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Catholic Adoptive Parenting Columnist Heidi Hess Saxton

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A Prayer Request for the Mann Family

The death of a child, I’m told, is the worst possible pain we can experience. Worse than labor, a million times over. Worse even than the death of a parent or spouse. Because at that moment, part of you — the part that was supposed to be your legacy to the world — has been terribly and utterly ripped away. Without warning, and without reprieve. It is a scar that no amount of time, or the best plastic surgeon, can ever take away.

            Now multiply that times seven: one biological child, three adopted, two nieces… and a twenty-month-old foster son whose adoption papers were to be filed today (January 27, 2006). In a brief flash just two days ago, a careless truck driver extinguished those seven young lives. Fifteen-year-old Nicky, driving illegally on a permit, was behind the wheel of her parents’ car when the water truck crashed into them, pinning them against a school bus. Their vehicle burst into flames, from which none of the children escaped. The truck driver emerged with minor injuries, and several children on the bus were also injured. Upon hearing of the accident, the children’s paternal grandfather succumbed to a heart attack.

            Barbara and Terry Mann, of Lake Butler, Florida, were adoptive foster parents many times over. They had always dreamed of having a large family, and took in other people’s children at all hours of the day and night. A representative of the agency that had placed little Anthony with the Mann family was unaware that the underage girl sometimes picked up her siblings from school (no doubt that someone at that agency will hang for this). And yet, it seems to me that the press is missing the real tragedy here. The problem was not the underage driver. The problem was the incompetent fool who plowed into them.

            Now, I am not saying that it is perfectly OK for parents to circumvent the law, and I cannot imagine allowing a teenage driver to chauffer a car full of children without adult supervision. But the sad reality is that in this particular case, having an adult behind the wheel would not have changed anything except to add to the death toll. A competent driver behind the wheel of that truck, on the other hand, could have spared the lives of those seven children. 

It’s easy to blame the foster parents (as a group we tend to be easy targets for the press), however cruel and misguided a gesture it might be to add to their torment. But how about the trucking company that allowed Mr. Alvin Wilkerson behind the wheel of one of their vehicles? It’s a wonder he was allowed behind the wheel of a golf cart, let alone a truck, with his driving record. The trucker was cited in 2000 for driving with a suspended licence and twice, in 2000 and 2001, for operating a vehicle in an unsafe condition. When he hit the Mann vehicle, crushing it against the parked school bus, it was with such force that all three vehicles wound up 200 yards down the road from the initial point of impact. For reasons we still don’t know, there were no skid marks, suggesting that he had not even tried to break. (A blood alcohol test is pending.)

            Even so, the press is having a field day vilifying the parents of the dead girl, though she did not cause the crash. Jo-Anne Joyce from Winnipeg, Canada writes: “Regardless of the condition of the truck driver and his vehicle, this incident brings up questions about the adoptive parents’ judgement in passing off their responsibility for the children's safety to their 15-year-old…. Legality aside, was she driving because her parents wouldn’t or couldn’t? I will be interested to learn more...and hope they can forgive themselves.” (

            Ah, the clarion call of the compassionate.

            OK, let’s talk turkey for just a moment. As parents, who among us is not at times tempted to take a “shortcut”? (In point of fact, 15 is legal driving age in five other states of the Union, and the accident occurred on a long, straight stretch of road in broad daylight two miles from their home. The children were heading home from school to get ready to go to church, for heaven’s sake.) And – I cannot emphasize this enough – the police determined that Nicki did not cause the accident, and could not have avoided it (as evidenced by the lack of skid marks left by the truck, plus the fact that the experienced bus driver just ahead of Nicki was also unable to avert the crisis, and was badly injured as well.) It was simply a matter of her being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Before we come down too hard on Nicki’s parents, a little introspection is in order here. All parents have horror stories, though most of the time our momentary lapses in judgment do not leave permanent scars or wind up on the 10 o’clock news. We kiss the booboo, whisper a heartfelt prayer of thanks for our child’s safety, and resolve to do better. The next time you find yourself praying such a prayer, you might add another intention: For big-hearted, well-meaning parents like Barb and Terry Mann whose momentary lapse of judgment brought life-altering consequences.

We must also learn what we can from this story. As a community, we must take responsibility for parents who are overwhelmed by their calling. (Could this whole thing have been avoided if another adult had seen the carpool arrangements and offered to help out?) When someone responds to God’s call the way the Manns did, do we admire them from a distance — or pitch in and lend a helping hand? 

Torn between judgment and compassion, let us imitate Christ and choose the latter, that by grace some good will come. Please join with me in prayer for the family of Barbara and Terry Mann, and for the children their Heavenly Father is even now ushering into their Eternal Home. Pray also for the others injured in the accident, and especially for Alvin Wilkerson, that in time he will experience God’s peace.


Heidi Hess Saxton and her husband Craig are adoptive parents of two children from the foster system. Heidi is editor of "Canticle" magazine, a publication of Women of Grace. A convert to the faith since 1994, Heidi is also a graduate student of theology at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, Michigan, and a frequent contributor to  Visit Heidi's blog at






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Priests for Life Alternatives to Abortion Resource Page

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