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Unveiling the Heart of an Abandoned Child (Part 1 of 2)

Original Air Date 11/18/2010

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Rob Mitchell, author of Castaway Kid, discusses the childhood struggles he experienced as an orphan. (Part 1 of 2)

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Episode Transcript


Jim Daly: Hi, I'm Jim Daly with "Focus on the Family." When I was a boy, I became an orphan. Our guest today knows the depth of despair of what that feels like. Listen to a part of Rob Mitchell's story.


Rob Mitchell: My mother had enormous emotional and psychological problems that she had masked prior to marriage. There were times that she would just disappear without explanation, sometimes one or two days at a time. My mother drug me from Chicago by train--it was January--to a little town called Princeton, Illinois. I remember her dragging me from the Princeton train station, through the snow and I'm whimpering and I'm afraid, 'cause something's wrong. And my mother's yelling at me, "Shut up, Robbie. Shut up."

She takes me in this great big strange building and the strange woman whose name and face I don't remember said, "Your mother's sick, Robbie. She's taking the train back to Chicago. She'll come get you when she's well." And I truly remember rising up off that floor in 3-year-old clumsiness and screaming, "No, no" and running to the nearest door, but I'm only 3 and I couldn't reach the handle. This woman said, "Quit crying or I'll spank you." How does a 3-year-old quit crying when his mother's abandoned him? And she picked me up and spanked me over and over again until the pain of being spanked was worse than the pain of being abandoned.

End of Excerpt

John Fuller: This is John Fuller and you are listening to "Focus on the Family" with Jim Daly. Jim, that's a heart wrenching picture to think of a boy being spanked as his mother walks out of his life.

Jim: You know, one is a physical pain and one's an emotional pain. To have to say which is worse, that's not a good place for any child to live. And today we're gonna hear at least the first part of Rob Mitchell's story and I hope it motivates you to open your heart up and to hopefully, advocate for those children who are cast aside in our community. We need to be there for them and Rob Mitchell is gonna talk about how we can be there for them today and next time.

Rob was one of the last children to experience life in a U.S. orphanage before they were terminated. In fact, there are roughly 400,000 children currently in the U.S. foster-care system and about 100,000 of those are waiting to be adopted today.

And that's why we started our Wait No More orphan care outreach, to encourage and equip parents to consider adoption, foster care, respite care or other ways to support those who are called to care for orphans in their homes.

John: And over the past few years, some 12 or 13,000 people have attended one of those conferences to see how they can make a difference. And about 3,000 of them have said, we'll start the process to adopt a child through foster care.

Jim: And that is wonderful news. I mean, that is hope and you know, a life preserver to these 3,000 kids that are now in Christian homes. Thank you for those who have done it. It's not easy. You've got to count the cost, but I'm so grateful for those families who have done just that and moved forward.

We also here at Focus provide training and support for those who have adopted. And you know what? We can only do this with your financial support. When you give to Focus on the Family, you're helping support a number of outreaches, which include the Orphan Care Initiative.

In fact, we're also working on our second film for a theatrical release called The Drop Box and it's a powerful story about a South Korean pastor, Pastor Lee, who takes in abandoned babies. Once you see this film, I don't think you'll be the same. So, please do your part in helping families thrive in Christ, especially those who are caring for orphans.

John: Well, you can learn more about helping orphans and how you can help us encourage others to get involved in reaching orphans when you make a generous donation to our work at . In fact, we'll send you a copy of Castaway Kid, as our way of expressing appreciation for your support of our work.

Well, let's go ahead and hear from Rob Mitchell, as this was recorded just a few years ago. It's a tragic story full of heartache, but God showed up and brought hope.


Jim: How old were you when your mother dropped you off at the orphanage? Give us a little bit of background. What compelled your mom to do that? And then answer that very difficult question: how did you feel?

Rob: I was 3-years-old when we were living in Chicago. My father abandoned my mother and I, put a gun to his head and tried to kill himself.

John: Hm.

Rob: But he failed in his own suicide and a man with a college degree, a Master's degree from a prestigious Northwestern University, spent the next 26 years of his life as a walking vegetable in a mental hospital. He could walk, but he could not talk. He could put food in his mouth, but not always chew and swallow because of the bullet damage.

Jim: And this was your father.

Rob: This was my father. He could put his pants on, but not always remember where or when to go to the bathroom and so, for 26 years, wore diapers before he died.

Jim: Just for the background, Rob, what led him to that desperate moment to try to kill himself?

Rob: I think a lot of it in all honesty was my mother. My mother had enormous emotional and psychological problems that she had masked prior to marriage. But those masks always come down.

And he didn't know how to deal with those issues. There were times that she would just disappear without explanation, sometimes one or two days at a time. And he'd come home from work and find me laying in the crib, apparently there all day, completely soiled.

And I don't know if he really know the Lord. I have no evidence one way or another of a deep personal faith. He turned to alcohol, as many do, to drown his sorrows and eventually in his own desperation and darkness, tried to kill himself.

Jim: And so, your mom was not stable--

Rob: No.

Jim: --and was struggling herself.

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: And you're 3-years-old and she drops you off at the orphanage. What was your first kind of recognition that this is not where I should be?

Rob: You know, one of the things I've learned, Jim, that kids at risk, kids like us, kids in crisis, they have a moment in time that they either block out and never remember or we never forget it. And I won't forget that day.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: My mother drug me from Chicago by train--it was January to a little town called Princeton, Illinois. I remember her dragging me from the Princeton train station, through the snow and I'm whimpering and I'm afraid, 'cause something's wrong. And my mother's yelling at me, "Shut up, Robbie. Shut up."

She takes me in this great big strange building and takes me and sits me in front of a strange boy and says, "Play with the blocks." And I reach for a block and he steals it. And I reach for a block and he steals it."

John: Hm.

Rob: And I turned to my mother for help and she's gone. She didn't say, "I love you." She didn't say, "I'm sick." She's just gone.

Jim: She never came at that point.

Rob: For ... not for several years.

Jim: Oh.

Rob: And the strange woman whose name and face I don't remember said, "Your mother's sick, Robbie. She's taking the train back to Chicago. She'll come get you when she's well." And I truly remember rising up off that floor in 3-year-old clumsiness and screaming.

This woman said, "Quit crying or I'll spank you." How does a 3-year-old quit crying when his mother's abandoned him?

Jim: Yeah.

Rob: And she picked me up and spanked me over and over again until the pain of being spanked was worse than the pain of being abandoned.

Jim: I can't imagine that feeling for you at that age, I mean, that desperation. Actually, I can feel some of that. I had similar circumstances, but not exactly. I didn't feel that abandonment quite that same way. I always knew that through my mom's death and then eventually my dad's death, those were things I couldn't control. But here you were, trying to process this, a little boy, why your mommy would give you up. Tell us about the next couple of years. What happened? What was it like living in an orphanage?

Rob: The Covenant Children's Home was started in 1921. When I was abandoned there, it was a large institutional stereotypical dormitory-type structure. And there's a photograph in Castaway Kid. There were 60 kids broken into four groups: little boys, little girls, big boys, big girls, plus staff. We would all eat breakfast at 7:30, lunch was noon, cookies and "bug juice" at 3 o'clock and supper's 5:30. So it was a very regimented, organized kind of life in a large dormitory-type structure. I think the two adjectives that best describe it, one is desperate loneliness.

John: Hm.

Rob: It was a Christian orphanage, children's home and people think, how can you be with 60 kids and staff and be alone? But you can be desperately alone in life. You can be in a marriage and be desperately alone. Kids are egocentric. You know, we think that whatever happens to us in life is our fault.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: The kids in Beverly Hills, who live in mansions, think they were born to deserve that.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: But kids in orphanages, kids in the foster-care system, we think we deserve that. And that's not right, but it's how we feel. So, desperately loneliness is one of the great adjectives.

Jim: Hm. Now you had a family member, I believe--

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: --who visited you regularly. Did that give you a sense of stability? Tell us about her and your connection to her.

Rob: I was my mother's only child. She was her mother's only child. I call that grandmother Gigi. She was a poor woman who lived in Chicago. She worked at the great Marshall Field's department store--

John: Hm.

Rob: --downtown Chicago. And it took her months to find out what happened to me, because people with mental and emotional illness like my mother, play weird power games. Kids like us aren't loved; we're just a tool in a weird game they're playing.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And when she finally found me, she would come visit every Saturday. She lived in a two-room apartment, not a two-bedroom apartment, in North Chicago. And she'd get up, walk three city blocks to the Howard Street bus, the bus to the El, the El downtown, [a] couple buses later to the Union Station and then, a two-hour train ride to Princeton.

And Gigi would come every Saturday and visit for a couple of hours before she had to take the train back. And it was always bittersweet. I never understood as a little kid why she didn't take me, but she would always say goodbye in tears and say, "Remember, Robbie, keep love in your heart. You will always have mind."

Jim: Did you ever ... that's a good thing for a child to hear. Did you ever have ... or did you ever have that discussion with Gigi, "Gigi, why can't I live with you?" Did you ask her that?

Rob: And I would say that I had it at three levels. First as a little kid, it was, "Take me with you; don't leave me here." You know, I remember saying over and over again, "I won't even eat much."

Jim and John: Uh-hm.

Rob: You know, "Just don't leave me." What I came to understand later in life, my mother was in and out of psychiatric wards, oftentimes locked down against her will, multiple electroshock therapy, abused drugs and alcohol, died a bag lady in the streets of Chicago.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: But I came to realize later, not from what Gigi said directly, that she just didn't have the emotional strength to fight her daughter when my mother was out on the streets, 'cause my mother would've hounded her and hounded her. And Gigi felt I was safer in the orphanage than being with her.

Jim: Rob, I can only imagine adults in that situation, the difficulty. They're trying to make a good decision for a child and it can be very difficult to make the right decision. You're listening to "Focus on the Family." I'm Jim Daly. We're talking with Rob Mitchell, his book, Castaway Kid. Rob lived through the last days of formal orphanages here in the United States and we're talking about that tender part of Rob's life when he was a child and all the emotions that he deals with.

And Rob, I can remember, there are people in my life, when my mom died and when my dad was nowhere to be found, someone like Gigi ... I was 9-years-old and desperately thinking, "Who's gonna take care of us? Who's gonna take care of me?" And am I worthy enough? All those thoughts as a child that creep into your mind.

And there was a woman in my life, Penny, one of my mom's best friends, who was very much like "Gigi." And she couldn't step up. Her husband was dying of stomach cancer and so, she just wasn't in the picture and I didn't understand why and it left me wondering why she didn't step up and was it because in some way I was not worthy. Did you ever experience that feeling with Gigi?

Rob: I never felt that about Gigi. I did feel that wondering along the way, why some of my relatives in Atlanta didn't take me. My father's extended family there was fairly well to do. I came to learn later in life, they blamed it all on my mother, but I think the more honest answer is, I was a social embarrassment. And it was more convenient to leave me in an orphanage than explain me in their social circles.

Jim: That tears my heart apart. And there's kids, I mean, Rob the thing that's so tragic is, that there are children today in foster care--today's modern version of the orphanage. You know we changed that system--

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: --many years ago and did away with orphanages--

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: --because of the stigma--

Rob: Right.

Jim: --that's attached to it and we created the foster-care program, where some kids land in good places and we need to make sure that we acknowledge that there are good foster care parents in this country.

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: There are some not so good ones, as well.

Rob: Exactly.

Jim: And abuse takes place and all the things that some of us experienced in our foster care time. But Rob, when did you feel different? When did you recognize that I'm not livin' life like every other kid?

Rob: Because I was dropped off at 3, I had a couple years of protection from public schools. But once I started goin' to public school, that's when I really realized that I was different. And there are bullies everywhere in the world--

Jim: Hm.

Rob: --every culture. And bullies want to put you down in order to lift themselves up. And kids like us are easy targets and they seem to learn how to punch our buttons quick. And my button was, "What's wrong with you boy? You are so bad, even your parents don't want you."

John: Hm.

Jim: Did somebody actually ever say that to you?

Rob: More than once. In elementary school is when it started. And then, you know kids, especially boys like us, we just check out. We literally see red and we end up in the principal's office, who asks the same stupid question, "What were you thinking?" And the honest truth is, for angry boys, we stop thinking.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: When our button gets pushed, we don't think. And we know we did somethin' stupid, but we react out of our anger, our rage, our confusion and our memories of abuse. And that's not right, but it's real.

John: Hm. I was gonna ask, Rob, it seems that somewhere along the line you start to fight back.

Rob: Yes.

John: And you do get angry.

Rob: Uh-hm.

John: Who did you lash out at besides those bullies and those kids that taunted you?

Rob: In my situation and I don't know if I'll have time to talk about it, if not, that's fine. I had a wonderful dorm mother who came later called Nola. And I asked Nola this question once many years later. I said, "Nola, I don't remember starting a fight, but I remember being in lots of them."

John: Hm.

Rob: And she said, "You're right, Robbie; you never started one, but you were too stupid to walk away from one." (Chuckling)

John: Hm.

Rob: The kids' age['s are] from 3 to 18, so the big boys had a lot of anger and rage in them. And they abused us a lot. But when you're in the system a long time, you learn how to hurt people without showing bruises or blood. You learn how to get clever in inflicting pain, because if there's evidence, then you get kicked out to "juvie hall" or someplace worse. Those were the biggest struggles and I fought them even in elementary school and I usually got a good beating for it. But I hated the fact that they picked on the other kids. It wasn't so much that I loved that kid; I just despised the bullies.

John: Hm.

Rob: And so, I got in a lot of fights getting in between kids, 'cause there's something in me [that] said, "No," you know, the little ones don't deserve this and if no one's gonna stand up to you, I will."

John: Hm.

Jim: Rob, isn't that interesting. I feel the same way going through some similar experiences. There's a high justice factor that can develop. I think, boy, you can really go the wrong direction or the Lord can use it--

Rob: Exactly.

Jim: -- that brokenness to show you things about humanity, about ourselves.

Rob: Un-hm.

Jim: And that's just something I resonate with that when somebody is doing something that is not appropriate or injust [sic] toward another, there's somethin', it rises up in me.

Rob: If you have a moral compass--

Jim: Yeah.

Rob: --if you haven't become a true sociopath where you don't care--

Jim: Hm.

Rob: --um ... yeah.

Jim: That's a good sign of humanity in you--

Rob: Yes.

Jim: --and hopefully God in you.

Rob: Yes.

Jim: Rob talk to us about anger though. I don't want to just go on from this point. Talk about that anger, where it came from, how it vented through you and then, how you began to cope with it. What helped you to cope with that anger?

Rob: The anger started with I was 7-years-old. It was a bitter Midwestern night. We had steam radiators in the orphanage, no air conditioning and they made weird sounds. And kids like us hate the nighttime, because nighttime's when the nightmares and the abuse come.

Jim: Uh-hm.

John: Hm.

Rob: I had to realize at 7 that my mother wasn't normal. Nobody explained to me about my father. And for reasons I didn't understand then, my Gigi wasn't gonna rescue me.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: And kids like us want to be rescued.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And that was the night that I cried out with groanings too deep for words as hope died. And that's the beginning of a kid who doesn't care. By the summer before sixth grade, Nola dropped a bomb on me. She had 10 to 16 little boys. She said, "I got too many. Somethin's gotta give. You've gotta go to big boys."

And I remember saying, "Nola, no. I'm gonna get hurt up there. I'm just 10-years-old," you know, 16-, 17-, 18-year-old punks. She said, "I know and I'm sorry."

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And so, from sixth grade to ninth grade, I got beat on every day of my life. It wasn't optional. It was just a matter of who. And so, the anger just kept developing, as it does for many boys anyway going to puberty, whether it's bullies at school. People in town would not let their daughters date us. They were not gonna let 'em date a kid from the home. They didn't even want their sons hanging out with us. So, you had that social frustration goin' on.

Jim: Sure.

Rob: And so, probably by the time I was a junior in high school, my anger had hit its peak. I'd blown myself out of sports. I was doin' alcohol and marijuana pretty heavy. But kids like ...

Jim: As a junior high school student.

Rob: Junior in high school.

Jim: A junior in high school.

Rob: Yeah. But kids like us, we drink; we do drugs; we do inappropriate sex and we cut ourselves to either feel something or to dull the pain--

Jim and John: Uh-hm.

Rob: --or both and that may not be right, but it's real.

Jim: It's the way that, that is expressed, that pain in our hearts, that's for sure. Rob, talk about where God got ahold of you. For me it was high school.

Rob: Uh-hm.

Jim: How did that happen for you? Describe that and then, what did it mean when somebody confronted you about a relationship with Christ?

Rob: I had been invited the summer before my senior year in high school to be a lifeguard swim instructor at Lake Geneva, Wisconsin--Covenant Harbor Bible Camp. I thought they were nuts to hire a punk like me. And I was excited, 'cause now I didn't have to be "Robbie, from the orphanage;" I could just be "Rob"--

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: --and try and engage in my favorite sport, which was hunting and chasing silly girls. (Laughter) I love that sport. (Laughter) But there are these goody two-shoe Christian girls and one of 'em got in my face with a frying pan and said, "You get out of line, I'm gonna smack you." (Laughter)

Jim: Good for her.

Rob: I remember wondering, "Where do you breed females like that and why?" (Laughter) But anyway, one week this cute blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl showed up to volunteer and I looked at her and I said, "Rwoof! This hound's gonna hunt." And she should've been afraid.

John: How did she take that?

Jim: Yeah.

Rob: Well, she should've been afraid of me and she wasn't. She had this incredible calm about her. And I'm tryin' to make time on day two and we're in the canoe on the lake and she goes, "Tell me about your relationship with Jesus."

Jim: Hm.

Rob: I said, "Huh?" This is not in the Catch and Chase Silly Girls Handbook. It--

Jim: Yeah.

Rob: --it's just ... that objection's not in there. But for kids like us, we don't buy this loving heavenly Father image. It does not fit our reality.

John: Hm.

Rob: 'Cause if God is so loving and if God cares, then how come He left me in an orphanage for 14 years.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: So, I looked at her and I said, "I don't buy into it. I don't believe in Jesus." I figured that'd end the discussion. (Chuckling) And she goes, "I don't think you've examined the evidence."

Jim: (Chuckling) Good for her.

Rob: I'm like, "What!?" Now you know, we're three guys here and I don't know if you remember far enough back to your teenage years yet, but teenage boys'll do a lot of stupid stuff to impress girls.

John: Uh-hm.

Jim: Sure.

John: Oh, yeah.

Rob: You know and some of us do stupid at a really high level. (Laughter) And she ...

Jim: So, what did you do? (Laughter)

Rob: Well, she's cute; I want to impress her. I picked up the Bible.

Jim: Okay.

Rob: I think, I'll read somethin' and I'll quote somethin' back and impress her and ...

Jim: (Laughing) What did you open it up to? (Laughter)

Rob: Matthew, started reading the Jesus' books.

John: Hm.

Rob: Now they drug us to church, okay? And I hear testimonies where people say, "Jesus was never preached." I don't think that's true. I never heard it. There's a difference.

Jim: Hm.

Rob: I didn't know this Guy got hungry and thirsty and tired and got His feet dirty. I really didn't remember that.

John: Hm.

Rob: But what really got my attention was, He got betrayed by people He should've been able to trust.

Jim: Uh-hm.

Rob: And that's what got my attention.

Jim: So, you identified with--

Rob: Yes.

Jim: --the life of Christ in that way.

Rob: I had to see Jesus the Man, before I could see Jesus, the Christ.

Jim: How old were you when you said, "Okay, Lord, I'm Yours?"

Rob: It was about three months later after much struggle and I was alone in the orphanage and I had come up to my last major struggle and that was why? If this is an all-knowing God, if this is a holy God and this God knows what I've thought, knows what I felt, knows what I've said, knows what I've done to others and done to myself and I cannot clean up good enough for this God."

Jim: Hm.

Rob: "And I'm no longer gonna play the game of tryin' to be the cutest puppy dog in the foster care window. So, why? Why would this God want somebody like me?" (Choking with Emotion) And wherever Jesus said, "If you honestly repent of your sins and you believe in Me, in essence it doesn't make you good enough; it makes you acceptable."

Jim: Hm.

Rob: And so, I prayed a very unconventional prayer. I said, "Jesus, if You're real and You'll come into my nightmare and change me and I know it, then I'm Yours. And if You don't, You're a fraud." And I didn't hear angels sing and I didn't roll on the floor in spiritual ecstasy, but that was the fall of my senior year in high school and I absolutely knew in that moment that the holy God of the universe had reached out of heaven to the heart of an angry bitter punk in an American orphanage--

John: Hm.

Rob: --and began to change my life.


Jim: I mean, I can so relate to what he's saying there, that you know, when you hit the bottom and a lot of children find themselves in that spot; they don't feel loved, I'll tell you what. A lot of adults feel that way, too. You can't find friendship or relationship, it might be in your marriage.

Whatever's causing that pain, it is real and you know what. What he said there at the end, no atheist, no agnostic can take that away from us. At the bottom rung, we found Christ. He was there for us and I hope today that if you're feeling that way, like there's nobody in your corner, guess what. The God of the universe, the Creator of the Universe, He's in your corner. And He came to us in the form a human being named Jesus Christ, the Son of God. And He died for your inadequacies, for your sins, so that you can connect with the Father in heaven through Jesus Christ.

That's where it all starts and I hope if you have not made that fundamental decision, pursue Him. Ash Him to show Himself to you. Pray that way. We have a booklet called "Coming Home," that will give you those steps to take to relinquish your life to God and to start a new life in Jesus Christ. That's what it's all about and what will open up to you is understanding and purpose and a sense of being loved by your heavenly Father. You know what? That's worth pursuing and I hope you'll contact us today to get a copy of "Coming Home," the booklet.

John: That really is a wonderful little booklet and we'll be happy to send that to you when you call 800-232-6459. Or you can download the document from .

And we mentioned it earlier, but please look for a copy of Rob Mitchell's book, Castaway Kid at our website. It captures his story in much greater detail than we could present today. And we'll send you a copy of that book when you donate to Focus on the Family. Your gift of any amount makes a big difference for us and we'll send a copy of Castaway Kid as an expression of our appreciation.

Our program was provided by Focus on the Family and made possible by listeners like you. On behalf of Jim Daly and the entire team, thanks for listening in. I'm John Fuller, inviting you back tomorrow for the conclusion of Rob Mitchell's dramatic story, as we once again, help you and your family thrive in Christ.

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Rob Mitchell

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In sales since 1978, Rob Mitchell has built a successful business that has earned him recognition as one of the nation's top investment consultants. He has authored one book, Castaway Kid: One Man's Search for Hope and Home. Rob and his wife, Susan have been married for 30 years and they have two grown children. The couple's son, Luke, has been battling leukemia since Nov. 2009, and is currently in remission.