riley said it’s unfortunate that Rachael learned specifics about being thrown into a dumpster when she was much too young to handle that information. Still, she’s an advocate for being honest with adopted children in ways that are gradual and age-appropriate.
“By adolescence, they should have their entire story, no matter how hard it is,” said Riley, executive director of C.A.S.E. “As you put it out there in a normal way, children are able to receive it ... but if parents aren’t talking about it at all, children think their story is shameful.”
In 2011, the most recent year for which figures are available, 400,540 children were in foster care in the United States, and more than 61,000 were legally free to be adopted. Many of those children come from backgrounds of abuse and neglect, and Riley said she sees a huge need for more “adoption-competent” therapists to help them make the transition to permanent homes.
“If I hadn’t gotten the help I did,” Rachael said, “I don’t think I’d be as stable and well-functioning in my relationships as I am today.”
‘An awesome life’
Riley said adoptive parents should not be shocked if their children want to find their birth parents even after learning that their birth parents mistreated them. She said it’s normal for people to want to know the truth about their origins.
That’s definitely a desire that has never left Rachael. Rather than feel insecure about it, her parents have supported it because they know how much it means to her. They’ve even helped their daughter use a site called FamilyTreeDNA.com to locate possible blood relatives. (So far, that search has led Rachael to two distant cousins.)
“I will always want to find (my birth parents),” Rachael said. “I mean, I obviously think my birth mother did the wrong thing. I assume she was young because of the decisions she made. ... I just always try to keep a completely open mind in case I do meet them. I’m not angry about it.”
More than anything else, Rachael said she’s grateful to the parents who adopted her and helped her in so many ways — even when that involved physically dragging her screaming and crying to therapy sessions as a teenager when she didn’t want to go.
“I have such appreciation for them,” Rachael said. “They took in this little baby and they took such good care of me. They gave me such an awesome life.”
C.A.S.E. therapists provide adoption-specific counseling to about 500 children a year in Maryland, Northern Virginia and Washington, D.C. The organization also is training therapists in other states and offering webinars to help families regardless of location. Riley said parents looking for adoption-focused therapists near them can try calling local adoption agencies and child-welfare agencies. Parents also can contact C.A.S.E. for guidance and look to the North American Council on Adoptable Children as a resource.