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25 adopted boys find a home in one house California couple make room for disabled children

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    25 adopted boys find a home in one house California couple make room for disabled children

    25 adopted boys find a home in one house California couple make room for disabled children
    By Janet Kornblum

    HUNTINGTON BEACH, Calif. -- Ann Belles was only 5 in 1968 when her mother took her to see Oliver, the movie musical about orphan boys based on Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist. But in that darkened theater, her fate was sealed.

    ''I walked out of that movie saying, 'I'm going to adopt orphan children.' I dreamt about it. I thought about it. I got books on orphans. I was consumed by it.''

    Many of us forget our childhood dreams. Today, Belles, 40, lives hers. She and her husband, Jim Silcock, 41, have adopted 25 boys -- boys who have been abandoned, abused, rejected and usually labeled unadoptable; boys from across town and across the world; boys with disabilities from autism to mental retardation to attachment disorders; boys now ranging in age from 3 to 25 who represent a panoply of ethnicities.

    This is the Silcock family: a mom with a dream; a dad who is quadriplegic and has a love big enough to make his wife's dream his own; and their children: 25 boys who had nowhere else to go.

    ''I tell people that it's like any other family -- except extremely large,'' says Hunter, 16. When Hunter, who uses a wheelchair and has cerebral palsy, joined the Silcock family five years ago, he was considered borderline retarded. Today, he tests as gifted and has appeared on TV in three episodes of Boston Public.

    The Silcock family is not like any other family. ''There are obviously people all over the country who adopt individual children and groups of children with special needs,'' says Adam Pertman, executive director of the not-for profit Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute in New York. But ''it is unusual for anybody to adopt this many children.''

    The news last month about a New Jersey family accused of starving their adopted foster children has focused attention on the nation's foster care and adoption system. Sometimes the system is abused, Pertman says, but more often, ''financial incentives from state and federal governments are helping to increase special-needs adoptions.''

    The Silcock family ''is the good side of that bad story,'' he says.

    Adoption of children in foster care, where many of the Silcock boys come from, is on the rise. About 130,000 of the 540,000 children in foster care nationwide are waiting to be adopted. About 50,000 a year actually get adopted, says Carol Emig of the Pew Commission on Children in Foster Care.

    In the past five years, thanks largely to increased federal financial incentives and state initiatives to adopt, 33 states and Washington, D.C., have doubled their adoptions from foster care, Emig says.

    But experts note that many children -- especially those who are older and disabled -- remain unadopted. ''There is no line at the door for kids with special needs of any age,'' Pertman says. ''People want healthy infants first and then move on from there.''

    Not Belles. She tells agencies to give her the child who has been rejected by everyone else.

    ''We're not willing to compete for a child,'' she says. ''There are plenty of children who don't have any opportunities to be matched with more typical families.''

    Some of the children came from families that couldn't cope with their needs. Many came from parents who caused their disabilities.

    One of the Silcock boys was nearly drowned by his parents and left brain-damaged. Another boy was taken from his family after doctors discovered 13 bones that had been broken but never set. One boy had never touched grass because he spent his first years in the hospital.

    Five boys come from overseas -- Belles and Silcock flew to Eastern Europe to adopt one. Even though these boys may not have significant physical disabilities, they came with emotional and learning difficulties -- and no familiarity with U.S. customs. After Halloween, some of the boys assumed a knock on a stranger's door would yield candy every time. Many of these boys went ''from the Stone Age to The Jetsons'' in the USA, Belles says.

    Kids can take their time

    Though entering a large family is not for everybody, Belles says, it can actually make things easier. ''Some kids, especially kids with attachment disorder or kids who are older, can come to our family and just kind of slip in. They don't need to bond with us right away. They can bond to the dog. They can bond to another sibling. They can feel safe.''

    Though some people question whether one family can -- or should -- take on this many kids, experts say there is no magic number. What is important is assessing each family and each placement very carefully, says Sue Badeau, deputy director of the Pew Commission and the mother of 20 adopted and two biological children in Philadelphia.

    ''Have some families gotten bigger than they should have gotten and have some children been inappropriately placed in large families? Absolutely. Does that mean no family should ever have a large number of children or that no children thrive in large families? No. I don't think it's an either/or kind of extreme.''

    Those who know the Silcock family say it works.

    Says Joan Thompson, a nurse to one of the boys: ''They grow and blossom when they come here. You just see the difference.''

    Neighbor Margaret Lysaght says the five vans and constant remodeling of the now-4,000-square-foot home are sometimes small nuisances, but she doesn't mind. ''Those kids need a break, and she's doing it for them. When I see those kids out there getting ready to get on those buses, they all look happy. . . . And I've never heard any crying or screaming or any sign of abuse or neglect.''

    But it's not like Belles and Silcock work miracles with their boys, Belles is quick to say. ''Their disabilities will not go away. But we have seen kids talk who couldn't talk before and walk who couldn't walk before. It has a lot to do with the dynamics of the family. Everybody pulls their weight.''

    Walk into the Silcock home, and at first blush you might think it's an institution: Wheelchairs fill the garage. Pictures that line the walls of the wide, clean hallways are careful portraits showing each boy at his best. Boys with every imaginable disability inhabit the nine bedrooms. And nurses, teachers and aides buzz around the home, cleaning, tending to the boys, organizing medicines or putting in yet another load of laundry.

    On the typical fall morning, four boys gather around a wide-screen TV to play a video game. Five Nintendo GameCubes are scattered throughout the house. Isn't that excessive? Silcock explains: ''You get 20 guys and one GameCube, what do you think will happen? There's going to be a war, and it's going to be Lord of the Flies. The strongest guy will take it.''

    Then Jonathan, 18, marches in and ends the game. ''Mom told me to turn off the TV,'' he says.

    And then, in what seems like a choreographed performance, boys grab backpacks in the front hall and run or wheel each other out the front door. Vans are loaded. Children are put into buses and strapped in. It's time to go to school. Most attend public school; eight have classroom aides.

    Three boys linger at the breakfast tables. Phillip, 10, from a Siberian orphanage, sits next to 7-year-old Justin, who is immune-compromised and whose kidneys are failing. He's the only boy who can't attend school. Phillip wipes Justin's face, then picks up a spoon and coaxes him to eat just a little bit more before Phillip has to leave.

    Older boys routinely help younger ones, be it with their food or companionship, cleaning their rooms or doing homework.

    If they have a really big problem -- such as getting in trouble at school -- the kids go to mom and dad who ''better'' hear about it from the boys rather than the teachers, Silcock says.

    One day at a time

    By 8:15 a.m., the suburban house on the quiet cul-de-sac in this Southern California beach town settles down. The adults tend to business, cleaning or grocery shopping. They also attend parent-teacher conferences, organize medical care and discuss the progress of individual boys with aides.

    School hours and weekends -- when the boys are shuttled to venues from soccer games to Disneyland -- are also when Belles and Silcock run their business, Supported Living Services. They arrange services for adults with disabilities who want to live in their own homes. They have 11 clients and are able to generate a ''good income,'' Belles says.

    In addition, the family receives financial help through the federal Adoption Assistance Program, an incentive program designed to encourage parents to adopt children with special needs, though it applies only to children younger than 18 adopted domestically. The Silcocks receive an average of $1,100 a month from AAP for each of 13 children who are eligible. That money pays for everything from nursing, counseling and physical therapy to adaptive equipment and specialty clothing.

    Belles has some inheritance money, and she and Silcock apply for grants. Most of the boys -- except those from overseas -- also qualify for California Medicaid (called Medi-Cal), which pays for most of their medical care. Belles is lucky, too, that she bought her home in 1989 before California housing prices were out of her reach.

    But even with a variety of income sources, Silcock says that he has, on occasion, gotten cash advances on the credit cards.

    Managing their life is all about organization, Silcock says. He takes care of wheelchair maintenance, dinner, most grocery shopping and vehicles. Belles is in charge of staffing, schools and medical care.

    Children's medical histories, educational records and family data are kept in neat files in the office. The kids' keepsakes are filed in plastic bins that line the garage. Each box contains pictures a boy has made, papers he has written, photos of his childhood. A few boys came with mementos, but most came with nothing, ''not one picture. Not one baby picture,'' Belles says. ''We're trying to piece back their history.''

    People might think Belles and Silcock are saints or feel sorry for them. But that would be a mistake.

    ''Every day I go to bed, I know I've done something good,'' Belles says. ''I feel good about myself.''

    ''I don't have any bosses; I work for myself,'' Silcock adds. ''I spend all my time at home with the kids. Who wouldn't want this life?'' That comes from a man who vowed in high school back in Pittsburgh to ''get married and have no kids.''

    A shared mission

    In 1998, when Silcock was living in Florida, Belles and Silcock met online. Belles saw Silcock's online profile and e-mailed him. Within 72 hours, they were talking on the phone. ''Within a week we were planning our lives,'' she says.

    In four months, he shipped out his possessions and bought a one-way ticket to California. Friends thought they were nuts. Belles knew about Silcock's disability; he broke his neck in a diving accident in 1987 and is paralyzed. Silcock knew about Belles' love for kids.

    Belles first became a foster mother when she was 19. By the time she met Silcock, she had nine foster kids and was starting the process of adopting her first boy.

    She always had felt like a parent to the boys and wanted to adopt but didn't realize parenthood was an option. Then the rules changed with the 1997 Adoption and Safe Families Act. It encouraged adoption of foster kids, and in turn, social workers urged her to adopt. Belles was happy to comply.

    Belles and Silcock were married May 15, 1998, and continued adopting, together. They've fully adopted 22 children; three adoptions are in progress.

    Belles is the driver on that, but Silcock doesn't mind. ''I knew I was getting into nine -- not 26. Or 27. Or 28 -- or wherever it happens to stop,'' he says. ''Plus I just fell in love with Ann. So I figured whatever she did, I could just do that or get a job doing something else.''

    It's about love, not 'blood'

    Being disabled also gives him a special bond with the boys. The boys learn that being disabled does not mean stopping and that they are needed to do things their dad can't do. ''In a family where everyone has disabilities, everyone has strengths and weaknesses, and everybody is expected to do what they can to help,'' Belles says.

    At dinner, Silcock sits in the large kitchen and directs boys as they cook. Nikolai, 15, from Siberia, doesn't always excel at school, but he loves cooking. He chops asparagus and carrots, puts three giant packages of chicken and barbecue sauce into oven bags and pours macaroni into boiling water.

    During dinner -- which is eaten in shifts tonight because several boys have a late swimming lesson -- Silcock quietly admonishes a boy for putting a can of grated cheese in his mouth. But there is no yelling, just banter and frequent questions: ''Daddy, can I have this? or ''Dad, do I have to eat this?''

    Some boys retire to their rooms to play computer games. Others watch TV. A physical therapist massages the atrophied limbs of Kavin, a 7-year-old with myotonic dystrophy. Hunter flirts with a teenage girl who is serving community time by helping out at the home. An aide organizes medicines. Belles walks around with a phone pressed to her ear. And then there are the washers and dryers -- they never seem to stop.

    This is home. This is family.

    Just ask the boys.

    ''Family is not about blood,'' says Hunter, the 16-year-old from South Carolina. ''Family and home -- it's where they love you. No matter what.''Cover storyCover story

    i saw a news type tv show that featured this family, really quite amazing
    cauda equina