Tragedies in Adoption
There are occasionally tragedies in adoption for which there are seemingly no answers, and yet, we all struggle to make sense of them in hopes that doing so may help avert such misfortunes from recurring.
So it is that we attempt to make sense of the tragedy unfolding in Missouri this week, as the remains of a 16-year-old adoptee have been found in a burn pit on the farm where her birthmother lives.
In Minnesota in 2001, Donald Pluff, Jr., a contractor, and a trucker named Rebecca Ruud had a baby girl who was named Savannah. Rebecca’s neighbors were David & Tamile Leckie, a former trucker-turned-concert-promoter and his wife. They’d had infertility, and somehow, a decision was made to place Savannah with them, in a private adoption two months after the birth. The adoption remained open, and by all accounts, the Leckies’ continued relationship with the birthmother had been a positive thing.
Two years later, Rebecca placed a second baby girl with the Leckies, and thereafter, the Leckies gave birth to a son. The Leckie marriage did not last, however, and the couple divorced in January 2011.
David Leckie remarried, and reportedly sought custody of the children, but did not prevail in court. The Leckie children remained in the care of their mother, Tamile, who went from a live-in relationship with one man to an engagement to Cary Steeves. According to Steeves’ ex-wife Laura Pittman, Cary did not get along with Savannah and “didn’t want her” as Savannah reportedly had autism and depression, and had made several suicide attempts.
As Tamile explained later to the media, Savannah had started “experiencing problems” in her teens, and felt unable to get the attention she needed in the newly-blended family home. This was the reason Tamile and her fiance gave for their decision to send the teen back to live with her birthmother and her boyfriend in Theodosia, a rural community in Missouri. As Steeves recounted in a television interview, “We have been co-parenting (Savannah.) The farm just seemed like a really good place for her to explore and find herself.”
Was it, really? Had the Savannah’s adoptive parents even seen it? Savannah’s birthmother Rebecca drove from Missouri to Minnesota in August 2016 to pick Savannah up, and she took the teen home to live alone in a camper trailer; Ruud and her boyfriend lived in another metal structure on the farm, and the property’s power came from a generator, according to court documents.
Rebecca home-schooled Savannah, and she and Savannah went into business making soap together, marketing it under the name Our Hidden Holler Farm. On July 20, 2017, Rebecca reported that Savannah had gone missing during the night. An extensive search was launched. Savannah’s birthfather had died of a terminal illness in 2013; his obituary listed his wife and children, but did not mention Savannah. (At the time of Savannah’s disappearance, her birthmother told authorities she had likely run away and may have gone off in search of her birthfather’s family.)
On August 4, 2017, Rebecca and her boyfriend Robert Peat, Jr. were married– on the same day that human remains were discovered in a fire pit on the property. Those remains have been confirmed to be those of the late Savannah Leckie, age 16.
Rebecca Ruud, who was a volunteer firefighter, is now in jail and charged with murder. Her new husband, also a firefighter, has reportedly fled the state. David Leckie, Tamile Montague and their families are left preparing for a funeral, and later, a trial.
How do we unpack this tragic case?
There is so much about this case that is troubling, it’s hard to know where to start.
But let’s start with a positive thought: Savannah, although troubled, was very much loved— by her adoptive dad and his family, by her adoptive mom and her family, by friends, and yes, by her birthparent(s) and birthfamily.
Whatever happened on that Missouri farm, Savannah and her sister had benefited from being able to know the truth of their origins, and the people involved.
Open adoption is not to blame for Savannah’s death; tragedy is. Whether that tragedy occurred in the course of an accident or as a result of an evil act, Savannah knew who all four of her parents were. And they had worked together to make it possible for Savannah and her birthsister to grow up together.
Rebecca, who had previously elected to not parent more than one of her children, was likely ill-equipped to meet the needs of caring for an autistic teenager. (According to the search warrant, Rebecca had admittedly engaged in abusive disciplinary acts involving her birthdaughter.)
We can surmise that Tamile likewise felt overwhelmed, given her daughter’s issues and her partner’s alleged ultimatum. (And while it may be tempting to ask why she didn’t just let Savannah’s adoptive dad take her in, remember that a court had apparently already found it was in the children’s best interests to remain with their adoptive mother, for whatever reason?)
It’s well-known that adoptees are often highly-susceptible to rejection and abandonment issues. Whether or not Savannah was capable of making a mature and informed decision about where she wanted to live, she very likely struggled (like most teens) with wanting to feel wanted and needing to fit in. Her family may have tried everything to help her and were likely at their wit’s end when they agreed to let her move back in with her birthmom. (Who knows? She may have even been one of those very normal adoptees who tormented her parents with daily pleas to “let me go live with my ‘real mom’ where I belong.“) Still: nothing Savannah ever said or did (and nothing any of her parents ever wished for her) would have justified her tragic death. It breaks our hearts just thinking about it.
What should be learned from this?
If there’s any lesson we can take away from this, perhaps it is this: open adoption is not co-parenting, and adoptive parents must never abdicate their role in the open adoption relationship, especially when the going gets tough.
Please understand: it’s not our intent to assign blame here. Every parent who shares a child with anyone (be it ex-spouses, birthparents or adoptive parents, camp counselors or coaches) knows the pressure involved when your kid gets old enough to argue with you about where they think they’d rather be.
Yet the commitments made in any open adoption involve the adults, right from the start, and it is the adults’ responsibility to set appropriate boundaries and to clearly define everyone’s roles. Kids don’t get to “call the shots” until they are adults and can decide for themselves by law how involved they do or don’t want to be. Birthparents are not obligated to help “save” adoptive families from their child’s issues, nor are adoptive parents owed a pass from parenting when those issues seem too hard to handle.
These are strong words, and we apologize to those who may find them offensive. We know that parenting can be incredibly trying and that resources can be hard to find, especially when teens are troubled. We appreciate that birthparents may want to “help an adoptive family out” and that adoptive parents may even believe their child would be better off with birthfamily, on occasion.
Yet in open adoption, everyone needs to be “all in” in order for it to be all in a child’s best interests. When any adoption is finalized and the judge says to the adoptive parents “I hereby grant this adoption and from this day forward this child is yours, just as if he or she had been born to you” that means just that: your child is yours, for better or worse, and you must be a full participant– fully-present in open adoption visits (and in your child’s daily life.)
Whatever mistakes may have been made, Savannah’s adoptive parents were not at fault for allowing Rebecca to know her daughters. Her daughters were not at fault for wanting to know her. And whether or not Rebecca is indeed at fault for the death of Savannah, it does not negate her loving decision to choose adoption for her children. Savannah surely deserved better; then and now.
As an adoption community, we are called to lift all of these people in our thoughts and prayers and to withhold judgement, for “there but for the grace of God” go any of us. Let us strive, however, to learn from such tragedies in adoption, in the hopes that doing so might somehow save ourselves (and those we love) from ever having to endure a similar heartache in our lifetime.