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Neglecting or protecting?
© St. Petersburg Times, published May 7, 2000
PORT RICHEY -- The Ludwigs, who have given their lives to saving the wild ones and the damaged ones and the sick ones, have never been able to banish the devil in their 14-year-old boy.
Dozens of times in the past year and a half, Andrew Ludwig's parents have called police to say: Help us. We are afraid of our son.
In his hair-trigger rages, the parents say, Andrew would terrorize his brothers and sisters, flinging picture frames, punching holes in walls, flailing his fists and elbows. Once, he held a fish-boning blade to his sister's throat. Twice, he was arrested for shoving his mother.
It was his parents, Steven and Debbi, charged with child neglect for refusing to let Andrew back in the house. A few of their 16 other children -- all but one adopted -- were there to watch the squad car take them away.
"There's not words for how we felt," said one of them, 11-year-old Bubba. "We all started bawling."
Faced with the same situation, Steven and Debbi Ludwig say, they would go to jail again. In so many ways, they have tried to shield their gigantic family from harm, with home schooling and prayer, with twice-weekly visits to First Baptist Church of New Port Richey, with determination that the kids don't run with the wrong friends, watch the wrong movies or stray too far from home.
Now, with the danger coming from inside, the parents say they had no choice but to lock out the troubled boy they had raised since he was 5. Even if it meant being labeled criminals.
"There was no neglect; all we were trying to do was protect," says Debbi Ludwig, 45, who cares for her kids full time.
She means protecting the other kids from Andrew, and protecting Andrew from himself. "Andrew has a good heart. I don't want him to hurt somebody and then not be able to live with himself."
By law, said Port Richey police Lt. Bill Sager, the arresting officer, a caregiver's responsibility is to provide shelter to a child. "The statute is pretty clear," Sager says, "not much wiggle room."
Bill Downs, chief of the agency, describes the Ludwigs as "decent, law-abiding, community-spirited people." But in this case, he adds, the law is the law.
The irony of the charge of child neglect, which could bring them a five-year prison term, is not lost on the couple that has devoted years to giving a home to unwanted kids.
On their family room wall is a big tapestry of Noah's Ark, the same symbol that Debbi Ludwig wears on a necklace, the boat God used to save the world's animals from drowning.
That's how they think of their 5,500-square-foot, 12-bedroom home on the waters of Miller Bayou, where the kitchen seats 25 and the occupants tear through $600 in groceries per week, including seven gallons of orange juice and 11 jumbo boxes of cereal.
Of the Ludwigs' 17 children, who range in age from four to 20, all but 18-year-old Justin are adopted. In 1987, they adopted four biological brothers and sisters from Daytona -- John, Kristine, James and Justine -- through the local child services agency. From Largo, three years later, they got three more siblings, Andrew, Thomas and Jessica.
In 1994, watching the Maury Povich show, they found Monica, Bubba, Carla, Angela and Amy, five siblings from Kentucky who needed a home. Four years later, Kentucky social workers offered four more siblings -- Christina, Sandra, Christopher and Rebecca.
For the kids, the Ludwigs say they receive about $3,600 per month from Florida and Kentucky, though that amounts to only a few dollars per meal.
Many of the kids, the Ludwigs say, came to them hurt and defiant, traumatized by their biological parents and by abusive foster homes. Some had scars. Some were on Ritalin. One had fetal alcohol syndrome.
"I don't think half of us would even be living today if we hadn't been adopted," says Monica, 16. "It was the first time anybody showed me love. Like Andrew, I didn't understand why anybody would ever love me."
She came from a dirt-poor coal-mining family in Kentucky that scraped for food, she recalls, living with a stepfather addicted to drugs and cruelty. She holds up a snapshot that shows the expression she wore back then -- scared, lonely.
After that, at a foster home with her sister Amy, she remembers being locked in a closet as punishment.
"We were in like three or four different foster homes because they didn't want us. We were too much for them," Monica says. When the Ludwigs adopted her, she says, "My mom made it real clear, "Nothing you do will make us give you up.' "
Thomas, 15, Andrew's biological brother, says he remembers Andrew being beaten in foster care. "I was basically just like Andrew," Thomas says. "When we came here, everything changed. We were taught to obey and started fresh."
"Every problem you can adopt, we adopted," Debbi Ludwig says.
They didn't expect they would adopt one they couldn't solve.
The problem of Andrew
When Andrew was a young child, Debbi Ludwig remembers, she would hold him for hours, trying to calm him and heal him. "We spent the first year with him just loving him up," she says.
For years, he was part of the carefully regimented family routines, doing chores, playing with his brothers and sisters, taking trips in their 15-seat van. Among the hundreds of family photos at the Ludwig house, one shows Andrew in a cowboy costume with his brother, Bubba.
But when Andrew turned 13, the parents recall, he announced he was through taking orders from them. The Port Richey police say they responded to complaints at the Ludwig house nearly 40 times. It was Andrew that brought them, the parents say.
Andrew, who at 14 has the mental ability of a boy about half his age, spent much of last year shuttling in and out of the RAP House teen shelter, and in and out of the Harbor Behavioral Health Care Institute, according to his parents.
They tried Teen Transformation, a Christian program for troubled teens in Orlando, but the parents say he was kicked out for unruliness. They tried another private camp for wayward kids, the parents say, but it wouldn't take him because of his violent tendencies.
"We listened to so many professionals, and nobody has any answers," says Steven Ludwig, 46. He says he has a separated rib and a blackened toe from trying to restrain his son.
The diagnosis for Andrew, he says, has ranged from bipolar disorder to oppositional defiance disorder to the term that tells them what they already know, "uncontrollable anger."
When Andrew flew into a rage, the older kids were trained to drop everything and hustle the little ones into the far corner of the house, to keep them safe. Several years ago, said Kristine, 17, Andrew backed her into a corner and held a fish-boning knife to her throat.
At night, the kids say, they learned to bolt their bedroom doors.
"I am so afraid to get to sleep at night when he's here," says Amy, 15.
"We adopt these kids to give them a family, to give them a home, to love them," Steven Ludwig says. "We couldn't get through to Andrew. We're totally devastated that we couldn't reach him." An insurance salesman, he says he took a 75 percent pay cut last year to deal with his son.
Family trips stopped. More and more, Andrew was missing from the dinner table. Says Debbi Ludwig: "He stopped our life."
On Oct. 30 last year, the Port Richey police came to the Ludwig house again. Andrew had shoved his mother. In the front yard, a patrol officer caught Andrew's arm as he lunged at his mother with a cocked fist. He was arrested and charged with assault and battery.
Andrew told the officer he didn't know why he became so violent, according to a police report, and he showed no signs of remorse.
"We could have charged him 10 or 15 other times," Steven Ludwig says. "But we reached the last straw."
On March 11, with Andrew back at the house, he shoved his mother again and was arrested on another battery charge. He hated his parents, he told the officer. Andrew was taken to the juvenile detention center, and then to a teen shelter in Clearwater.
Less than a month after the second attack, on April 7, the Department of Juvenile Justice brought him home in a van.
Except this time, the parents wouldn't take him back.
For weeks, the parents had been explaining to their children they might be arrested for barring Andrew. But no one thought it would really happen.
Andrew called police from a nearby business to say his parents wouldn't let him in. The Ludwigs say they called the police, too.
Even when Port Richey police Lt. Bill Sager explained to the parents they could be arrested, they wouldn't budge.
"For us to not allow Andrew to come back in our home, we get arrested," Steven Ludwig says. But if they were to let Andrew in and he hurt somebody, he adds, they would also be responsible. "It's the ultimate Catch-22."
To be guilty of child neglect, says Pasco prosecutor Mike Halkitis, a parent must have shown utter disregard for a child's safety and put the child at risk of injury. With the State Attorney's Office still investigating whether to pursue charges against the parents, Halkitis declined to discuss specifics.
The Ludwigs say they should have gotten more help from state and county agencies, before it came to jail for themselves and their son.
"We've done everything we can humanly do," Debbi Ludwig says. "And the result was, we wound up in jail."
George Magrill, president of Youth and Family Alternatives, a non-profit group that runs local programs for troubled juveniles, says not all the kids get the help they need. Even youth shelters like the RAP House, he said, are only meant for short visits.
"That speaks directly to one of the major gaps that exist in this county, which is long-term care for these types of situations," Magrill says. "It just doesn't exist."
An uncertain future
After his parents were arrested, Andrew went back to the RAP House. On April 16, according to a Sheriff's Office report, he threw 12 ounces of hot water on a 14-year-old girl's face and was charged with felony battery, though the shelter says she was not seriously hurt.
Still in custody on that charge, which is pending, Andrew stood in handcuffs before Judge Joseph G. Donahey last week and admitted to the attacks against his mother.
Debbi Ludwig told the judge what she had been saying all along: Our son scares us. Particularly frightening, she said, was finding him with a knife in their home.
But Andrew wanted to correct his mom. It wasn't a knife, he explained, but a piece of aluminum he had carved into a sharp point and fastened to a shaft.
The judge did not find much comfort in that distinction. In prison, Donahey told the boy, that's called a shiv. Inmates stab each other with them.
On Friday, Donahey sentenced Andrew to six months at a boy's ranch in San Antonio and suggested counseling. Andrew told the judge he wants to go into foster care, not back to his family.
His parents, along with his brothers and sisters, say they want him home, but only after he changes.
Steven Ludwig hopes that someday, his son's mug shot will be just another photo in one of their teeming family albums, a reminder of a difficulty surmounted, like so many others.
They pray for him. They wait.
© St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.