By William Croyle
ERLANGER - Lee Ann and Anna Kohl recall when they were regularly locked in a bedroom as children in their Lexington home while their parents left for hours at a time. They were used to the abuse, but Lee Ann knew it was wrong.
Luann Kohl reads to her son, Christian, 3, in her Erlanger home. She is a single mother who has adopted seven children and is in the process of finalizing adoptions for two more. All the children had been abused by their biological parents.
The Cincinnati Enquirer/PATRICK REDDY
"One day, somehow, we got out," said Lee Ann. She doesn't remember just how they escaped. That was 16 years ago when she was just 6 years old. "I put Anna in a stroller and was running away from the house as fast as I could. A cop saw us running down the street and said he'd make sure we were taken care of."
The girls had been so neglected that they had speech impediments, didn't know their colors or numbers, and had never experienced Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny.
But that was a lifetime ago - before they met the woman they call "Mom," Luann Kohl.
The girls had been taken into state custody and moved to four different homes in five months before ending up in Erlanger with Kohl.
She was a single woman who had just completed foster parenting classes. Lee Ann and Anna were her first two children.
"The state asked what children I would accept. I told them I preferred a boy, 6 or 7, because I'm not a prim, prissy, girly type," said Kohl. "But these girls were wonderful. It just felt right."
Today, Lee Ann and Anna are 22 and 21, and are students in college. They proudly say they are two of Luann Kohl's children - five girls and four boys - ages 22, 22, 22, 21, 19, 11, 9, 3 and 2.
Kohl, 48, has adopted seven of them, including Lee Ann and Anna in 1991. The paperwork is being processed now for her to adopt the other two. The children include four pairs of biological siblings.
Foster parenting was in Luann Kohl's blood.
Her dad, Dave Kohl, and late mom, Lynne Kohl, took in nearly 20 kids when Luann Kohl and her five siblings were growing up in Wisconsin. But her parents never adopted any of the foster children.
"I'm all for what Luann is doing, but I keep telling her that's enough," said a laughing Dave Kohl, from his Marion, S.D., home. "She has to slow down. She's going to have a few years on her when those younger ones graduate."
Slowing down doesn't seem to be an option for Luann Kohl. She holds a full-time job as the religious education director at St. Henry Church in Erlanger. Four of her kids have weekly counseling appointments. They're also involved in numerous extracurricular activities.
"She's very structured and has an excellent support system in place with family, friends and her church," said Kim Johnson, a foster care worker for the Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services. "You almost have to see Luann in action and see the interaction and you think, 'Wow!' "
Kohl's support system includes her brother and sister-in-law, Dave and Rita Kohl, who live a block away.
"We moved up here from Tennessee about a year ago mostly because she was here," said her brother. "She's an exceptionally strong and gifted person to do what she does, especially with the problems those kids have had."
All of the kids were physically, sexually or emotionally abused by their biological parents. Because some of those parents might still be looking for the children, Kohl is careful about giving out some of their names or other information. But she's open with each new child who comes into her home.
"We sit down with them the first night so they don't have to wonder if this is just going to be another place where they're going to get hurt," said Kohl. "We tell them that in this house, we respect each other's privacy and no one will touch their private parts or invade their space."
There isn't much living space in their home. One of the children moved out to join the Marines and is stationed in Japan, but the rest live with Luann in their small ranch home. She's added two bedrooms in the basement, giving her family a total of five to go along with two bathrooms, a small kitchen, family room and play room.
But Kohl says it's not about living space. She said they succeed because they respect each other and work together as a family. The older children help take care of the younger children. They all have daily chores, from doing laundry to cooking dinner. Even the bigger issues, like whether to take in another child, are decided together.
"We'd have a family meeting whenever the state would call with another placement because it involves everyone sharing," said Kohl. "But Anna always says, 'We want to do for someone else what you've done for us.' "
For that reason, they've never turned away a child. Even when the state called with a baby named Christian in 2001, the family agreed to take him. He was the youngest child Kohl had accepted to that point.
"They asked if we'd take an 11-month-old boy, and we said we would," said Kohl. "Then they brought him to us - he was 32 pounds! I guess he must have laid around and drank milk all day."
Today, Christian is active and no longer overweight. In fact, all of the kids are doing well physically and emotionally and are thankful to Kohl - and call her "Mom."
"We all feel that she's an angel," said Anna.
"She gave all of us a second chance."
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