Vol. 112 (2021)

The Stephanie Chase Conversations: 

Ann Ellsworth – Musician & Author


By Stephanie Chase

Guest Columnist

New York, NY, USA


Ann Ellsworth is a hornist who has performed extensively throughout the United States and in Europe, including as either a member or guest of the New Jersey Symphony, the Absolute Ensemble, American Symphony Orchestra, Carnegie Hall Jazz Band, New York City Ballet, and the Oslo Philharmonic. She has also been or is a current member of numerous chamber ensembles such as the Manhattan Brass, Meridian Arts Ensemble, and Confluence, of which she is a co-founder. She is also a co-founder of the Music of the Spheres Society, which is how we first met.

Ann Ellsworth on Alphorn

Her music studies took place principally at the Eastman School, the Juilliard School, the Rimsky-Korsakov Conservatory in St. Petersburg, Russia, and the University of Maryland. Since 1990, she has served on the teaching faculties of, among others, The Juilliard School (Pre-College), the CUNY Graduate Center, New York University, Brooklyn College, several schools within the SUNY network, and the Lang College of The New School. Since 2018 she has been an Assistant Professor at Lawrence University where, among other duties, she maintains a private studio, coaches chamber music, and assists the orchestra programs in training the student members.

20 Promises: Dmitri Shostakovich, Opus 87, Fuge 17
Rachel Drehmann, Sue Heineman, Mark Timmerman, Sabina Thatcher
Debra Dine; Arranged by Ann Ellsworth from Leningrad


In 2019, Ann published her first book, We Adopted Five Special Needs Children (Skyhorse Publishing). It is a memoir of her adoption, with her husband Dan, of five children who had been previously living together with a foster family. It is an account of unconditional love despite great obstacles and has been met by rave reviews from its readers, one of whom wrote, "This is such a powerful, inspiring book about love, perseverance, parenting, (and) understanding what makes us human." Another wrote, "Everyone should read this compelling story, which begins with a vivid depiction of a completely dysfunctional and broken foster care system…Ann and Dan…adopted five unique individuals who represent the thousands of neglected, abused and forgotten kids, to whom most of us are oblivious. Thanks to Ann’s book, they are no longer invisible."

Regarding her family, Ann wrote that "We shall not overcome. We can’t, it’s too hard. Instead, we shall overwhelm – make a life for our children that is so full and so delicious, there will be no room for need, no room left for pain – only light and love."


Recently, I became aware of Ann’s book and ended up reading it in nearly one sitting. Her story – and that of her husband and children – is many things; heartwarming, shocking, inspiring, dismaying and, perhaps above all, educational about a foster care system that is immensely flawed and the damage that it inflicts on so many young lives. The story of each child – Ruby, Jimmy, Jason, Anthony and Susie – reveals a struggle to overcome the past and, happily, eventual triumphs over adversity.

STEPHANIE CHASE: Back in 2008, you and your husband decided to adopt special needs children. How did this come about?


ANN ELLSWORTH: We talked about having a family when we got married in our mid-thirties, a few weeks before the attacks on the World Trade Center. As a result of the attacks, Dan went back into the Marine Corps and we were separated for the first two years of our marriage. When Dan returned, we revisited the conversation by asking ourselves what having kids was about; ultimately, it came down to giving something to someone else. Once we got there, we realized the need was already out there and adoption would be the way for us to go. We took stock of our strengths, and what we felt we had to offer led us to decide we could take on a kid with health issues. My cousin had adopted a kid, Jake, with cerebral palsy – and he was actually the one that convinced us to go the special needs route.



STEPHANIE CHASE: You and Dan ended up adopting five children from the same foster home; what led to this?


ANN ELLSWORTH: We had never planned to adopt five! The agency matched us with a brother and sister, who had grown up in the same foster home with a younger sibling group of three kids. About a month after our first two moved in, they began advocating for the younger three. They were not biologically related but had all been together for five years. The younger kids were in a rough spot and our two asked if we would adopt them as well.


Ann and Dan's Five Kids

STEPHANIE CHASE: To go from two to five, in such a short span, is stunning! I really can’t imagine the adjustments required, and you even moved from a New York City apartment to a house upstate. But this is also indicative of how the older kids quickly recognized that you were offering them a better life.


ANN ELLSWORTH: I remember early on talking with (my son) Jason as we were driving somewhere. He was telling me how different it was in his new town, how people didn’t hit him or throw things at him. Of course, he was still throwing things and hitting but it struck me that at the beginning, it was the lack of violence he noticed rather than feeling safe. I don’t know if he understood the concept of physical safety.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I have to say, that’s very disturbing on many levels. Before I read your book, I would have thought that the term "special needs" referred to children with either physical disabilities or an intellectual – or learning – impairment, but it is far more complex than that.


ANN ELLSWORTH: The list of special needs designations in foster care is quite extensive, including psychiatric and behavioral issues, fetal alcohol syndrome, exposure to narcotics in utero, et cetera, but also difficulty being adopted, (which is) basically children over the age of 6 and sibling groups.


Our first two kids were aged 8 and 10 with no major issues other than early trauma, which is actually an enormous burden for adopted kids and can range from an early separation from the mother to neglect and abuse.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I was quite horrified to learn of the physical and emotional abuse that your children apparently suffered while under foster care. Do you know why this occurred?


ANN ELLSWORTH: I wasn’t there with our children in their bio or foster homes so I don’t feel like those are my stories to tell. The kid’s behaviors and medical records gave us clues to certain aspects of the abuse and neglect – such as duration, levels of intensity, and the like – but these records and their own reports and memories I leave with our children and their therapists, which we called "feeling doctors."



STEPHANIE CHASE: As you went through the process of fostering and then adoption, were information and support resources readily available to you?


ANN ELLSWORTH: When we moved upstate, we were lucky to live in a city with an incredibly committed and supportive school district, social services and medical community. That being said, advocacy was one of the most critical elements to our parenting – we were very active in pursuing resources, filling out paperwork, scheduling intake sessions, vetting programs and not taking "no" for an answer.


Adoption Day

STEPHANIE CHASE: Your perseverance in this is remarkable, because it clearly required a tremendous amount of dedication, energy, and patience.


I was also struck by the difficulty of having the children attach to you and Dan, and to trust you. Was this purely a factor of their previous environments? When they first arrived into your family, it seems as if they could not trust anyone.


ANN ELLSWORTH: The adults in our children’s lives had failed them and they were, of course, wary of us as care givers. We knew it would take time to earn their trust. What we didn’t realize was that the children’s trust in each other came from the trauma bond they shared. It would have been easier for them to attach to us if they were not relying so heavily on each other to protect and parent each other, which was a necessity in their foster home.



STEPHANIE CHASE: It’s a – sadly – fascinating but understandable dynamic. For quite a while following their adoption, the children attacked you and Dan verbally and even physically, yet you avoided giving them any kind of medication. Why is this?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Given their early trauma, the kids’ behavior was very much in line with their reality of the emotional stress of moving into a new and permanent home. Working with their doctors and trauma therapists, we agreed that the best way to help the children learn to self-regulate was to provide a safe home with consistent expectations and consequences.



STEPHANIE CHASE: In that way, you provided a reliable foundation for them, which makes a lot of sense but must have been so challenging at times. And although I don’t have children, it seems to me that quite a lot of kids are medicated for things like "ADHD" – but I have read that the first recommended course of action is behavioral therapy for the parents.


At first, due to their socialization problems the children had great difficulty being in a school environment. How did you deal with this?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Hahaha! Home School. Ugh!!



STEPHANIE CHASE: How did that work? You have children of different ages and abilities. Did you need to be certified? How did you set up their class schedules?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Every state has different rules about home schooling. I did not need certification in New York but we did file reports, examples of work, syllabi, et cetera. Our daily schedules were written out in 15 minute increments on white boards in the kitchen – the location and activity of every kid was in a different colored marker, along with the palindrome of the day.


We worked closely with the school district to keep our children on track with their peers, using the school’s lesson plans whenever possible so that our kids could reenter at any time. We also had live-in tutors and lots of extra-curricular sports, chess teams, acting, art, swimming and music lessons to get the kids out of the house and interacting with responsible adults in structured programs.



STEPHANIE CHASE: The children were tested to measure their intellectual capabilities and development – yet in many cases they eventually exceeded what their scores would have indicated. To what do you attribute this, and what does it indicate about standardized testing?


ANN ELLSWORTH: When one is struggling with PTSD or hypervigilance, a big part of their brain space is dedicated to scanning for potential danger. Over time, the children began to relax and trust their environment to the point that they could begin to access the learning centers of the brain. It was beautiful to see. As for standardized testing, there is some suggestion of a standard that we did not meet. There was nothing standard about our kids’ formative years. 



STEPHANIE CHASE: In a way, it’s a shame that these standards exist at all, but I don’t yet see how they can be avoided. Some children – maybe many – may have exceptional skills and abilities that are just not addressed by these tests, and some are just better at taking tests than others.


You mentioned having live-in tutors because your children needed to remain at home and be constantly supervised, in addition to being educated, and you have written that some of the tutors could not cope with the demands of this work.


ANN ELLSWORTH: The feeling doctors often described our house as a therapeutic home with no breaks. It was super intense – an environment I would not have been comfortable in as a young adult. The majority of our tutors were amazing but yes, the burnout rate was understandably high.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What were some of the earliest signs that the children were starting to trust you and Dan?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Small things: eye contact, posture, tone of voice, a relaxed body when holding or snuggling them.



STEPHANIE CHASE: It’s so sad to realize that the act of being hugged was probably foreign to them until they came into your home.


ANN ELLSWORTH: They had watched a lot of World Wrestling Entertainment and a lot of their physicality was informed by these wrestling moves. It took us a long time to convince them the WWE was not real, about as long as it took for them to learn that a hug was real and did not need to end in a head lock.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Your descriptions of the time and attention needed by each child – for their safety and yours – really boggles the mind, but the commitment that you and Dan made to them never wavered.


ANN ELLSWORTH: Children are so vulnerable. These were our children. I think we attached to them way faster than they attached to us. And a failed permanent placement would have added harm upon harm. There was no alternative but to see them through and give them as much of a childhood as we could in the time remaining.



STEPHANIE CHASE: You have continually provided them with positive experiences and memories to help mitigate their earlier traumas; gradually, you engaged and encouraged their creative abilities. What were some of these?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Music, art, dance, poetry, creative writing – including the writing of their own trauma narratives, an exercise encouraged by our feeling doctors. It is a process of telling one’s own story and in so doing, externalizing and taking control of the narrative. Truth be told, the memoir I wrote about the kids was in large part my (own) trauma narrative.



STEPHANIE CHASE: I was wondering about that, if writing your book was a healing catharsis.


ANN ELLSWORTH: As the kids were calming down, I was continuing to over-react, I was hyper-vigilant, my heart racing…I was not fully present with my children as they were moving into the next phase of our family life. Writing about my experience gave me distance and perspective.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Did you and Dan rely principally on family and friends for emotional support and advice?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Our family and friends were definitely there for us but, looking back, we relied mostly on the tutors and therapists to trouble shoot and decompress. There was always so much going on, it was like triage – in the time it would take to explain the situation, we would have another situation.

Mealtime with tutors

Once a week, Dan and I would order Indian food for the tutors and adults in the house after the kids were in bed and check in with each other, have some laughs, and try and make any adjustments to our approach and schedule based on the trends we were seeing. When I had time to reach out to my friends and family, I would vent for sure, but the biggest help to me was to hear about what was going on in their lives and forget about my own for a minute.



STEPHANIE CHASE: You raised the children without a television in your home, which is especially remarkable given how it is often a "babysitter" in many households – but one that can be far from encouraging beneficial results. How important were reading, exercise, music, and nutrition?


ANN ELLSWORTH: We were in deficit. Regardless of the reasons – toxic levels of screen time or not – we needed to advance them in every way. It was a full court press: not just nutrition but menu planning and cooking healthy meals together, camping, exploring nature, team sports, oil painting, extreme Lego, dance, flying in a small plane with their dad, sailing on Lake Champlain, performing at our neighborhood poetry slams, music making on multiple instruments, singing, biking…the science is there, we know what the brain needs. The most visible result that we as parents could see was self-confidence and the erosion of our children's negative self-perceptions.



STEPHANIE CHASE: These are all great activities, but I was especially intrigued by the "poetry slams;" tell us how this works.


ANN ELLSWORTH: The kids were all playing piano, learning to sing and memorizing poetry, so we started inviting the all the neighbors over to hear the kids perform. The audience were all invited to participate if they wanted, the kids would write out a program and we’d rotate who would announce the performers and in what order. It was a wonderful time, everyone cheering and laughing, and some of the poems were quite long – you could feel the tension as the performer would pause to find the words. And then we’d all go to the kitchen and get sugared up on cookies and brownies and rice crispy treats.



STEPHANIE CHASE: That sounds like fun! It so is gratifying to read about the kids’ developments and you, clearly, are energetic and creative parents. Their world not only became safer but also expanded immensely.


Eventually, the children revealed remarkable skills; for example, your daughter Ruby was adept at spelling – even at a time when her vocabulary seemed limited.


ANN ELLSWORTH: Ruby was our oldest and had been in foster care longer than any of the others. We could only really get a measure on her intellectual abilities when she felt calm and safe. Her spelling, for example, was a window into the stores of information she was collecting – even passively – and her processing and retrieval capabilities.


I remember one extensive evaluation she had as we were designing her next Individualized Educational Plan and the same child psychologist worked with her every day over four days. At the conclusion, he played some of the recordings he’d made of her reading comprehension tests. On day one, he read her a very short story and asked her to tell him ten to twenty things she remembered from the story. It was heartbreaking to hear her stumbling and stuttering as she came up with maybe three details. Day four, after Ruby was felt comfortable with the psychologist and the process, he gave her another reading comprehension exam, similar to the one on the first day. He did not need to give test her again, he was just curious. The recording on day four sounded like a completely different person: salient points, colorful detail, fluid speech and even humor as she recounted some twenty plus things she had taken from the story.



STEPHANIE CHASE: That is astonishing – and it probably has strong implications, such as for children who are bullied at school or through social media and consequently suffer from poor self-esteem.


ANN ELLSWORTH: Children need safe, nurturing environments to learn, grow and – how can I say this? – be children. Childhood is an extremely vulnerable stage in human development. Under the best of circumstances, kids have feelings of fear, powerlessness and need help regulating and processing intense emotions. Social media is the bully in your home and has helped create the mental health crisis our young people are suffering.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Prior to the adoptions, your husband and you had full and demanding careers; as an FBI agent, he especially could not bring his work home. How did the two of you deal with the stress at home, particularly as new parents?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Humor. Our family stress levels were so high and constant, a good laugh made up the bulk of our self-care. I also did this thing called "mini-spa," which involved taking three deep, intentional breaths – although when I tried closing my eyes the first time, I was interrupted by a young opportunist and (so I) never did that again.


Dan and I were in our forties, we had a lot of life experience to help regulate our own behavior and reactions. We also knew it would not go on forever and could appreciate the beauty of being completely used up by this labor of family making; the singleness of purpose in our parenting made it one of that happiest times of my life



STEPHANIE CHASE: About thirteen years have now passed since your children first joined your family. How are they now? When you wrote your book, Ruby was in community college and your son Jimmy had become a private in the Marine Corps. Jason was musically gifted and considering becoming a chef, Susie was also an accomplished musician and thinking of becoming a social worker and, at 14, Anthony was thriving despite a past diagnosis of Duchenne’s muscular dystrophy, which is a disease that also afflicts his brother Jason.


ANN ELLSWORTH: Our two daughters are both in relationships right now, one living in upstate New York, the other on the west coast. Our two older sons are both full-time at Lawrence University where I am teaching; Jimmy is studying engineering and computer science and Jason is interested in becoming a lawyer. Dan is retired and taking classes at Lawrence, and he brings Anthony along with him as an audit student.


Anthony has cognitive delays and it is still not clear if he will be able to live independently. The Duchenne’s remains miraculously at bay – both the boys are mobile and defying their diagnosis.



STEPHANIE CHASE: It sounds like your life has settled down a bit?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Yes, thank heavens.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What advice would you give to persons who are considering adoption?


ANN ELLSWORTH: There is a wide range of experiences – our family is a little over the top and adopting five all at once is not for everyone. For me, adoption felt like the right thing to do and while it was super intense and challenging, there was an energy that came from my commitment to these children that both surprised and sustained me.


The three things I would focus on are safety, good food and keeping your kids laughing. These three things over time seemed to have the best result.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What do your children think of your book?


ANN ELLSWORTH: It was well received; they all told me they loved it and I was so relieved. The decision to write a book about our family that would help other adoptive parents be better parents was approved at a family meeting way back. They were all on board and got to choose their own names, as I used pseudonyms in the book to protect their privacy.


I am sure it will mean different things to them at different times in their lives. But at the time when it came out, everyone but Anthony was living on their own and I think the book sort of formalized and re-validated our family for them. The memoirs I really want to read are theirs!



STEPHANIE CHASE: What are your hopes for their futures?


ANN ELLSWORTH: Hope has not served me as a parent – I have avoided it from the beginning because I personally could not separate hope from expectation. I do wish for them, though. Love, self-knowledge and expression, fulfillment, moral agency, power and peace.


I was rehearsing a Brahms trio with violinist Soovin Kim early in our transition. Soovin’s dad was at the rehearsal and said to me on a break, "I have heard about what you are doing with your family. It will be forty years before you will know what difference this adoption is making in their lives." I think he is right.



STEPHANIE CHASE: What about future plans for you and Dan?


ANN ELLSWORTH: We still have Anthony living with us; he requires constant supervision and it is hard to know what that means for us long term. But we also still have a sailboat, which plays a big role in my hope for our future.



STEPHANIE CHASE: Ann, thank you so much for sharing your insights with us. And I strongly encourage people to read your book and learn more about your extraordinary family.

(All photos and audio recording courtesy of Ann Ellsworth from her personal collection.)



Ann Ellsworth    

Stephanie Chase   



Stephanie Chase

Stephanie Chase is internationally recognized as "one of the violin greats of our era" (Newhouse Newspapers) through solo appearances with 200 orchestras that include the New York and Hong Kong Philharmonics and the Chicago, San Francisco, Atlanta and London Symphony Orchestras. Her interpretations are acclaimed for their "elegance, dexterity, rhythmic vitality and great imagination" (Boston Globe), "stunning power" (Louisville Courier-Journal), "matchless technique" (BBC Music Magazine), and "virtuosity galore" (Gramophone), and she is a top medalist of the prestigious International Tchaikovsky Competition in Moscow. Recent concert appearances include music festivals in Newport, RI, Mt. Desert, ME, Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Bargemusic, Music in Context (Houston), and as soloist with the New York Scandia Symphony.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.