Woman Sentenced to 22 Years in Death of Adopted Son

Date: 1997-09-23
Source: nytimes.com

Woman Sentenced to 22 Years in Death of Adopted Son

By KATHARINE Q. SEELYE

Four years ago, Renee and David Polreis adopted a baby boy, Isaac. The affluent couple had such a good experience that they wanted their son to have a brother. In August 1995, after giving up on another domestic adoption because of what seemed like endless red tape, they flew to Russia and adopted a blond, blue-eyed boy they named David.

Six months later, David was dead, with deep bruises all over his body.

Mrs. Polreis was charged with child abuse resulting in the death. What set her case apart was her defense. In a legal first, her lawyers argued that David, who was 2 years and 10 months old, suffered from a rare illness called reactive attachment disorder that may have led him to inflict his own injuries, which in turn led to his death.

The prosecution branded this defense ''voodoo'' and said Mrs. Polreis, 44, was guilty of clear-cut child abuse. After a two-week trial in July, a jury here in the high plains of northeast Colorado convicted her in just two hours. She did not testify in her own defense and her husband, mother and brother were witnesses for the prosecution.

Today Mrs. Polreis, who said she was appealing the verdict, was sentenced to 22 years in prison. Under Colorado law, she faced between 16 and 48 years.

Handcuffs were clamped on her and she was led away to jail after Judge Roger A. Klein of Weld County District Court denied her request to remain free on appeal. She declined to make a statement, and noting that she had never expressed any remorse nor had she explained what happened on the morning of Feb. 10, 1996, the day David died, the judge expressed amazement at the tricks the mind can play.

''You haven't accepted responsibility for this,'' he said, and he called her defense ''a classic case of blaming the victim.''

He said he believed that the boy suffered from reactive attachment disorder but that a civilized society ''cannot accept any less protection for its troubled children'' than for those who develop normally.

His sentence followed an emotional outburst by Mr. Polreis, who said that despite testifying for the prosecution, he believed his wife was convicted of a crime ''she didn't do.''

The case has touched off a debate among psychologists and adoption officials about a disorder that is increasingly being diagnosed as the number of foreign adoptions rise. Last year, Americans adopted 11,340 children from foreign countries, more than twice the number adopted two decades ago. While the vast majority appear to be successful, some bring turmoil that is only beginning to be acknowledged publicly.

Whatever happened here in Greeley, reactive attachment disorder is an illness recognized by the American Psychiatric Association. The disorder, in which a child cannot bond with a caregiver and frequently flies into fits of rage and destructive behavior, can be the result of an extended period of emotional deprivation in the early months of life.

There are no national figures on how common the disorder is, among adopted children from either foreign orphanages or American foster care. Thais Tepper, an adoptive mother who lives near Pittsburgh, has started a national network for parents of children with the disorder and says there are more than 2,000 members.

But promoters of international adoption insist that the Polreis case had nothing to do with the fact that David was adopted from a foreign country. And some psychologists say that although attachment issues are common among adoptees, reactive attachment disorder is overdiagnosed by therapists who offer expensive treatments to vulnerable families. In addition, it has become a handy catch-all for therapists seeking reimbursement for treatment from insurance companies.

Ms. Tepper cautioned that factors other than poor institutional care, such as fetal alcohol syndrome and low birth weight, may be a cause of the problems.

Psychologists say the illness can affect any child, but the full-blown disorder has been diagnosed most often in children from American foster care and foreign orphanages, particularly those in the former Soviet Union. Those children tend to be older when they are adopted and have spent more time in orphanages than children from, say, China, where it is easier to adopt infants.

Martha Sugar, a psychologist in Ravenna, Ohio, and an expert in attachment disorder, said that while there is never a justification for hurting a child, children with the disorder can throw a family into crisis.

''I had one case where a mother continually bought small hamsters and mice for the child to kill in the hopes the child would leave the family cat alone,'' she said. ''These children are so ill, they literally want people to hurt them and will push all the buttons possible to force that. Any parent who has a child like this becomes sick very quickly.''

David Polreis spent more than two years in an orphanage in Tula, Russia, 110 miles south of Moscow, after being abandoned by his 16-year-old mother. The Polreises told friends that he exhibited problems as soon as they were driving back to Moscow, when he started screaming and throwing up in the car.

Once home here, he threw himself on the concrete driveway and repeatedly banged his head against the floor and furniture. He urinated on people, throw his feces around the room and once bit his mother's finger to the bone. He spit in the face of his sleeping brother, Isaac, who is now 5.

Things became so bad that Mrs. Polreis tried to give him up -- and a couple in New Mexico was preparing to adopt him -- but her husband believed they had made a commitment and insisted they keep him.

In February 1996, two days after she called 911 to report that David was choking on his vomit and not breathing, Mrs. Polreis was charged with child abuse resulting in the death.

Byron Norton, a psychologist here and one of two therapists who treated the Polreises, testified at the trial that children with the disorder keep themselves in constant physical pain to ward off the larger emotional pain of rejection. They do not know how to bond, except beguilingly and passingly with strangers, he said. They almost never maintain eye contact.

In therapy, he said, David once jammed several toy soldiers into a doll house, then shook the doll house so that the soldiers fell out the windows. The boy picked up one soldier and said, ''No good, bad,'' and threw it in the wastebasket. Mr. Norton said that David was trying to convey what orphanage life was like and ''the feeling inside of him -- he's no good, he's worthless, he's trash, he should be discarded.''

The boy eventually began to make progress and to warm up to his mother, the therapist testified. In one session, he said, David kissed his mother all over her face, but Mrs. Polreis went rigid and did not respond.

Mrs. Polreis said in an interview broadcast Friday on the NBC news program ''Dateline'' that in that session, David was merely manipulating the therapist.

''I had spent an hour to an hour and a half cleaning David's poop off of the walls and the carpet to get to that appointment, and when we got there, that was one of David's cheesey displays,'' Mrs. Polreis said in her only interview since her arrest. ''He acted that out for Byron.''

She said that she wanted to give the boy up, telling her husband, ''I can't fix him, he was broken when we got him, and I don't have whatever it takes to get him the help he needs.''

David caused severe stress in the marriage. Mr. Polreis, an executive at a local meat-packing plant, said in the NBC interview that he had been ''denying'' the boy's behavioral problems. He said he often went golfing instead of helping his wife, who owned an electrolysis business, and wanted to keep the boy even when his wife said she had reached her limit.

''I felt no different about David being adopted than if he was our own child,'' Mr. Polreis said.

They changed therapists and then went on vacation without him -- a sequence of events that some of Mrs. Polreis's supporters say led the boy to an apocalyptic fear of abandonment and produced in him a rage like no other. Mrs. Polreis's lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, said today that the boy died of an infection that broke down the ability of his blood to coagulate and caused the blemishes that looked like bruises.

But several doctors testified that David had been severely beaten over most of his body, front and back. They also said the shapes of the bruises matched those of objects found in the home, including wooden spoons, a wooden spatula, a hairbrush and a hand mirror with traces of David's blood on them.

A friend of Mrs. Polreis's, Kathy Brown, testified that Mrs. Polreis had told her on the afternoon before he died: ''I just hate him. I can't deal with him anymore.''

Mr. Norton and the other therapist testified that at 4:30 on the morning of Feb. 10, 1996, when her son suffered the injuries that led to his death several hours later, Mrs. Polreis called them and said she had hurt him. ''I just lost it,'' she told one.

The jurors said later that they never believed the attachment disorder defense and thought a small child could not have injured himself so extensively.

Al Dominguez, the district attorney here in Weld County, said today that he believed attachment disorder was a real illness. But here, he said, the defense never proved that David had it. Nor had he ever heard of another case where a child had caused his own fatal injuries.

''I hope that this case has not minimized that disorder in any way,'' he said.

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