Bob Cornyn’s decades spent raising scores of other people’s children have led him in recent weeks into the company of state workers to explain why his unlicensed operation ought to continue.
In drab state-government offices and Remann Hall youth courtrooms, state officials contend the massive Fife home of Cornyn and his wife, Linda, is too dangerous a place for the vulnerable children the family has accepted since 1979 from overwhelmed parents.
Until last month, the children went there for temporary stays that frequently grew permanent. By the couple’s count, more than 70 children have come into their home to live over the years. They eventually adopted more than 30, taking over parental roles that lasted well into many of their charges’ adulthood.
Government officials awarded the Cornyns the house on a dead-end Fife street near a pumpkin patch in 1988 — when they were parents of 28 children, all but three adopted — and praised their dedication. In a ceremony, U.S. Rep. Norm Dicks, D-Belfair, handed over the house keys and called them “a great example of what are the best traditions of our country.”
The story today is different.
Fife police have been to the house twice recently, Nov. 16 and Dec. 7, to help state social workers remove 10 children from the family’s care. The reasons include allegations of lax supervision that might have abetted a reported sexual assault, two children victimizing a third.
The children removed are in foster care, with state social workers reaching out to the same families that signed over custody to the Cornyns, in hopes of finding permanent placements.
The search has had mixed results. One child’s family has set up court-sanctioned visits. Others did not appear as willing to reconnect.
“They believed that they had relinquished their rights quite some time ago,” social worker Claire Andrefsky said in court of one family, reached by phone in Texas.
State officials contend the Cornyns have run the home they call Rainbow Acres — an allusion to the range of the children’s complexions — with too little oversight and cited 43 Child Protective Services referrals over the years as evidence.
Bob Cornyn says he knew about only a few of the prior CPS referrals and that all previous investigations found him blameless.
It is difficult to pin down the full story.
The inherent messiness of raising crowds of children under one roof — many with physical, emotional or mental handicaps — has created a web of complexities in the Cornyns’ day-to-day home lives for decades, from three-table dinners to a maze of school-activity and doctor-appointment schedules. Each morning’s school-bus preparations happened in batches.
The Cornyns require a thick binder to keep track of medical needs and appointments and could not answer offhand precisely how many children they’ve adopted, except that the number is perhaps 40 or so.
Each of the 10 children removed came from different parents, some thousands of miles away, who signed a consent form that gave the Cornyns power of attorney to make life decisions.
Add to this the murkiness of the confidentiality laws state social services workers cite in refusing to discuss the matter. Records of the juvenile-welfare system are not considered public in many cases.
In a series of interviews, Bob Cornyn discussed his troubles in frank, unsparing terms.
This is his account: Officials told him in November that a 13-year-old girl among the family’s current charges told a doctor that other children had engaged in unwanted contact with her, and that an autistic 8-year-old living there said during the subsequent investigation that she had been molested.
Both were removed from the house then. Officials and police came for the rest in December.
Cornyn declined to share the written list of allegations the state Department of Social and Health Services confronted him with. He said it includes the family’s history with the agency and details of the couple’s alleged failure to properly supervise the children. The claims portray him unfairly, he said.
He has visibly struggled to deal with the situation. He is 71, wears a hearing aid and can be soft-spoken. For more than an hour Monday, the intricacies of navigating juvenile courts — and the county and state staff members who refused to discuss even the day’s schedule — left him wandering between courtrooms and security checkpoints, trying to find where a group of hearings would play out.
He says he has been blindsided by some of the details that appear in official documents, including the discussion of 43 prior investigations, and cannot account for their origins.
“Give us all the facts that you have on everything,” he said in an interview outside a court building, “and let us defend ourselves.”
What is clear is this: Absent a series of official reversals, a way of life the Cornyns and scores of children in their home have known for decades has been halted, perhaps permanently.
“The silence has been deafening,” said Linda Cornyn, 70.
According to Bob Cornyn, it is the first time in the couple’s years of taking in children that the state has removed any from his custody.
State officials would not discuss the family to verify this.
Until now, the Cornyns’ lives as caregivers and adoptive parents have largely played out beyond oversight.
Their perpetual family growth began in 1979, when Bob Cornyn was stationed in South Korea as an Army warrant officer. They added five children from a Korean orphanage to the two in their family. Later, they had another child and added dozens more through arrangements that begin beyond official radar.
When they returned from overseas, the growing family lived in south Tacoma until they received the Fife house as a 15-bedroom subsidized rental in 1988. In the years since, they bought it and added capacity, expanding it to 21 bedrooms and 10,000 square feet.
Children come into the home after a therapist or a social worker who has heard of the Cornyns — frequently from across the country — makes a suggestion.
The reasons have a range of origins. Sometimes, a child’s disabilities are more than parents can handle. In other cases, adopted children from foreign nations prove harder to parent than people anticipated.
Children in the family’s care until recently came from Vancouver, Washington; Florida; Texas, and elsewhere, the Cornyns said.
“These people are good parents, but they can no longer parent,” Linda Cornyn said.
After initial dialogue and paperwork, the child is brought to Fife, and the Cornyns’ door opens. The new arrival receives a home and is enrolled in Puyallup schools. There is no certification and no state-sanctioned placement process involved.
“I realize that we’re circumventing the system,” Bob Cornyn said, “but we don’t mean any harm.”
They bill it as “respite care” and say the description applies both to overwhelmed parents and children stuck in mutually bad situations.
It starts on a trial basis, with a power-of-attorney letter. No money is required, the Cornyns said, though some parents donate. With many children, the arrangement continues until the Cornyns move from de facto parents to legal adoptions.
“Six months turns out to be six years sometimes,” Bob Cornyn said.
The couple was raising 11 children at the beginning of November under this arrangement, ages 8 to 16. Another three children, all 17 and formally adopted by the Cornyns previously, still live there, as do several adults.
Many of the children the Cornyns take in have profound handicaps, such as blindness and missing limbs, that require lifelong help. Bob Cornyn said 16 disabled adults live in his home. On a recent morning, a dozen sat on couches watching a “Scooby-Doo” cartoon while the Cornyns discussed their situation with visitors.
With the children gone, the home was quiet enough that the family’s restaurant-size refrigerator-freezers made a conversation-breaking racket. The mall-size bike rack in the back sat disused. Children’s bedrooms showed the clothes-and-stuffed-animals detritus of hasty packing.
Bob Cornyn led a tour up the worn stairs, pointing out the occasional scuff marks and holes on walls and doors inevitably created by adolescents given space to ramble through, occasionally on bicycles or skateboards.
The couple has kept upward of 30 children at a time in the house at various points over the decades, sleeping dorm-style in the boys’ and girls’ wings.
This operation requires constant attention and a monthly budget of $8,000 to $10,000 for food, utilities and other costs, the Cornyns reported. Some parents send donations, but most don’t. Bob Cornyn served in the Army 11 years. His pension and Social Security checks defray the bills.
Both in their 70s, the couple had not made plans to slow down their child care until recent events took the matter out of their hands, at least temporarily.
“We’ll do it until we run out of energy, I guess,” Bob Cornyn said.
Although there is no evident history of the arrangement creating serious trouble, he and police said some teenage residents have gotten in trouble with authorities. One of the children just removed had faced multiple burglary counts in juvenile court, Bob Cornyn said.
Former Fife Police Chief Mark Mears said the family had not attracted official concern except for “kids acting out” when he was with the agency from 2006 to 2015.
“The Police Department had a good relationship with them, and we didn’t seem to have any difficulties at all,” said Mears, now deputy director of South Sound 911.
David Woods, assistant chief of Fife police, said the department has two open investigations about the home.
Melissa McInnes, a former resident, said the home had provided her a far safer life than her Detroit upbringing with an alcoholic mother.
“Because God intervened and put me with them, it saved my life,” said McInnes, now 38 and living in Pontiac, Michigan.
She chanced into the Cornyns’ care in the 1990s after Linda Cornyn’s sister met McInnes’ mother in a bar.
“They got to talking, and that’s just how it fell,” McInnes said.
Others among the group of nearly 30 “siblings” she lived with in the Fife house from 1990 to 1996 had similarly ragtag stories, she said. Some of the children in the Cornyns’ care see multiple foster homes and adoption attempts before landing there, she said.
“We are not the cream of the crop,” McInnes said. “We are not the first picked. We are not the ones that the people in the fancy clothes and the fancy cars come and pay $10,000 to adopt, you know?”
She now has two children and said she would trust the Cornyns with either “in a heartbeat.”
Their care meant food, clothing, shelter, attention, and day trips to plays and sights.
“In many respects, we were like any other family,” McInnes said. “We just had more kids.”
Life at the home fit the same pattern in the 1990s as it did up to this year, by her description.
“We all did dishes, we all washed floors,” McInnes said.“What’s wrong with that? My kids have chores”
On a recent visit, to-do lists for the Christmas and New Year’s celebrations are still affixed to the refrigerator. Each lists dozens of dishes to be served. Nearby, a kitchen work schedule describes which group of children is to take a turn on clean-up duties. Two buses and two passenger vans sit among the panoply of vehicles in the driveway.
Inside, Bob Cornyn said he was still holding out hope the investigation would find him blameless and allow some children to return for holiday celebrations.
Ordinarily loquacious, he did not have an answer when asked how he would spend his time if state officials say his child care days are done.
“I don’t know,” he said. “It’s going to be pretty lonely.”
Derrick Nunnally: 253-597-8693