Adoptee deaths rare, experts say 12 Russian cases troubling, puzzling
By Russell Working
Tribune staff reporter
Published May 21, 2004
In some cases, the children lasted only a few months in their new country.
Luke Evans, 16 months, died six months after he arrived in the United States. His adopted mother, Natalie Fabian Evans of Lowell, Ind., is accused of shaking him to death.
In other cases, they survived a little longer.
Yana and Anatoli Kolenda, both 11, died in 2002--nearly five years after their arrival in America--when their adoptive father stabbed them and his wife to death at their home in Westfield, Mass., then fatally shot himself.
Circumstances differ widely in the deaths of 12 Russian adoptees whose parents have been accused of killing them in the past eight years, ranging from what prosecutors portray as flashes of rage to abuse that spanned weeks.
Yet beneath the grim tales are common threads. Defense attorneys say parents were stunned by the extent of their children's medical needs and behavioral disorders. Prosecutors accuse the defense of trying to shift the blame to innocent victims, who survived the deprivation of Russian orphanages only to die in the families that were supposed to care for them.
And the doctors and psychologists who treat such children say some parents are rushing into adoption unprepared for the problems that can accompany youngsters from Eastern European and other orphanages, ranging from fetal alcohol syndrome to emotional disorders.
The deaths, these experts say, are only the tip of an iceberg of adoptive families ill-equipped to deal with troubled children.
"We're talking about very, very at-risk children placed with families who don't know what they're doing, who are often left completely on their own," said Dr. Jerri Jenista, a Michigan physician and adoptive mother who consults with families seeking children abroad. "It's a prescription for disaster."
Studies show that most adoptive parents are happy with their children--whether from Russia or elsewhere. These parents wince when the press plays up deaths in adoptive families, said Adam Pertman, executive director of the Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute, a New York nonprofit devoted to improving adoption policy.
"Far more children die of abuse and neglect in biological families than in adoptive families," Pertman said.
Agencies such as the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics do not break out child slayings according to whether or not the victim is adopted.
Still, experts knew of no other country from which so many children have been killed.
"It just didn't seem to exist until this phenomenon happened with the Russian< kids," said Thais Tepper, a Pennsylvania adoptive mother and co-founder of the Parents Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child.There have been other cases of severe abuse that did not result in death. A Utah couple face criminal charges for allegedly starving two Russian children and an Ohio man imprisoned on charges of throwing his adopted Russian daughter at the wall, breaking her spine and leaving her unable to walk. Doctors and psychologists who treat such troubled children in international adoptions say abuse cases are too numerous to count.
Agencies that deal with adoptions often protest that in spotlighting abuse or killings, the media misses the more commonplace stories of happy adoptions. Antonia Forkin Edwardson, executive director of the Joint Council on International Children's Services, an umbrella group of adoption agencies, said abusive cases amount to only a tiny minority of the thousands of adoptions that occur every year.
"The majority of international adoptions are positive," she said. "Families are happy."
Others say the agencies share a degree of blame for adoptions gone wrong. While agencies do home studies, seldom is any psychological screening done to weed out parents with anger-management problems or those inadequate to the task of raising children, said Ronald Federici, an Alexandria, Va., neuropsychologist who specializes in internationally adopted children.
"I've never known a family to fail a home study," he said. "I have a family that was charged with multiple counts of child abuse [after the adoption]. They were major alcoholics before. The home study didn't find it."
The suspects in these cases differ from the profile of parents who kill children nationwide, according to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics. None of the alleged killers had a prior record, compared to 56 percent of family murder defendants nationwide.
Ten of the adults accused of killing Russian children--or 83 percent--were women, compared to 55 percent of parent killers of children nationwide, perhaps because mothers of adoptees are more likely to stay at home and therefore have more contact with the children.
One reason for the high number of deaths among Russians may be that some parents are unprepared for the problems related to fetal alcohol syndrome in a country where alcohol abuse is rampant, experts say.
Even if Russian parents insist on raising a disabled child, child welfare officials visit when the child is 6 or 7 years old and urge them to surrender their youngster to an orphanage, said Boris Altshuler, head of the Moscow children's advocacy group Right of the Child, which advocates reform in Russia's orphanage system.
Violent deaths for 12 adopted Russian children
Alex Pavlis (6)
From: Yeysk, Russia
In U.S.: 6 weeks
Died: Dec. 18, 2003
Schaumburg, Ill. prosecutors say Alex's adoptive mother, Irma Pavlis, 32, beat him to death. She has pleaded innocent.
Liam Thompson (3)
From: Ekimchan, Russia
In U.S.: 5 months
Died: Oct. 16, 2003
Gary Thompson of Columbus, Ohio, was sentenced to 15 years to life for scalding his 3-year-old son and leaving the child to die in an unheated basement. His wife Amy is awaiting trial.
Jessica Albina Hagmann (2)
Died: Aug. 11, 2003
Patrice Hagmann of Prince William County, Va., was sentenced to probation and
two suspended 5-year terms in the death of her daughter. Hagmann said she
smothered Jessica while trying to calm a tantrum.
Maria Bennett (2)
From: Ussurisk, Russia
In U.S.: 9 months
Died: Oct. 23, 2002
Susan Jane Bennett, 41, of Lancaster, Ohio, was sentenced to three years in prison last November for reckless homicide in the death of her daughter, who died of shaken baby syndrome.
Yana and Anatoli Kolenda (both 11)
In U.S.: 5 years
Died: Oct. 20, 2002
Richard Kolenda, 49, of Westfield, Mass., fatally stabbed his wife and two adopted Russian children and then shot himself to death, according to police.
Zachary Higier (2)
Died: Aug. 15, 2002
Natalia Higier, 47, of Braintree, Mass., was charged in the death of her son Zachary, 2, who died of severe head trauma at home. She said he fell out of his crib, but doctors told police that Zachary's injuries were consistent with falling from a three-story building.
Jacob Lindorff (5)
From: Pskov oblast, Russia
In U.S.: 6 weeks
Died: Dec. 14, 2001
Heather Lindorff of Franklin, N.J., was sentenced to six years in prison in the death of her son, who died of blunt head trauma. Lindorff's husband, James, 54, is serving four years probation for child abuse.
Luke Evans (16 months)
From: Inozemtsevo, Russia
In U.S.: 6 months
Died: Nov. 30, 2001
Luke's adoptive mother, Natalie Fabian Evans, 33, of Lowell, Ind., was charged in the death of her son, who died of massive brain injuries. She claimed he hit his head in the bathtub. Trial is set for July.
Viktor Matthey (6)
From: Amur region, Russia
In U.S.: 10 months
Died: Oct. 31, 2000
Union Township, N.J., prosecutors charged Robert and Brenda Matthey in the death of their son, saying the parents locked Viktor overnight in an unheated pump room where he died of hypothermia. A jury deadlocked on manslaughter charges May 19 but convicted the couple of lesser abuse charges.
Logan Higginbotham (3)
From: Smolensk, Russia
In U.S.: 7 months
Died: Nov. 25, 1998
Laura Higginbotham, 33, of Shelburne, Vt., pleaded innocent to involuntary< manslaughter in the death of her daughter, who died of a massive head injury. Higginbotham said the girl fell and hit her head.
David Alexander Polreis (2)
From: Tula, Russia
In U.S.: 6 months
Died: Februrary 1996
Renee Polreis was sentenced to 22 years in prison in the killing of her son in Colorado. Polreis claimed David beat himself to death with a wooden spoon in a fit of rage.
Source: News reports