- Associated Press - Monday, May 16, 2016

MADISON, S.D. (AP) - Donna Hurley has kept a golden ring in her jewelry box since 1993.

The ring has a birthstone for each of the five children she’s raised, but it has room for one more, the Argus Leader (https://argusne.ws/1TPJ7DB ) reported.

The empty space represents “Denise,” a baby girl she put up for adoption in 1979, when Hurley was 32 years old.

Hurley worries that “Denise” doesn’t know the details surrounding the pregnancy. Hurley was beaten so badly by her then-husband — the baby’s biological father — that she spent four months in a coma while pregnant.

The child might not know that doctors told Hurley’s family she might never come to, and that she’d be brain damaged and might never walk again if she did, and that her five biological siblings had been placed in foster care due to that uncertain future.

“I wanted her to have a better chance than what I could give her,” Hurley said.

If she’s alive - Hurley doesn’t know if she is - she surely has no way of knowing that her biological siblings keep an open seat at the table for her during family reunions, that they’ve never forgotten about her and that she’d be welcomed if she ever chose to seek them out.

“I love her,” Hurley said. “I always wondered about her. Mainly, I’d want her to know her brothers and sisters. My life’s over and done with, but I want her to know them.”

For any connection to happen, “Denise” would need to find Hurley. South Dakota’s Department of Social Services maintains a database of information on biological parents and adoptees, but the adoptee must initiate contact. Biological parents can offer their information, but can’t initiate court proceedings to open records as adoptees can.

John Hurley, Donna’s son, knows his sister might not want to reach out to his family. She hasn’t yet. The year she turned 18 was the one in which the family thought they might hear from her, but they didn’t.

“You could see it in our mom’s face - the disappointment that she never got a call,” John Hurley said. “We all anticipated having at some point an opportunity to see who our sister was.”

___

The Hurleys and those who know them all know the story of the adoption. They worry that the woman - if she knows she was adopted - might not know the story, according to Cindy Mosier, a family friend who called Argus Leader Media.

“If it were me and I found out my mom had given me up when she was 32, I’d be thinking ‘junkie,’” Mosier said.

The reality doesn’t involve drug addiction on Donna Hurley’s part, but it does involve tragedy and substance abuse.

Donna Hurley met John Rash shortly after divorcing her first husband, a man she described as a drinker and a layabout - not physically abusive, but not a provider. Hurley supported the family for a decade before the divorce, and after it she heard her ex-husband tell her repeatedly that no one would want a single mother.

When she met Rash, the bar for a partner in her mind was set pretty low.

“He had a job and he didn’t mind me having five kids,” Donna Hurley said.

The two married soon afterward and his demeanor switched from sweet to cruel just as quickly. He started slapping her, more often when he was drinking.

“He started telling me my friends weren’t good enough, I needed to get away from them,” she said.

John Hurley remembers more than slaps.

“I remember us going to supper at grandma and grandpa’s house and having her wear sunglasses to cover her black eyes,” John said.

The worst of it came on Jan. 20, 1979. Rash lost his trucking job after he jackknifed his rig on an icy road in Montana, although Donna Hurley didn’t know that when he came home drunk on that afternoon and got his pickup stuck in a snowbank in the driveway.

Two of her children had gone to a neighbor’s house to play, but a 7-year-old John Hurley and his sisters were home when the fight began. The boy would later testify in court about the assault, and later still he would write an essay in school about what he saw.

He tried to beat his stepfather to stop it, the teenage essay explained, but it didn’t work. He put his younger sister, not yet two years old, under a crib as the couple fought for control of a knife, which Rash threw into the kitchen before pushing his wife into the bedroom.

Rash locked the boy in another bedroom, but he used a coat hanger to jimmy the lock and came out to see the attack continuing.

“He pushed her into the bedroom and started banging her head on the floor,” John Hurley wrote.

Rash pulled a dresser on top of her and jumped on her arm before the boy ran to the neighbor’s house, with no pants on in the middle of winter.

“Pretty soon I was in a foster home,” he wrote. “Then I was going to court.”

To this day, his mother can’t remember a thing about it, or about the four months she spent in the hospital after the attack.

The neighbor, Sallie Johnson, clearly remembers John Hurley’s arrival. By the time the police arrived, Rash was on the ground in handcuffs.

“(Donna) was in a fetal position,” Johnson said. “I didn’t know how bad she was hurt until later, but I saw that. She was going to protect that baby.”

Johnson also remembers hearing that the doctors thought her lifelong friend might be comatose for the rest of her life, and regrets thinking that she’d rather see her die than see her live out her days in a hospital bed.

“I feel terrible for even thinking it now,” Johnson said.

A lot of people in Madison were thinking about the Hurleys during the first six months of 1979. Rash’s trial for aggravated assault was delayed, in part for fear that Donna Hurley would die and an assault conviction would doom a murder trial.

The children were placed in foster care in Nebraska after spending several weeks staying with family and friends in separate houses.

“Our grandparents told us there was a strong, strong possibility that she’d never recover,” John Hurley said.

He flew back to Madison to testify for the trial, which was front page news in the Madison Daily Leader. Donna Hurley woke up on April 29, but the fracture to the back of her skull left her “partially paralyzed” on the left side of her body, the Daily Leader reported.

The article on the guilty verdict also noted that her unborn child was expected to be born healthy. She was, but Donna Hurley was still unable to walk.

“I was 89 pounds 15 minutes after the baby was born,” she said.

She decided to give the baby up for adoption because she wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to care for her properly.

“I didn’t know how I’d take care of the five kids I already had,” she said.

Her brother, Leo Drew, remembers the difficulty of those first days in the hospital. Drew was a police officer in Sioux Falls at the time of the incident, and he remembers coming to the hospital to spend his lunches with his sister.

Getting his sister back to a healthy weight was only one of the struggles. The rehabilitation was rough from the start.

“They’d pull on her arms to stretch out her tendons, and she would scream so loud that nobody could stand it,” Drew said.

___

She did recover. She learned to walk again with the help of her mother, who would tie a belt around her own waist and her daughter’s to steady the steps. She last used a wheelchair in December of 1979.

Hurley went back to school to earn a teaching certificate in 1982, earning her degree and working for two years in the field before her position at a Hutterite colony school was cut.

“I didn’t want to be on welfare the rest of my life,” she said of her desire to earn a degree. “I could have been satisfied just being a sponge, but no.”

She worked several jobs after that, but ultimately didn’t go back to teaching. Her family did get government assistance, a fact that weighs on John Hurley when he thinks about the sister he’s never met.

“Our family grew up and was raised on welfare and food stamps,” John Hurley said. “At the same time, our mom struggled through all of that and became a teacher again.’

She worked at gas stations and grocery stores to help support her children, whom her son says “weren’t always the easiest on her.”

That’s behind them now, he said. John Hurley now owns a campground and bar in Lake Poinsett. His mother was a groundskeeper, manager and bookkeeper there until last year. The children have struggled through poverty and poor choices and come closer as a result of it, he said, but all the while they’ve wondered about their youngest sibling.

“Who knows what level of the world she’s living in,” he said. “She might think we’re a bunch of hillbillies.”

Whatever happened in the Hurley house, though, one thing’s remained constant: Family. The walls of Donna Hurley’s home in Madison area covered with pictures of her children and grandchildren.

A centerpiece in her living room is a framed family tree drawn by a granddaughter. She marks time by birthdays, anniversaries and family gatherings. Her dedication to her family has shined through the struggles, and Mosier hopes Denise would be glad to know that, regardless of the outcome.

“It’s amazing what this woman has done with her life,” Mosier said. “We’re really proud of her.”

Rash could not be reached for this story. He was given six years in prison for the assault, and the Hurley family hasn’t seen him since. Donna Hurley hasn’t heard from him in years, but she remembers the last time they spoke. He called her unexpectedly and talked for 20 minutes, she said, while she stayed silent.

“I just said ‘John, I’m alive,’ and hung up,” she said. “That was it.”

___

Information from: Argus Leader, https://www.argusleader.com

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide