Foster parents, toddler reunited after family's horrible ordeal'


Connie Schultz
Plain Dealer Columnist
Friday, November 05, 2004

When Mary-Jo Bajc heard John Lawson's voice on the phone, she took a deep breath and braced herself.

Of her three lawyers, he was the "bad news guy," the one who called when her foster child Shane Collins had died in the care of another family.

But when Lawson started reading the latest court order regarding Shane's 2-year-old twin brother, Austin, she interrupted him.

"Wait a minute," she said. "This sounds like Austin's coming home for sure."

By the time she hung up, she was in tears.

"He's coming home!" she shouted. "He's finally coming home!"

On Wednesday night, he did.

The Cuyahoga County Department of Children and Family Services suddenly shifted gears and agreed to let Austin return to Mary-Jo and Daniel Bajc, the foster parents who cared for him and Shane for the first 22 months of their lives.

If Austin does well under their care over the next six months, the county will allow the Bajcs to adopt him.

This is quite a reversal from the county's earlier position. The twins, who were premature babies with numerous medical problems, were removed from the Bajc home on July 22, one day after county officials urged the couple to adopt them.

The boys were shuttled among as many as seven foster homes in the ensuing months.

The Bajcs had told county workers they wanted to make sure they would continue to receive government assistance to cover the boys' ongoing medical costs.

The next day the county accused Mary-Jo of suffering from Munchausen syndrome by proxy, a psychological condition in which a mother fakes a child's illness or deliberately harms him to garner attention and sympathy for herself.

Two-and-a-half months later, Shane died in another foster home. The Bajcs arranged his funeral.

"This has been a horrible ordeal for our entire family," Mary-Jo said Thursday. "But our boy - one of our boys - is home. The other we can never get back."

For more than three months, the county insisted that Mary-Jo had Munchausen, even after three psychologists, including one hired by the county, examined her and determined that she did not.

It was a mistake, said Jim McCafferty, director of the Department of Children and Family Services.

"We don't believe Mary-Jo has Munchausen," he said. "We did have real concern for the children's safety, but the new agreement addresses that. We looked at the 22 months of bonding and nurturing in the Bajc home and determined that Austin belonged with them."

Cuyahoga County Juvenile Court magistrate Wayne Strunk approved the new agreement, which names Dr. Garey Noritz and a child care team at MetroHealth Medical Center to oversee Austin's medical care. The county will choose nurses for his in-home care, and his occupational, speech and developmental therapy sessions will take place outside the home. The Bajcs are allowed to attend these sessions whenever possible.

"It's basically the same care [as] when the twins were with us, only more of it will be out of the home," Mary-Jo said. "Dan and I agreed to grief counseling, and Austin will also have a different doctor."

She paused and let out a long sigh. "He'll also have a different team of social workers, and I am very relieved about that."

The decision to replace the original social workers was made in fairness to the Bajcs, McCafferty said.

"The Bajcs felt that, in the past, miscommunication had gone on and I felt that this was an issue of fairness with them now that Austin was going back to them. I had to ask myself, 'How do I give Austin back to them and then send the same social workers?' They deserved a fresh start."

Mary-Jo heard the news Wednesday afternoon while she was meeting with a nutritionist at the hospital where Austin was being treated for vomiting and fever.

"Your lawyer is on the phone," a nurse told her.

She asked Lawson if it was certain she could take Austin home.

"Yes," he said. "If you agree to the conditions."

"Whatever it takes," she told him. "We just want to bring him home."

She began sobbing. "Even the nurse and the nutritionist teared up," she said.

Then it hit her.

"I started thinking about Shaney," she said, using the family's nickname for the twin who died. " 'What about Shaney?' I said. 'Why couldn't they have made this decision four weeks ago?' We'll never get our other baby back. What about that?' "

It's a good question, and one that must be answered. Autopsy results are pending, and the department's investigation into his death is ongoing, McCafferty said.

Around 8 p.m. Wednesday, Mary-Jo bundled up Austin for the ride home to Perry. Driving through the dark in her minivan, she looked in the rearview mirror to catch a glimpse of the little boy sound asleep in his car seat.

She smiled, but then her eyes drifted to the empty car seat next to him.

"This never should have happened," she said to herself. Over and over, all the way home.

Connie Schultz's column regularly appears on Mondays and Thursdays in Arts & Life.

To reach this Plain Dealer columnist:, 216-999-5087

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