The Home of His Choice
As the 12-year-old walked out of the courtroom armed with a new legal name, Shawn Russ, his face wore a smile that would not quit. If nothing else, the uncertainty was over. "We can go ahead and get him braces," says Lizabeth, by way of example. "It's a long-term process, and we didn't want to get it started before we knew what was going to happen."
In his ruling Judge Thomas S. Kirk declared that it was in Shawn's best interests that his biological mother Rachel Kingsley's "parental rights be terminated immediately." Certainly the two-day hearing had provided ample testimony that Rachel, 30, and her now estranged husband, Ralph, 35, were less than model parents. According to Gregory and others, Rachel, who still has custody of her two younger sons, Jeremiah, 11, and Zachary, 8, often left the boys unattended, drank excessively, smoked pot in front of the kids and sometimes smacked them on the head. Twice placed in foster care by Rachel when she says she was financially pressed, Gregory had spent only seven months out of the last eight years with his mother.
The Russes, by contrast, were depicted as a wholesome, tight-knit Mormon family. George, 48, a lawyer, and Lizabeth, 44, a full-time homemaker, live in semirural Leesburg, Fla. (pop. 15,174), with their eight children, ranging in age from 4 to 21. They took in Gregory last October as a foster child after George had spotted him at the Lake County boys' ranch, where Gregory was already asking to be called Shawn (the name of a friend), the better to separate himself from his former life. In March, after talking it over with George, Gregory called a lawyer to try to block an effort by Rachel to regain custody.
But making him a full-fledged member of the family was sometimes difficult. Although Lizabeth says that at first "it seemed really easy the way he fit in," she also recalls that "he called us Mom and Dad right away, which I thought was strange." On a weekend visit before being placed in foster care with the Russes, Gregory asked if he could be adopted. His neediness sometimes caused tension in the family. "He'd wiggle into our laps and almost push the other kids out of the way," says Lizabeth. "When he wanted something, he'd say things like 'My favorite, wonderful, terrific dad, can I please...'There was a little resentment by the other kids."
Lizabeth says that as Shawn's confidence has increased, he has become less demanding. He does, however, suffer from attention-deficit disorder; at school, he has trouble concentrating and staying in his seat. According to Lizabeth, two doctors who examined Shawn for the court suggested that he be placed on the controversial medication Ritalin to see if it might alleviate the problem. The Russes have not decided, but Lizabeth says they may try the drug.
Achieving some semblance of normality is the first priority for the Russes and Shawn, who is in the sixth grade. Active in a Mormon youth group, Shawn already is talking about going away to college at Brigham Young University. George says that he will probably negotiate with Hollywood for the rights to Shawn's story. "They were going to go ahead whether we helped or not," he explains. "We wanted to make sure it was done accurately."
But if biological mother Rachel has her say, the final act of this real-life drama has yet to be written. She has vowed to press an appeal to win her son back. "I would do anything to get my child home with me," says Rachel, who is now living in St. Louis. (Shawn's biological father, who has cirrhosis of the liver and colon cancer, did not oppose the adoption and maintains some contact with his son.) For her part, Lizabeth hopes that Rachel and Shawn can eventually sort out their feelings for each other. "I think it would be good for them if they could have some kind of relationship someday," says Lizabeth. "I think then he could work through his anger, but that probably won't come until he's an adult." Meanwhile, says Lizabeth, she recently overheard Shawn in his bedroom crooning made-up lyrics into a tape recorder. "People tell you dreams don't come true," he sang, "but they really do." Lizabeth laughs. "He just always held on to that," she says. "He's a survivor."
MEG GRANT in Miami