A voice of one who knows

From infancy to age 6, Tim Sherman was abused in a Romanian orphanage. Then John and Marny Sherman of Kansas City adopted him. They were devoted parents, he says, but had little idea what he had endured.

Growing up he fought; he ran away, he got booted from school. He spent more than four years living in residential treatment. Eventually, his life turned around. Now, at 21, “Mr. Tim,” as he’s known, works part-time on Spofford Home’s “Single” dorm for boys as a behavioral specialist, a $10-an-hour “glorified baby sitter,” he says, trying to help kids make it. He’s attending community college now and plans to transfer to the University of Missouri.

What follows is his story in his own words.

At 10 months I was put into an orphanage in Romania. I slept in a room of like 70 to 80 people. I slept in a crib until I was 6 years old. They hit us with sticks; they slapped us; they sexually abused us. Sometimes some of the kids would get stolen just because that was a business. Someone would sell them on the black market for money or child pornography.

Back then we had what we referred to as “good people” and “bad people.” Kids would go to good people. Bad people stole you away.

One day, my (adoptive) mom showed up. They brought me downstairs. She picked me up to leave, and all the kids, it was a ritual, all the kids would gather at the windows and start waving to make it look like it was such a nice place. …When we stepped foot in KCI Airport, I started bawling. I didn’t know what was going on.

I’m sure my parents would say they foresaw a rocky road, but not as rocky as it was. I started growing up. I became very hyper. I started having ADD (attention deficit disorder) and I took Ritalin for it around age 8 or 9. It helped. But there were more problems. I was very defiant. I didn’t do what they said. I lied. I was very physical with my mom, like pushing her and stuff. My schoolwork dropped. I went to St. Paul’s Episcopal Day School. I got expelled in the eighth grade like 13 days before graduation. (The school granted him a diploma anyway.)

I started acting up, trying to antagonize my peers, calling them bitch or whore or fat. They cleared the room. They had the principal come in. I was just pissed off. I threw a desk at him. Thank God it didn’t hit him. They took me to Menninger’s. I stayed like three days. I b.s.’ed my way out of there. It was a piece of cake. Talk about intensive treatment. It was from 8 to 9 at night — that’s all it was, was groups. Back then I thought it was bull crap. A week later I started messing up again, shoving my mom and trying to run away. …Working in a place like this, I can now see how the most ordinary-looking kid can be the worst kid you’d ever have to deal with.

(The) hard part for me and for any of these kids is medication. Each psychiatrist will have a different opinion. They’re going to see a ton of psychiatrists. They’re going to be diagnosed somewhat differently. I went through a lot of medication. I got home and starting being defiant and disrespectful again, the same thing, pushing my mom. Dad came over and he was like, “That’s it. I’ve had it.” They sent me to Crittenton (a residential treatment center). I was taking meds for ADHD, ADD, anger, like a mood stablizer and something for depression. I went to all the groups like here: art therapy, anger management, sexual abuse groups, drug group, peer interaction group. We talked about what happened in Romania.

I had several death notes on me in the dorm. Death notes mean that people are gunning for you. I remember we had a group and I went off on these guys and had four or five jump me. (Later) I cut myself for attention and they put me in the hospital for a week. After a week, I went back on the dorm and I was much better.

For some reason, things clicked. I was more respectful. I was better with my peers. I was just like, you know, I’m going to start doing my treatment now. I went on to Bishop Miege High School but I started having problems at home again, not in school, but at home, where I was pushing my mother, being disrespectful.

They put me in Butterfield, a residential facility (in Marshall, Mo). I wasn’t as bad physically, or as angry. But I still had problems. I was there for almost a year. I was 16 at this point.

I was transferred to Ozanam (a residential treatment center for boys). I was there for three years.

The difference in places are not the programs, but the people. The programs are only as good as the people who run them. At Ozanam it was just amazing how dedicated those people were.

I had anger management at Ozanam. It was with Bart Ewing. It was one of the most successful groups I ever had. He would challenge you and get in your face. I think he used a lot of reverse psychology. He really got in my face, always confronting me about how “bad” I had it. My parents would come in and see me every weekend, guaranteed. This guy was like, ‘I hate it. I hate that you’re so loved. So what if your parents pick you up every weekend.’ He made me defend my parents and bring it all out.

But I hit a low point. I was depressed. I hit rock bottom.

That’s what happens with the kids here. When they hit rock bottom, it clicks. One day, I just said, “I’ve had it. I’ll do whatever it takes. I’m done.” What I was saying to myself is, “I want to get out of here. I want to go to college. I want a regular social life. I want regular friends. I want to be able to get married and have kids. I want to be able to make myself as proud of myself as my parents are proud of me.” A lot of people made the difference. That’s the way it works, the important thing, for kids is to find someone to connect to, someone they can listen to and respect. It may be someone in the kitchen staff, or the maintenance guy. You might have someone who has a double-master’s and is brilliant, but he may not be effective, because he and the kids may not have a relationship.

I try to tell the kids all the time, it is amazing how when you let go, quit trying to fight it, how many things can get done for you…

It’s sad to know what some of these kids have been through. We have kids here who have been put in porn movies. We have kids who have been in bestiality movies, kids getting their faces beaten to a pulp, kids who are scared of their fathers because they’re afraid their fathers are going to kill them, literally. We have kids who have perped other kids, touched them sexually… I’d say 90 percent of our kids progress while they’re here. They go out as a better kid. When they’re young, you have a better chance to shape them. It’s amazing to see. What I worry about is — and I want to put this delicately, a lot of our kids are underprivileged — what do they have after? What do these kids look forward to? Who do these kids look to? What opportunities are they going to get? That is why we work so hard on these kids, because we know what many are going back into. Even so, I have nine kids in my dorm right now. I think two or three will have a good shot. Seventy to 80 percent of the kids I graduated Ozanam with are in jail or on drugs or selling drugs.

I do see hope … I decided to do this because I wanted a chance to give back, to teach these boys how to be young men…I don’t base success on how they do here; I base it on whether they have the street smarts to want to get it right…As staff we can sit here every day for 20 hours working on someone intensively, but if the kid doesn’t want to budge there’s nothing we can do.