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Fierce Spirit Lifts Child from Abuse to Health

30 Oct 2005
By Michelle Roberts

SUMMARY: Power to heal: With loving care in a new foster home, Kayla Nickel adds 60 pounds and 6 inches and faces her abusers with resolve.

When authorities rescued Kayla Nickel a month before her 10th birthday in December 2003, the girl weighed 261/2 pounds and was near death, curled in a fetal position beneath her bed.

She was so malnourished, her skin was sloughing off in sheets. Her bones jutted through her skin. Her teeth were rotten, her hair unkempt. She refused to speak.

Last month, a pink-cheeked 11-year-old wearing a purple velour dress sat confidently on a courtroom witness stand to face the couple who had starved and abused her for five years after adopting her from the state foster care system.

As startling as Kayla's resolve was her appearance.

In the months since she had been removed from the home of Tammy and Christopher Nickel, both 33 of Salem, she had grown 6 inches, gained more than 60 pounds and learned to read and write. A psychologist testified to a "miraculous recovery."

With the Nickels scheduled to be sentenced Monday to as many as five years in prison, psychologists and social scientists puzzle as to why some children, such as Kayla, are able to overcome extreme circumstances such as neglect and abuse and find well-being and success, while others are defeated.

Psychologists use the word "resilience" to describe this ability to bounce back from adversity.

Resilience, researchers agree, is a complex and unpredictable process. Studies that track children into adulthood show that parental bonds influence future success more than almost any other factor. So does being born with the right personality. A child with an easygoing temperament or a certain amount of intelligence, for example, appears to have an advantage.

But what of children such as Kayla who endure numerous factors known to weaken resilience --violence, physical abuse, exposure to alcoholism or drug abuse and removal from the home?

Kayla had also been abused and neglected by her biological parents, drug users who, court records show, left Kayla and her sister alone for days at a time. Before the Nickels adopted Kayla at age 5 in 1999, she had been shuffled through nine foster families in two years.

Kayla told the court that, with the Nickels, she often became so thirsty that she drank from the toilet, and she was closed in her room for hours and days. When she was given food --rarely anything other than oatmeal and Spam --she ate alone in her room while the Nickels and their biological son ate together elsewhere.

She testified that Chris Nickel once held a gun to her head and threatened to kill her when she tried to sneak a piece of pizza from the kitchen. Records show the Nickels kept Kayla out of school for four years.

"Resilience is complicated," says Dr. Paul Fink, professor of psychiatry at Temple University School of Medicine and past president of the American Psychiatric Association. "It doesn't happen magically. In addition to all the external factors, some people just have the internal strength to make it out of the void."

Aid of "essential witness"

Experts agree that, as major risk factors add up, so does the toll on the child.

Still, children can learn skills to help them overcome adversity.

Researchers have identified several factors --such as feeling a sense of purpose and future, or experiencing the unconditional love of at least one person --that significantly increase chances that a "damaged" child will become a productive member of society.

Fink and other experts agree that perhaps the most powerful resilience factor for children who have been severely abused or neglected is finding an adult who will be their champion and their sounding board.

"The only way a child can get resilient enough to withstand a 10th of what Kayla experienced," Fink says, "is to have, somewhere in her life, an 'essential witness' --somebody who has the capacity, empathy and willingness to put in a lot of hours of painful work to get this child back to a normal level."

In Kayla's case, it appears that Neil and Brandy Plaster, the foster parents who took her in after she was removed from the Nickels, have had a profound impact.

The couple became Kayla's "essential witness" --enlightened people who could help a child like Kayla recognize the injustices she had suffered and allow her to vent feelings of rage, pain and indignation. Children who have such an outlet, Fink says, are often able to overcome even the most severe types of abuse.

The Plasters first saw Kayla at the Salem Hospital emergency room, hours after she was removed from the Nickels' house. She had weeping pressure sores and numerous bruises.

"I had to step out of the room to contain myself so I wouldn't cry in front of her," Brandy Plaster says. "Every bone was visible, and it was very startling and upsetting."

But what bothered Plaster even more was Kayla's emotional state.

"The most unusual thing . . . was how apologetic she was," Plaster testified. "She kept saying, 'I'm sorry for being so disgusting. I'm sorry for being such a pig. I'm sorry for being so bad.' She promised that if we would take her home, she would be good."

Neil Plaster testified at trial: "We've never had a child deprived to the level Kayla was. She was starved intellectually, emotionally, physically. The only thing she was rich in was fear."

The couple told how they listened to her pain and reassured her that what had happened was not her fault.

They rubbed lotion lovingly on her skin until it healed. They reassured her that the Nickels would not be allowed to take her back. They consistently, constantly told her that it was her right, no matter what, to have food.

After the hospital stabilized her body chemistry, the Plasters slowly reintroduced her to foods. When she didn't recognize peaches or ketchup, or the difference between salad dressing and mustard, they explained it to her without making her feel foolish.

When she started to talk about the things she had experienced with the Nickels, the Plasters simply listened and provided love.

Marion County Circuit Judge Joseph Guimond recognized the impact that the Plasters, who have operated a Salem foster home for 12 years, have had on Kayla.

"I want to thank the foster parents," he said, shortly after convicting the Nickels on three counts each of criminal mistreatment. "The one bright spot in this horrible case is how this child is doing now, and you folks deserve a lot of the credit."

While Kayla's doctors and counselors credit the Plasters with her progress, they also suspect that, despite state records to the contrary, she likely connected to a caregiver as an infant.

She also possesses a talent --another resiliency factor that can be nurtured and give a child confidence. In Kayla's case, her ability to draw helps her feel more powerful.

Several months after her removal from the Nickels' home, Kayla drew a picture at a therapy appointment. It showed the Nickels behind jail bars.

She labeled the picture "I hope."

Thriving, but vulnerable

Psychologists say the Plasters' love and care, if uninterrupted, can create a chain reaction that leads to long-lasting success.

Kayla continues to progress. She loves school. She's healthy and playful. There's no reason, her therapists testified, not to expect more progress.

Experts agree that children such as Kayla remain tremendously vulnerable, and systems need to be set up to help them.

Because of post-traumatic stress, Kayla will need to be protected from instability and cruelty, Fink says.

"The state can't fail this child again," he says. "If someone comes along and is cruel to her and hurts her in some way, she will regress.

"Right now, she's flourishing because someone is looking after her."

Experts say Kayla possesses the most intangible, yet possibly most powerful factor of resilience: a heart, or what one psychiatrist terms the "indomitable fighting spirit."

It's visible in the way she has bonded with her foster parents and siblings. It was in her eyes when she sat in court to face the couple who nearly starved her to death. And it was there --a glimmer of resolve --in the hours after her rescue as she fought for her life in a hospital bed.

To anyone who would listen, Kayla had something to say:

"I'm here to get strong," she repeated over and over. "I'm here to get better."

© 2005 Oregonian Publishing Co. All rights reserved. Used with permission of The Oregonian.

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