Saving Nicholas

Except for Alice and Ellery Riha, who chose to be identified, and the health and social workers, the names of everyone in this story, including Nicholas, have been changed.

There is nothing about Nicholas to suggest he is anything but a typical ten-year-old suburban kid. He is tall and fit, with a flawless face, thick chestnut hair and a calibrated gap between his front teeth.

Nicholas lives in a red brick house, deep within a subdivision of interconnected culs-de-sac a half-hour from downtown. He owns three Game Boys and the latest Digimon action figures. He's a good student, and he generally comports himself in a way that pleases his parents and teachers.

At this point in his life, Nicholas probably doesn't think much about the improbability of his present circumstances, which involve frequent visits to Chuck E. Cheese's and regular attendance at live sporting events. Such reflection may become necessary at some point, but for now, for the better, it is enough to feel privileged and secure and, above all, loved.

His parents, on the other hand, are still occasionally stunned by the situation. In 1994, after 18 years of marriage — the second for both for them — Ellery and Alice Riha packed off the last of the five children they had raised. Ellery, a bond salesman, was looking forward to fewer parental duties and the extra time and quiet he felt he had earned. But Alice, a woman seemingly possessed of a congenital need to be useful, dreaded an empty house. After her daughter married and moved to Dallas, Alice convinced Ellery that they should become foster parents.

The Rihas signed up with a private child welfare agency and submitted to, as Alice puts it, "a goodly bit of rigmarole" to obtain the necessary qualifications. Not long after they were certified, late in the afternoon of November 3, 1994, a caseworker from Children's Protective Services of Harris County came by with Nicholas.

He was three and a half years old and small for his age. He wore jeans, a long-sleeve knit shirt and a pair of cheap canvas shoes. He had no other clothing with him, not even a change of underwear. He carried a small bag of Halloween candy and a stuffed animal, the kind you'd pay a quarter to snatch up with a robotic claw at a truck-stop arcade. His hair was shorn to a bristle, exposing the wound — a thick, dark scab — four inches above his right ear.

Nicholas had been accidentally shot by his two-year-old brother, the caseworker explained, and for the past three months had been living in a shelter. The caseworker said the boy was a bit hyperactive, but well behaved. That first night with the Rihas went well. They ate at Luby's with Alice's sister and some of the Rihas' children; everyone clamored playfully for Nicholas's attention, and he was happy to oblige. Later that night, Nicholas was thrilled to learn he had his own room, with a cache of toys on the floor and a bunch of balloons hovering over the bed.

The next morning, after Ellery left for work, Alice and her sister took the young ward shopping for clothes. As soon as they entered the store, Nicholas flew out of control, racing up and down the aisles, diving around and beneath the racks, crashing into other shoppers, all the while shouting incoherently at the top of his lungs. Alice could not contain the boy, could only try to keep up with him, keep him in sight, as he rampaged about. When it was time to leave, Alice's sister stood in the cashier's line while Alice corralled Nicholas, whom she remembers as "totally wild."

"I caught his arms and tried to talk to him," she says. "Oh, he got so angry, so very angry. Then he just collapsed into hysterical sobs and tears."

Alice sat down on the floor, pulled Nicholas onto her lap and rocked him like an infant until he grew calm. Then he took Alice's face in his hands and, in a raw voice, said to her, "I love you, Mom." Alice can sometimes laugh about the movie-of-the-week poignancy of that moment. Back then, of course, she could only wonder what she had gotten herself and Ellery into. "I thought, 'This has got to be the worst kid I have ever seen in my life.' "

No one could have blamed the Rihas if they had exchanged their foster child for a lesser handful that afternoon. If they'd waited a month, after it became clear Nicholas's behavioral problems were pathological, they would have been applauded for their patience. After a year, when Nicholas was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder, post-traumatic stress syndrome and depression, they could have relinquished the boy to a group home or to a family certified to care for emotionally disturbed children. Instead, they took the time to learn how to meet his every need.

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Brian Wallstin