This story originally aired on Dec. 4, 2021.
More than two decades ago, “48 Hours” contributor Troy Roberts reported on the heart-wrenching story of a 9-year-old Russian girl who was adopted by an American couple. They called the little girl Caralee, and their lives together started with promise. But a year-and-a-half later, the couple came to believe Caralee was dangerous, even capable of murder. They say she tried to kill her little brother.
Roberts was there as the American couple returned Caralee to Russia and left her behind in a children’s psychiatric hospital. For years, he tried to find out what became of Caralee, and last summer they reunited and he learned her surprising story.
“I’ve done many stories during the course of my career, but this was one that — that really stuck with me,” Roberts says.
Covering this story changed Roberts’ life, and left him steeped in a haunting mystery that began when the couple first arrived in Moscow, hoping to find the perfect child.
IN SEARCH OF THE PERFECT CHILD
Crystal [1999, “48 Hours” The Perfect Child”]: I think it’s innate in every woman to want to be a good parent, to have children and to share your life.
Crystal: Often comments would be made about, “Oh when are you gonna have children?” It was hard.
Crystal: We thought … “This is going to be a wonderful journey.”
Moscow, 1997. Crystal and Jesse — “48 Hours” agreed not to use their last name — are both 30 and have tried for years to have a child of their own.
Crystal: It was something we really wanted to do. We wanted to parent, and we really wanted a house full.
Far away from home, they’re finally about to become parents — adoptive parents.
Crystal: We really wanted to give a child an opportunity.
Jesse: I was adopted myself. … I know … the benefits that adoption can bring.
They found their daughter on an adoption agency’s web page posted on the internet.
Crystal: She was a beautiful child.
For them, she was the perfect child — a blonde, blue-eyed, 9-year-old.
Crystal: We thought, you know, this is an older child we can give … a normal life.
Before leaving for Russia, the adoption agency gave them the little girl’s medical records.
Jesse: The agency described Caralee as a wonderful, outgoing, intelligent little girl who is charming to be around.
Troy Roberts: You understood, though, that adopting an older child carries certain risks?
Troy Roberts: You understood that?
Crystal: Certain risks.
They took an 8-hour train ride from Moscow to an orphanage in the small town of Boravici. They’d already paid nearly $30,000 to make all the necessary arrangements.
And the child they called Caralee was anxiously awaiting their arrival.
Crystal: She looked in my eyes very warmly, “You’re my mama.”
Troy Roberts: She called you mama?
Crystal: She did and from the very beginning. “My American mama,” she said.
At the orphanage, the couple would adopt not only Caralee; they also found her a baby brother, a 3-year-old they would name Joshua.
It was exciting.
But there were signs that the road ahead might be rocky.
Crystal: We did see the anger, but it could be explained. Certainly, a child arriving to a new culture, a new family … you know, leaving her home. That’s the only thing she’s ever known.
Back in the United States, the family settled into a brand-new home in a comfortable suburb of Atlanta, a short commute to Jesse’s computer engineering job.
Crystal: We tried to make it very homey for her and happy. … We tried to give her everything we thought a little girl should have.
But the beautiful little girl was having big problems.
Crystal: As soon as we brought her home, she was very, very withdrawn and isolating. Didn’t cry at all, but just very angry.
It was nothing, they thought, a little love couldn’t fix.
Crystal: I spent all the time with her. I quit my job. I gave her a hundred percent of me.
It wasn’t working. They say, off camera, she started acting badly.
Crystal: She just began becoming very destructive.
Then the unthinkable happened on Caralee’s second Christmas in America. Things seemed to have started off well.
Crystal: Caralee … had just gotten a new bike and we were learning how to ride it. She had never ridden one before.
Crystal: I really thought that everything was going great.
It was not long after when Crystal heard the horrible sound.
Crystal: So, I was over planting. And I heard Joshua screaming.
Crystal says that’s when she first saw Caralee holding her 4-year-old brother, Joshua, over the railing of the 30-foot-high deck.
Troy Roberts: She had him?
Crystal: Yes. Yes.
Troy Roberts: Over the side here?
Troy Roberts: This wasn’t roughhousing?
Crystal: Her face, there was anger and hate.
Crystal says that moment changed everything.
Crystal: “I’m gonna kill him,” she said. I’m, “Why?'” “I’m mad at him.” “What did he do?” “He’s getting on my nerves.” I said, “you would kill him for trying to get on your nerves? Surely you don’t mean it. You don’t mean kill him.” And she says, “yes I do.”
We asked Joshua about it.
Troy Roberts: Are you afraid of Caralee?
Joshua: Yes, because she tried to throw me off the deck.
Troy Roberts: Because she tried to throw you off the deck.
Joshua: Yes. That’s why I’m afraid of her.
A DREAM TURNED NIGHTMARE
CRYSTAL to JOSHUA [home video]: Are you worried that she’s going to do something to you right now? Because she’s not. Mommy’s here.
Crystal and Jesse’s relationship with Caralee was in free-fall after the incident involving Joshua on the family’s 30-foot outdoor deck.
Crystal: She started telling me, “I’m hearing voices and I’m seeing things.” … She says when the voices tell her to do something, she has to do it, or they’ll hurt her. And the voices, she said, told her to kill him.
Crystal: She was hallucinating that she was seeing snakes…
The couple had her admitted to a psychiatric hospital. She spent almost four months under constant care before Crystal and Jesse say their insurance started running out, and they were forced to bring Caralee back into their home again.
Jesse: She has repeated this for months … on multiple occasions … “if I get another chance, I will kill him.”
And she told us that, too.
Caralee:… try to kill Joshua.
So, they’re installing an elaborate security system.
Troy Roberts: So you have cameras installed at various points in the house, right?
Crystal: Yes, in the living room, her bedroom, her bathroom.
Caralee is forbidden to be alone with Joshua.
Troy Roberts: Is he safe?
Caralee: [Shakes her head no.]
Caralee: That’s what I mean, I have to get help.
Troy Roberts: That’s why you have to get help.
Dr. Brian Kennedy: She is a risk to the family members.
Dr. Brian Kennedy was one of the psychiatrists who saw Caralee.
Dr. Brian Kennedy: She’s got a tremendous amount of rage and anger that she’s hidden inside her.
Dr. Brian Kennedy: There’s clear evidence of clinical depression. There’s definitely clear evidence of a detachment disorder. Now, there may be other developing psychiatric difficulties … such as bipolar illness or schizophrenia.
She was given heavy medication, but they say the medications aren’t working.
CRYSTAL TO CARALEE: We’re going to get you the best help we can, OK? It’s going to be all right.
Troy Roberts: You love her, but yet you’re frightened of her.
Crystal and Jesse: Yes.
Jesse: The anger that she has focused towards Joshua is like something I’ve never seen before.
CRYSTAL TO JOSHUA: Mommy’s not ever gonna let her hurt you.
Jesse: Four-year-old boys should never have to ask their parents the question, “Why did my sister try to kill me?”
But since being home from the psychiatric hospital, there’s already been another frightening incident. They say Caralee tried strangling the family dog, Aurora.
Crystal: We woke up at three in the morning. And Aurora was hung from her collar with the leash tied to a pole.
JOSHUA: I’m gonna go to my Grandma’s today.
So, Joshua’s being sent 600 miles away to live at his grandmother’s house in Texas.
CRYSTAL: Why do we have to send him to Grandma’s to keep him safe?
CARALEE: Because I — I may hurt him.
Crystal: Just imagine, you think you’re bringing a bright girl to your home, but no one’s told you that they’re sociopathic and they have no conscience.
In fact, they say the agency that arranged Caralee’s adoption, the Frank Foundation, told them the opposite.
Troy Roberts: “Caralee is emotionally nice. She’s open. She’s tender. She’s obedient. She’s friendly.”
Jesse: Nothing in that sentence would lead you to question, Wow — could there be, you know, a tremendous variety of hidden medical issues here?
It was a glowing report except for one thing.
Crystal: They did say she was oligophrenic.
Translated then as mental retardation. But the couple says they asked about it and were told not to worry.
Crystal: They stated it was a developmental delay … just slow to learn.
Crystal: And we were assured that this child was healthy and that, in a good home with proper nutrition, with the best of doctors in America helping her with the developmental issues, that she should be fine.
Only after the adoption was official, Crystal and Jesse say, did the Frank Foundation provide them with more documents that revealed troubling things about Caralee’s past.
Crystal: It says the mother was amoral and antisocial. You know, these types of words are very loaded. They carry a lot of psychological meaning.
The new documents described how Caralee’s birth mother left her dirty, hungry and in rags. Crystal and Jesse believe the mistreatment had a lasting effect on Caralee.
Crystal: When I dreamed of adopting a little girl, this was not my dream.
Crystal: We would not have adopted the child.
Troy Roberts: You would not have adopted her?
Jesse: No, we would not have.
And as they continued digging into Caralee’s past, they found out more. Officials at the orphanage say Caralee was in a special dorm for children with mental disabilities. Critical information, the couple says, the adoption agency failed to share with them.
Troy Roberts: You didn’t hide any information?
Nina Kostina: Never. And why would I?
Back then, Nina Kostina, a Russian emigre, ran the Frank Foundation. She says the medical information she received was limited by Russian privacy laws, but adoptive parents, once in Russia, can get anything they need.
Nina Kostina: Once the parents are in the orphanage, they have access to any medical records, to the — to the doctors, to anything. And this is their time, and they should ask any questions.
Troy Roberts: So, it’s their fault?
Nina Kostina: I’m not telling fault. I’m telling that this is their obligation. This is lifetime decision. They should do it while they’re in the orphanage.
When we first covered this story more than two decades ago, Nina Kostina said that no information had been withheld from the family. But at the time, “48 Hours” spoke with eight families who adopted through the Frank Foundation, and they all said they had received inaccurate medical information. Their children had been diagnosed with illnesses like fetal alcohol syndrome, hepatitis C, brain tumors and a slew of psychological problems they claim the Frank Foundation didn’t prepare them for. Three of the families we spoke with sued but lost.
Crystal and Jesse feel like they’re out of options. So as Joshua leaves for the safety of his grandmother’s home in Texas.
They make a painful decision.
Jesse: We cannot continue to be her parents.
They say the only way their son can return home is to send Caralee away forever.
Crystal: We’ve been here every day loving her, nurturing her, helping her … and we — we couldn’t save her.
A DIFFICULT DECISION
Home video of Caralee taking a passport photo:
JESSE: Time to go get your picture made, Caralee.
CRYSTAL: What we’re gonna do is we’re gonna get your picture made today.
Crystal: She has so many psychological problems. … She is a danger to society. But more than that, she is a danger to our son.
JESSE [home video]: So, you still like to get your picture taken after all this time?
CARALEE: I like it!
Jesse: The fact of the matter is that we cannot be her parents anymore.
Crystal and Jesse are about to do something that’s difficult to imagine. They are taking Caralee back to Russia.
Troy Roberts: There are parents out there that will not be able to understand what you’re about to do.
Crystal: If I hadn’t been in this position myself, I might have been stating the very same thing that I’d expect to hear from them. “Why can – how could you do this? How could you do this?”
Troy Roberts: There must be a family somewhere in America that would adopt her.
Jesse: We thought there would be a family out there … and we’ve actually spoken to a few families … In every case so far after reviewing the medical information … they’ve said, “Thanks, but no thanks.”
They have told Caralee they’re taking her to a new hospital.
CARALEE: How long I’m gonna stay in — in there?
But she has no idea it’s a psychiatric hospital in Russia.
Troy Roberts: This 12-year-old girl has been abandoned by her birth parents. And now her adoptive parents are also rejecting her.
Jesse: Well, it’s not a case of her adoptive parents rejecting her …
Troy Roberts: But that’s what she’s going to interpret it as.
Jesse: It’s going to be a case of her adoptive parents not being able to care for her.
Crystal: But you have to understand, psychiatrists tell us that she has no bonding, no affection.
Crystal: So, Caralee most likely will just move on.
Nina Kostina: It looks cruel to me. Cruel and not thoughtful.
Nina Kostina, the woman who arranged Caralee’s adoption, is distraught over the decision.
Nina Kostina: I feel very sorry for her.
For her part, she questions whether Caralee is even that sick.
Troy Roberts: They say that she tried to kill her little brother…
Nina Kostina: This is what they say.
Troy Roberts: They say that she tried to kill the family dog. That she’s extremely violent.
Nina Kostina: That’s what they say, yes.
Troy Roberts: Do you believe it?
Nina Kostina: That’s what they say.
Psychiatrist Brian Kennedy says Caralee suffers from attachment disorder — in effect, an inability to love. And that, he says, makes her dangerous.
Troy Roberts: It’s hard for me to digest because when I look at her, she seems like a very sweet little girl … who smiles and laughs.
Dr. Brian Kennedy: She does love to smile and laugh. And I think in certain situations that are non-stressful for her she presents as a very amiable child. But I think when you look at what she’s been through and when you see how she functions under stress, she can become very different and have very significant rage.
Dr. Brian Kennedy: She has thought about killing her brother. She has tried to kill him, and she could not give me assurances that she wouldn’t kill him.
Others who treated Caralee had concerns as well, but at least one psychiatrist had another opinion. After treating Caralee, he wrote, “Caralee’s behavior … was impeccable.” He said the staff perceived that Crystal and Jesse were “too often cool and distant” towards their daughter, and that “Caralee at times, appeared to be frightened by her interactions with them.”
Crystal: Caralee is a very different person when you really get to know her. It took me a year-and a-half to break through the facade.
They have made up their minds. Caralee must return to Russia.
Crystal: The doctors in America have told me that if she returns home, she will kill my son. I believe them. … She’s already tried it once. It’s a very strong possibility she’ll try it again with success.
They tapped into their life savings to bring Caralee here to be treated by Russian doctors.
Jesse: They have worked with kids from Russian orphanages.
They found a bed for Caralee at a children’s psychiatric hospital in Moscow.
But they don’t hold out much hope, and they’re now thinking about annulling the adoption.
Doctors suspected they were trying to abandon her and demanded copies of their passports and made them promise to return for Caralee in two months.
Troy Roberts: So, Caralee understands that she is here to be treated by Russian specialists.
Crystal: And that’s all she’s here for at the time.
Troy Roberts: But she does not understand that you will not be returning for her.
Crystal: No, that’s not the case. At this time, the only thing we’re stating is that she’s here for a diagnosis and an evaluation.
But Caralee senses something is terribly wrong.
Caralee: They told me that, last night, they love me and everything, I told them I love them very much, but they didn’t believe me.
Then just a few minutes before she’ll enter the hospital, Caralee tells me something she’s never told me before.
Caralee: I did not try to kill my brother.
That she never tried to kill her brother, Joshua.
Troy Roberts: You didn’t try to kill Joshua? You’re telling me the truth?
Caralee: I just tried to just pick him up, that’s all, because he was too heavy.
Caralee says it was all a big misunderstanding.
Caralee: I did not try to kill my brother. I love him. Mom and Daddy just don’t understand it.
But there’s no turning back.
Troy Roberts: You’ve pursued every possible avenue —
Troy Roberts: — and this is the only thing you can do?
Jesse: This is I — this is the only thing we can do.
Crystal and Jesse left her there. Days later, I returned with a hidden camera and visited Caralee, now in a locked ward.
CARALEE: I don’t feel safe stay here.
She was frightened.
CARALEE: I want to go back to America. I’m scared of staying here.
But Crystal and Jesse have made a final decision. They’re not bringing Caralee back.
The last time I saw Caralee was in Russia more than 20 years ago.
TROY ROBERTS : She was terrified.
She was in a locked ward in a children’s psychiatric hospital.
TROY ROBERTS: The door slammed shut. And I wasn’t sure if I would ever see her again.
Over the years, we repeatedly tried to find her.
Troy Roberts: I always wondered how she was doing, if she was thriving, if she was happy. …
Many years passed. … She was … in my thoughts and in my heart.
And finally, she got in touch with me. Now, she calls herself Sabrina and is married with four children.
Sabrina Caldwell: It’s been so long.
Troy Roberts: Look at you!
Troy Roberts: What have you been doing over the last 21 years?
Sabrina Caldwell: Making babies.
Troy Roberts: So beautiful.
We met near her home in North Carolina.
Troy Roberts: We have a lot to catch up on.
Sabrina Caldwell: Yeah.
I had a thousand questions for Sabrina. How did she end up here? What she says happened on that deck that day? And what she thought went wrong with Jesse and Crystal?
Troy Roberts: You liked her?
Sabrina Caldwell: I did.
Troy Roberts: You liked him?
Sabrina Caldwell: I did. It was a family that said, “Hey—I will adopt this child and I will like to give them a home” … and they would love me for who I am.
But to Sabrina, back then, it seemed that Joshua was always the favorite.
Troy Roberts: Did that create any jealousy?
Sabrina Caldwell: … it didn’t create jealousy … I felt more down. I felt like I wasn’t good enough. I felt like I wasn’t this child that they wanted. ‘Cause I was — I was older. I had my own feelings. I already had a history, you know. … I loved that he was getting loved and he was having a family. Yes, it sucked for me.
Troy Roberts: You didn’t have — an emotional connection with Crystal and Jesse?
Sabrina Caldwell: Because Joshua was so centered, I think we lost it. I think it was just lost. … I was starting to become very depressed. … It came to the point I was very suicidal.
Troy Roberts: Suicidal?
Sabrina Caldwell: I was very suicidal … There were days … I’d try to attempt multiple times and I just couldn’t do it. … when I started creating a story … I told Crystal … “You know, I’m seeing and hearing things. … ‘Cause I wanted out. I — I wanted out.
CRYSTAL: Are you seeing something now?
CARALEE: Shakes head [to affirm]
CRYSTAL: Did you see something earlier?
CARALEE: [nods to affirm and cries]
Troy Roberts: So, were you hallucinating at that time?
Sabrina Caldwell: No … no hearing, no seeing things. Just a child tryin’ to get out.
CRYSTAL : She had him in her hands and was going to throw him over the deck.
And as for what happened on the deck, Sabrina has a decidedly different version of events from Crystal, that she says started when Crystal asked her to get Joshua.
Sabrina Caldwell: Crystal was gardening, and Joshua was screaming on top of the deck. And Crystal said, “I need you to go get Joshua.” … Tryin’ to pick up a child that’s really almost as big as you is kinda hard … So, I’m tryin’ to walk down the steps … just able to hold him so he doesn’t fall … Crystal looked. And she said —
CRYSTAL : Put him down, Caralee.
Sabrina Caldwell: “Put him down.”
CRYSTAL : Put him down!
Sabrina Caldwell: I eventually put him down and she was like, “You tried to kill him, didn’t you?” And I said, “No. I was tryin’ to pick him up so he doesn’t fall, ’cause he was sliding off my hands.” And she was like, “No. You were tryin’ to kill him.” And she kept saying it and saying it. And I said “yes.” So, I just — I finally said “yes.”
Sabrina repeated that story that she tried to kill Joshua to everyone — including me.
TROY ROBERTS to CARALEE : What happened that day out on the deck?
CARALEE: I was trying to push him off the deck.
TROY: You were trying to push him off the deck?
CARALEE: Try to kill Joshua.
What happened on that deck, seemed to take on a life of its own. Crystal brought Sabrina to various doctors.
Sabrina Caldwell: I went to psychiatrist after psychiatrist. And I remember Crystal saying, “Just remember, you wanted to kill Joshua.” I said, “OK. I — I will tell ’em.”
Troy Roberts: Dr. Kennedy said you were potentially schizophrenic, bipolar, you had homicidal tendencies, and you were a danger to this family.
Sabrina Caldwell: Hmm. … That’s hard to hear … if I wanted to hurt somebody, it would have been done. And that never happened. I’m not that person. … I was never that person.
Today, Sabrina says she is not on any medication and suffers from no mental illness. A number of doctors back then though, seemed to think she needed help. We tried to contact Dr. Kennedy but have been unable to reach him.
Troy Roberts: You were also accused of tryin’ to kill the family dog.
Sabrina Caldwell: I don’t know where that came from because I loved that dog (laughs).
Troy Roberts: … how did you learn that you were going back to Russia?
Sabrina Caldwell: Crystal said (sighs) they were running out of options. And they think the Russian institute will be better.
TROY ROBERTS [1999 in the Russian hospital]: So how is it going here?
CARALEE: Not good.
TROY ROBERTS: Not good? Why?
Troy Roberts: How did that make you feel, when you were sitting there in — in the hospital in Moscow, waiting for them to return to pick you up, and they didn’t?
Sabrina Caldwell: I knew they weren’t coming.
Troy Roberts: I felt so guilty. ‘Cause I wanted to take ya, but I didn’t –
Sabrina Caldwell: I wanted you to take me (laughs). I was like, “Why is nobody taking me?” I just wanted out.
Sabrina said she cried and was frightened.
Sabrina Caldwell: I felt like I was in jail … but then I think of it — I put myself there … You know, all those lying and doing what they want me to do. I put myself there.
Then, after two months, it was Nina Kostina from the adoption agency, who arrived at the institute.
Sabrina Caldwell: Nina showed up and she brought me clothes. She asked me if I remembered her.
And she took Sabrina to live with her in Virginia. Eventually, Sabrina moved in with a new set of parents in North Carolina.
Sabrina Caldwell: I have parents … they’re the parents that took me in, that took their time to learn who I am and make me a better person.
After high school, she volunteered for the nonprofit, “Mercy Ships,” and spent two years in Africa helping to provide medical care to underprivileged people.
Sabrina Caldwell: Loved it …
Troy Roberts: Really?
Sabrina Caldwell: I did.
When she returned home in 2010, she got a job in a hospital and, at church, she met math teacher Phil Caldwell.
Sabrina Caldwell: I fell in love him when I saw him interact with kids. The way he was treating them … how committed he was …
Phil Caldwell: She’s just very real and very genuine. And I loved that about her.
But before she would even consider getting engaged, she insisted that Phil watch the original “48 Hours” show about her early life.
Phil Caldwell: My heart broke for her. … I really couldn’t believe all of the things that she had gone through. … I think she expected me to run … but it was the opposite reaction of what she expected me to think.
They married in 2014 and now have three lovely daughters, and a son.
Sabrina Caldwell: … fun kids. Love ’em.
Phil Caldwell: She’s very loving, and she’s very caring. And I think probably what Sabrina went through has had a greater impact on her parenting than she can see herself. … because she is so amazing at it.
Phil recently stopped teaching and started a new job at the same hospital where his wife works.
Troy Roberts: Seems like you’re in a really good place.
Sabrina Caldwell: I am.
Troy Roberts: You’re happy?
Sabrina Caldwell: I am.
But Sabrina, like me, has always wondered what happened to Crystal and Jesse, and she says, that after two decades, she was ready to find out.
A REPORTER’S JOURNEY
After she became a mother, Sabrina says, she wanted Crystal and Jesse to know she had a family of her own, and she wanted to share her side of the story. She found Crystal on social media, and finally hit the send button.
Sabrina Caldwell: I … sent her a message – stating to her that I hope she’s well, and … “I just wanna make this really clear for you, I’ve never wanted to hurt Joshua and I never heard or saw things in my life.
Troy Roberts: And how did she respond?
Sabrina Caldwell: … she said she prayed that I would have a better family.
Troy Roberts: Did you love Crystal and Jesse?
Sabrina Caldwell: I did. … And I still have a high respect for them …
Sabrina Caldwell: Putting myself in their shoes, I would have probably done almost the same thing.
But not everything.
Sabrina Caldwell: I would never take a child back.
Still, she says, she harbors no hard feelings toward them.
Sabrina Caldwell: I learned … to forgive my past.
Sabrina Caldwell: I have an amazing husband. I can’t thank God enough for him. I have
amazing kids. But if I didn’t go through what I went through I wouldn’t have that.
Sabrina says Crystal and Jesse have three biological daughters of their own, along with Joshua.
They declined our request for an interview. However, Jesse said that he and Crystal were glad Sabrina’s life had turned out so well, and that Joshua was now a father, too.
In the end, it appears that Crystal and Jesse, like Sabrina, eventually found families and happiness. As it turned out, so did I. And my journey started the minute I left Sabrina in Russia.
Troy Roberts: I cried as I was leaving … then I started saying to myself, you know … “Maybe one day, I can rescue an — an older child… “
But the timing was not right. I was single, and as a CBS News correspondent, I was still traveling endlessly.
Troy Roberts: And then, I had a story in Johannesburg, South Africa … and I went to an orphanage there to make a donation. … I said, you know what, I’m close to 40 now. … I’m going to go for it.
In 2003, I became certified to adopt a child, and learned about a woman in Djibouti, Africa, who wanted to find someone to adopt her 4-year-old son.
Troy Roberts: And I looked at his photo and the resemblance was uncanny … This looks like my kid.
I had been to Africa twice and never heard of Djibouti. But, that Thanksgiving, I flew there to meet this young boy and his mother. His name was Ayanleh Khadra Mahamoud Abdi.
Troy Roberts: I noticed that his eyes danced. … that’s a signal that he’s smart. He’s clever.
His mother was Khadra. She gave birth to her son after a short affair with a French soldier, and ever since then, she feared for the boy’s safety because he was mixed race.
Troy Roberts: … they were homeless and living in an abandoned building. … He was sleeping on the floor. So was she. … Begging was his routine.
I took them to lunch, and over the course of the next two weeks I got to know them.
Troy Roberts: I began bonding over hamburgers and fries and walking around on the street.
He spoke four languages, but not English.
Troy Roberts [gesturing with his hands]: We mimed, like, “let’s eat. You need to go home, sleep.” I mean, that’s how basic it was.
Fortunately, there was a bowling alley and a small beach at a nearby military base.
Troy Roberts: We went bowling a lot; that’s something he’d never done before. … He didn’t know how to swim, so we took a boat to this small little beach island that was reserved for the military personnel.
I made two more lengthy visits to Djibouti, but when it came time for the adoption, there was a problem.
Troy Roberts: Khadra … never signed her name before. She didn’t know how to sign her name. … [emotional] She practiced over and over again. … over and over again. … It was such a loving and selfless act … The attorney sitting next to us said to Khadra, “Troy will be a good father.” … And she looked me dead in the eye and she said, “Time will tell.”
Jonah Roberts: My name is Jonah Gray Roberts, and my father is Troy Roberts.
Jonah Roberts: The whole adoption process … I was 4 years old. There wasn’t really much to tell a 4-year-old.
Jonah Roberts: I was just, “there’s a man here who’s, you know, taking care of me, who’s feeding me” … He also did get me a tutor so I was getting education … at that age you don’t really think anything about it, you’re just, “this could be my long-lost dad.”
And then, 10 months after meeting my son, it was finally time to go.
Jonah Roberts: That was an intense day! … I’m thousands of feet in the air … this is my first time ever on an airplane …
Jonah Roberts: Then my dad tells me, “Oh, we’re in New York City, this is your new home.” … And I remember seeing my first home, my first real home … and he’s like, “this is your room.” … It was my own bed; I didn’t have to share it with anyone. … I had a desk, a place where I started studying, I had the tutors … It was — it was amazing.
Troy Roberts: … we did everything together, so much together … I really enjoyed watching him learn new things and introducing him to a whole new world.
Jonah Roberts: There was never father and adopted son … It was always, you know, father and son.
And like any father, I have a lot to learn from my son.
Jonah Roberts: Every Thanksgiving, we have this thing where before we start eating, after I’ve made the full meal … because he doesn’t know how to cook — we would always start off by saying, like, what we’re grateful for this year.
And now, when I think about Sabrina’s journey, and Crystal and Jesse’s, and Jonah’s, and my own, I realize how much we all have to be thankful for.
Troy Roberts: … it seems everyone’s story has a happy ending, and that’s pretty cool, you know.
Jonah’s mother died a few years after his adoption.
Produced by Murray Weiss. Doreen Schechter is the producer-editor. Joan Adelman and Gary Winter are the editors. Gabriella Demirdjian is the field producer. Patti Aronofsky is the senior producer. Nancy Kramer is the executive story editor. Judy Tygard is the executive producer.