Mother Admits Killing Daughter

Date: 2006-03-02

Death of Russian Child Could Imperil Future Adoptions

Theresa Vargas

Peggy Sue Hilt, standing in a Manassas courtroom yesterday, admitted killing her adopted Russian daughter, punching and kicking the 2-year-old so much that the tiny body was bruised all over. Between her eyes, on her chin, across her back and stomach.

Hilt had been enraged, she told police, and she had never bonded with the child.

Her court appearance was brief -- just long enough for a detective to describe the abuse and for Hilt to whisper a guilty plea to second-degree murder -- but the child's slaying has caused an international uproar.

Few familiar with Russian adoptions talk about Nina Victoria Hilt's death without mentioning the others. There was 8-year-old Dennis Merryman, who starved to death five years after coming to the United States. Before him was 6-year-old Alex Pavlis, beaten to death, and Liam Thompson, 3, who died after he was scalded by hot bath water. And so on and so on until the first known death in 1996. David Polreis was 2 when he was beaten to death with wooden spoons, authorities said.

In all, 14 adopted Russian children have been killed in the United States, officials say.

"If more and more children are being hurt, I am concerned about the future of adoptions with Russia," said Patrick Mason, with the International Adoption Center at Inova Hospital for Children. Since Nina's death, many Russian officials have shuffled through Mason's Fairfax office. "They see these children are coming here and they are being abused and they are being killed," he said. "Do you keep sending kids if they are being hurt?"

That question has troubled Russian citizens and the U.S. adoption community in the months since Nina's death July 2. Russian officials initially called for a moratorium on U.S. adoptions, and although they have eased back on the threat, many fear that Russia will halt adoptions if additional abuse occurs. Romania currently has such a ban in place. U.S. and Russian officials have also called for reforms, including stricter screening of prospective parents, improved pre-adoption training and a reevaluation of independent adoptions, those done through agencies not accredited by Russia.

According to the U.S. State Department, Russia is the second most popular country for international adoptions, after China. In 2005, the United States issued 4,639 immigrant visas to Russian orphans, down from 5,865 issued in 2004.

Adoption experts said they could not point to as many deaths among children adopted from any other country, including China. They said this could be in part because many of the Russian children who are adopted have behavioral and developmental problems either passed to them from parents with poor prenatal care, including fetal alcohol syndrome, or the result of their growing up in orphanages. Adoptive parents, they add, are given little preparation for what to expect.

An estimated 600,000 Russian children live in orphanages.

"These children came out of darkness, out of desperate institutions. This is all they've known," said Dr. Ronald S. Federici, an Alexandria neuropsychologist and expert on inter-country adoptions. He has adopted seven children, three from Russia. "Parents try traditional parenting, try to treat them as normal kids, and they are so far off."

"Anyone can get in over their head," Federici added. "So what happens if they are not trained, if they are not prepared? Disasters happen like this one."

In a 42-page transcript of her statement to police, Peggy Sue Hilt, 33, detailed the abuse that erupted July 1 at her home in Wake Forest, N.C.

"I hurt Nina," she began. "I choked her and I hit her and hit her."

"She was not behaving and not listening and just crying," Hilt told police. "I was so angry so angry. I got up to her bedroom and I said stop it, stop it! I dropped her on the floor and I kicked her."

Hilt told police she then put Nina back in bed and continued punching her on the back with a closed fist. She could not say how many times she hit Nina or if the child cried.

Hilt and her husband, Christopher, had adopted Nina, a curly-haired girl from Siberia, 16 months earlier. She told police they immediately encountered problems: potty training issues, speech delay, a lack of connection. "Since I brought Nina home we never bonded," Hilt told police. When asked whether the child favored someone else, she replied simply: "Anybody but me."

Nina died a day after the abuse occurred. She had slowly grown paler and more feverish during a four-hour drive to Prince William County, where the family visited friends. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was blunt trauma to the abdomen.

Hilt will remain in jail until her sentencing on May 25. Her attorney, William Stephens, said that psychological evaluations found Hilt to be sane and competent, but he plans to have another evaluation done before sentencing.

"It's sad," Stephens said. "Looking back, I suspect that there was easily a way that this would never have happened."

Hilt also had a second adopted child -- Nataliya, 4 -- from the Ukraine. Police said she showed no signs of abuse. Officials said Nataliya is in social services custody.

Prince William's chief prosecutor, Paul B. Ebert, said after the hearing that he believes the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison would be appropriate. "We can't justify our actions simply because we don't bond with the child," he said. "It's a horrible case when an innocent child is beaten to death. It's hard to understand how anybody could do that."

Ebert said he has received numerous calls from Russian media representatives since the slaying. At the same time, some U.S. parents and officials have taken out full-page ads in major Russian newspapers.

"The American adoption community spoke very respectfully and very passionately to the Russian government saying we are heartbroken over these deaths, we are going to enact reforms to continue improving so these things don't happen, but please don't shut down adoptions," Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoptions, said. "That's the only way these tragic events could be made more tragic."


I would shut it down if I had any say...

I cannot imagine, not even for a second, hurting a child. My heart skips a beat just briefly thinking of what this poor baby went through by this horrible woman. I have to keep pushing the thoughts away for my own sanity.

Angry or not, you can never justify the abuse, neglect, and/or death of a child...ever! You are three (or more) times their size, for Pete's sake!!!! It's common sense that if a child is crying incessantly and you can't take it and feel yourself getting angry...PUT THE CHILD IN A SAFE PLACE AND WALK AWAYYYYYYYY!!!! It's so easy to do so there is NO EXCUSE ever, ever, ever to hurt a child!

If I had anything to do with it, I would shut down the adoption to US citizens. I don't know what the child abuse rate is over in Russia, but it's a helluva lot here in the US and I'm tired of it!! People who do these things to children should be automatically sent to their own death...painfully!!!!

I cannot stop myself from wishing and hoping that she gets the same treatment in prison...daily! She should sit in her cell after a good and frightening beating and see what it was like for this baby...what she herself put that totally defenseless toddler through! This is how the rest of her pathetic days should be spent!

Makes me sick!

The woman is already

The woman is already punished: she lost her family, she is in prison from where she will not be released very soon. I am sure she thinks about Nina every day and wishes this would have never happened. I am even sure she would have had her hand cut off if that would return Nina.

I am originally from Russia and believe me, children there are abused worse than in USA. Most of the Russian children adopted by US citizens find loving and caring families. But unfortunately not all of them are lucky , and it is so bad that little tiny Nina ended up beaten to death.

I have two little kids, and I can`t imagine doing such horrible things to them as dropping them on the floor, kicking and punching. It is natural for children to cry and not listen to adults. When you love your kid you can always find a soft and safe way to calm your crying child down !

RIP little Nina. You will be remembered!

we don't know

While it is true that the majority of children adopted from Russia didn't experience the fate of Nina Hilt, it is impossible to know that most children "find loving and caring families".

Most of the research into adoption outcome, are longitudinal studies of a small group of children, which tells us very little about the entire population of adoptees.

In the medical profession, measures are usually only taken when there is scientific evidence that a procedure is effective and side effects are known and acceptable. No such thing applies to adoption. There is no evidence base that teaches social workers how to select and prepare prospective adopters, so the outcome of an adoption is mostly a lottery, it may go well, and it may go horribly bad. 

Adoption practices are hopelessly amateurish and the results are sometimes devastating.

When it comes to comparing child abuse in Russia to that in the United States, we are equally left empty handed. Simply the question what constitutes child abuse renders different answers when we look at American law versus Russian law. Paddling a child in school, as a disciplinary measure, has been considered child abuse in Russia since 1917,  but not in the US, where corporal punishment in schools is practiced in 19 states.

Reporting methodologies in the two countries also differ tremendously, so all we have is anecdotal evidence, which is notoriously inadequate. It is impossible for one person to experience the extent of child abuse in such vastly expansive countries like the US and Russia. 

On top of that, it's unfair to compare biological parents to adoptive parents. Adopters have been selected by social worker as being eminently suitable to take care of children, while no such selection takes place before child-birth. Even though we know very little about the efficacy of this selection procedure, we do know that it partially weeds out alcoholism as one of the most notorious of all causes of child abuse.


When comparing abuse cases

I'm sorry... I have a problem with the following observation made by a person compelled to compare abuse cases:

I am originally from Russia and believe me, children there are abused worse than in USA. Most of the Russian children adopted by US citizens find loving and caring families. But unfortunately not all of them are lucky , and it is so bad that little tiny Nina ended up beaten to death.

First, are you comparing biologic parental abuse to adoptive parental abuse?  Because if you are, I have to say, as far am I'm concerned, these types of abuse-situations are two very different things, representing very different problems children in-care have to deal with.  As such, I strongly believe the two types of abuse should never be compared. 

Second, I fail to see what can be worse than say, an adoptive mother chopping two of her adopted children up into pieces small enough to fit into a freezer.  However, I will admit,  head trauma, genital mutilation, and unwanted tooth loss is pretty bad, too.  Neither are situations any child, adopted or not, would want to endure.

But my point is, both cases represent one in the same: abuse in a domestic adoption.

The first case happens to be an example of abuse in American adoptive home.

The second case is an example of abuse in a Russian home.

More, not all, can be found here:  Adoptee abuse cases per sending country.  Feel free to make your own comparisons.  Warning: the reading can get sickening. 

Given the fact there is no formal study given to abuse in the adoptive home, and there is no regulated mandatory monitoring of adoptive parents, for the sake of the adopted child, no one can say with any real certainly which country has the worst, most abusive adoptive parents.  That dubious honor has yet to be determined, but so far, according to researched/confirmed media reports, the USA ain't lookin so great.

While I don't want to sound too harsh and critical, I do feel it  would be more helpful for readers if respondants compared apples to apples, and not say apples are worse (or better) than oranges.  Comparing like-parents would only be fair.

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