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A chance at life:

Abandoned as a baby, making it as a boy

photo
[Times photos: Cherie Diez]
Mary and Raymond Duncan opened their hearts and home to great-nephew Rusty Hayes. He’s our life, Mrs. Duncan says of the boy they’ve had custody of since he was 5 months old.

By JEANNE MALMGREN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 12, 2000


A loving aunt and uncle bring Rusty Hayes back from the brink, giving him a home and helping him grow despite his troubled beginning.

TAMPA -- He's a typical 10-year-old, a bundle of hyperactive energy who loves Power Rangers and Pokemon, a kid with freckles splattered across his nose and dark red hair that explains his nickname, Rusty.

Around strangers, he's apt to hide under a blanket and refuse to talk. But if the conversation turns to his birthday in April, he begins to chatter about the party he hopes to have at Chuck E. Cheese's.

Nearly 11 years ago, Russell Raymond Hayes' birth was headline news.

Hours old, he was found in a VCR box next to a trash bin, lying on a bloody towel, his umbilical cord tied with blue thread.

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[Times file photo 1989]
In April 1989, a newborn baby was found in a VCR box next to a trash bin in Tampa. Today that baby, Rusty Hayes, is a fifth-grader at Folsom Elementary School.
Police detectives traced the serial number from the VCR and found the baby's mother, a 42-year-old woman who claimed she didn't know she was pregnant and panicked when she gave birth in her Temple Terrace apartment.

Judy Pemberton was charged with child abandonment and sentenced to five years in prison. Her story was the subject of a St. Petersburg Times series that won the 1991 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing.

Since then, dozens of mothers across the nation have abandoned their babies, 105 in public places in 1998 alone. We are shocked each time it happens, especially when the baby is found in our city, our neighborhood, our back yard.

Six newborns were abandoned in Florida in January and February. One was found, just as Rusty was, beside a trash bin in the parking lot of a Tampa apartment complex.

In 1990, as Pemberton waited to appeal her conviction, she married her baby's father, Russell Hayes. Her sentence was reduced to house arrest and probation.

Today the couple lives in a neighborhood of masonry homes off Busch Boulevard. On their front door is a wreath decorated with three red hearts and a sentiment painted in white script: Love Grows Here.

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Russell Hayes sees his son, Rusty, frequently. The boy has a bedroom at his home but lives with his aunt and uncle.
But Judy and Russell Hayes' son doesn't live with them. He is several blocks away, at the home of Russell Hayes' aunt and uncle, Mary and Raymond Duncan. The Duncans were awarded custody of Rusty when he was five months old.

"He's great. He's (my) and Raymond's life," said Mary Duncan, 62.

Mrs. Duncan used to work in child care; now she is disabled by back problems and asthma. Her husband is a groundskeeper at a nearby cemetery. Rearing someone else's child is not new to the Duncans. They also took care of their nephew, Russell Hayes, after he was abandoned by his mother when he was 8. Now they're rearing his son.

"I love Rusty," said Raymond Duncan, 68. "I didn't want to see him adopted out and not know his family."

It hasn't been easy. There are squabbles between the Duncans and the Hayeses. What used to be a close family now has divided over the boy's care.

Judy Hayes, 53, didn't want to be interviewed or photographed for this story.

"She's been through an ordeal and doesn't want it brought up again," said her husband. "She's worried about him (Rusty). She doesn't want him to be hurt."

The Duncans insist Rusty is happy.

"He's the best boy in the world," said Mrs. Duncan. "And he's such a smart little thing."

Rusty is a fifth-grader at Folsom Elementary School. He can recite all 42 U.S. presidents, in order. He begs to be taken to the public library so he can check out books.

Ask him what he wants to be when he grows up and he answers, "pa-le-on-tol-o-gist," carefully pronouncing each syllable.

He also has attention deficit disorder, Tourette's syndrome and a learning disability. He is on medication for the Tourette's and takes small, regular doses of Prozac to calm anxiety. He sees a psychologist twice a month and a psychiatrist every two or three months.

"He used to be destructive and take his anger out on me," said Mrs. Duncan. "But he's doing so much better now. The doctors told us he'll outgrow most of this by the time he's 12."

Rusty gets an allowance of $3 a week. To earn it, he takes the trash out to the curb Monday and Thursday nights.

"When he gets a little bigger, he's going to be pushing a lawn mower," said Duncan, grinning.

Rusty calls Duncan "Daddy." Every Wednesday night they go together to Temple Terrace First Assembly of God, where Rusty is a member of a youth group called the Royal Rangers. Every once in awhile, he goes out to dinner or a Devil Rays game with his birth father.

Rusty knows about his history. The truth came out when he was 3. Judy and Russell Hayes sought full custody of him but, in an agreement with a judge, settled for expanded visitation rights. The story was on TV.

Children in the apartment complex where the Duncans were living began taunting Rusty.

"You're the baby in the box," they said.

Rusty came home sobbing. He pounded small fists against his aunt, thinking she was the mother who abandoned him.

She sat down, put him on her lap and told him the real story -- or part of it. She didn't tell him who abandoned him. That would come later.

She also drove him by Judy and Russell's apartment, so he could see where he was born.

"We didn't go by the dumpster, though. I didn't want him to see that."

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[Times photo 1991]
Mother Judy Hayes, holding Rusty when he was 2, has always had a relationship with the baby she abandoned even though he has never lived with her.

Today Rusty knows everything. He knows that the woman he calls his "other" mother was the person who left him in the box.

"I just told him she probably wasn't in her right mind when she did that," said Mrs. Duncan.

A psychologist has helped Rusty work through his feelings.

"He's not even mad at her, that I know of," Duncan said. "He loves Judy and Russell, in his own way. And I guess they love him in their own way. I just wish I could see more of that . . .

I know they've never abused him."

Under the custody arrangement, the Hayeses have unlimited visitation rights. They used to see him every Tuesday and kept him overnight at their house on weekends. Gradually, the visits became irregular, according to the Duncans.

"One day she (Judy) called up and said they wouldn't be having him overnight anymore," said Mrs. Duncan. "I didn't ask why."

Russell Hayes, 39, said he doesn't understand why Rusty no longer spends the night with them.

"I don't know what happened. It just stopped about a year and a half ago. We'd still love to have him over at night."

Hayes said Rusty is comfortable at their house. He has his own bedroom there and he likes playing with their dog, Scrappy, a pit bull-sharpei mix. He helps Judy work in the yard and they go swimming in an above-ground pool in the back yard.

He says he tries to see his son as much as he can, but it's hard with his work schedule. He works full-time as a unit supervisor at the Crown Colony restaurant in Busch Gardens, a job he has held since Rusty's birth. Three nights a week he also buses tables at a Shell's restaurant.

Judy Hayes works part-time at a Tampa restaurant. Early this year she filed a request in Hillsborough County Juvenile Court for permission to sign away her parental rights, according to the Duncans and Hayes.

"She did it because the child support just got to be too big," Hayes said.

The Hayeses each pay court-ordered support for their son. Hayes' $55 a week is deducted automatically from his paycheck. Mrs. Hayes' share is smaller because her income is smaller. The Duncans say, and court records confirm, that she hasn't been paying it regularly.

photo
[Times photo: Cherie Diez]
Raymond Duncan couldn’t stand the thought of his great-nephew being adopted so he volunteered to become father to Rusty. It wasn’t the first time he’s helped raise someone else’s child. Duncan and his wife, Mary, took in Rusty’s biological father, Russell Hayes, when he was 8.

A judge denied Mrs. Hayes' request to relinquish her parental rights.

Hayes said he would never consider such a step. He admitted he was "a little" upset over his wife's decision. "But I've worked it out."

Neither the Hayeses nor the Duncans currently are interested in adopting Rusty.

"There's no need," said Hayes. "They (the Duncans) never adopted me, neither."

"It's a hard thing to know what to do," said Duncan. "We have talked about it but haven't made a decision. I always pray to the Lord that we'll live long enough to the point where Rusty can take care of himself."

One evening last week, Hayes drove to the Duncans' house to visit Rusty just before the boy's bedtime. Father and son wrestled on the floor, then Rusty brought out his collection of Digimon cards. Lying on his stomach, he lined them up in precise rows on the carpet.

"I used to do that same thing with my baseball cards," Hayes said.

After a few minutes, he got up to leave.

"See ya later, buddy," he said.

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