Case reveals course of troubled child

Date: 2008-03-30
Source: stltoday.com

Nancy Cambria
ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH

EDWARDSVILLE — The mother said her daughter hid the steak knives everywhere: under sofa cushions, in the folds of curtains, between mattresses, in the piano bench, the dog's toy basket.

She found them about the same time her teenager — once a tiny 3-year-old they adopted from a Panamanian orphanage — carved an obscenity in her wrist and concealed the wound under a sweatband laced with safety pins.

The girl harbored other secrets. Kathy Rhoten of Edwardsville, said she realized that her daughter, then 13, had been hoarding hundreds of pins and needles in her pillowcases, threading them in the hems of her clothes and lining her pockets.

"You name it, if it had a sharp edge, I found it hidden in my house," said Rhoten, who coped with her daughter's increasing disobedience and rages: lashing out with fingernails, pricking herself and classmates with tacks, stealing and lying. Rhoten had already packed up boxes of gifts and heirlooms because her daughter was destroying them during arguments. Her daughter poured cleaning chemicals on carpets and loosened the slats on the ceiling fan, causing one to fly, Rhoten said.

"We were frightened, very frightened," Rhoten said.

Kathy Rhoten is telling her story from her Clayton attorney's office because she and her husband Steve Rhoten were indicted in December on two counts each of criminal restraint by a Madison County grand jury. Prosecutors say about a year ago, Steve Rhoten, with his wife nearby, used zip ties to restrain their daughter. The charges led to their daughter being placed in foster care, where she remains.

The Post-Dispatch is not naming the daughter because it typically does not identify children in foster care. Kathy Rhoten's attorney also requested that the name not be used.

Kathy Rhoten said her husband resorted to the ties to keep his daughter from going into her bedroom where they were certain she'd hidden a knife to cut herself again. First he tied her wrist to his belt, and they sat down at the computer for homework, Rhoten said. Later he tied her to a sofa as the family watched television. Rhoten said they should have taken the bedroom door off its hinges.

"We didn't do it to punish her," she said. "We did it to protect her."

Steve Rhoten, a computer consultant, declined to be interviewed for this story on the advice of his own attorney. RELATED LINKS

Investigator Dennis Gunderson of the Edwardsville police department said that, regardless of the motive, the act was criminal and deserved the scrutiny of a judge and jury.

"Anytime you lash someone to something, it may not be physical abuse, but it's also a mental thing," he said.

Although the investigation is ongoing, Gunderson said he had found no other signs of abuse by the Rhotens — just extreme disciplinary actions that put the parent's actions into question. Those include their cutting electricity to the child's room at bedtime — a move, Kathy Rhoten said, to prevent her from staying up all night on the Internet.

"They do not understand what it's like to raise a child like this," Rhoten said. "People just don't get it."

Ronald Federici, a neuropsychologist specializing in foreign adopted children, said the Rhotens' story was becoming more and more common these days: Kids suffering from early trauma and neglect behave in ways that push their parents to the brink.

"The parents have no help, no support, no training," he said. "They go in there with typical, normal parenting skills and the kids reject that. The parents start getting out of control and look for ways to restrain and contain the kids," said Federici, who has testified nationwide in abuse and murder trials of parents who adopted from orphanages.

Federici knows of at least 16 murders in such families. And there are other tragedies: In North Dakota, a boy adopted from Russia stands accused of murdering his sister.

The Rhotens' lives quickly unravelled eight months after prosecutors said they used the ties. That's when police and a child welfare investigator came knocking. Rhoten said the investigation was triggered by an abuse hot line call the state received just days after the Rhotens forbade their daughter from meeting her boyfriend at a local skating rink.

Ralph Turner, an investigator with the Illinois Division of Child and Family Services, declined to discuss the case. The Madison County State's Attorney Office, also declined to comment.

After the hot line complaint, Steve Rhoten was ordered by children's services to leave the house. A month later they learned of the grand jury decision when a reporter came to their door. The parents pleaded not guilty to the charges, which carry a maximum three-year prison sentence, though probation is more likely.

Their daughter was taken into state custody. Kathy Rhoten was placed on a paid suspension from her job as a special education teacher.

"She had total control over our house," Rhoten said of her daughter.

Yet despite their anguish, the Rhotens are certain of one thing: They want her back.

"She's our daughter. We love her," Kathy Rhoten said. "We're not going to give up on her yet. She doesn't have anyone else, and it's not her fault."

LOVE CAN'T HEAL ALL

The Rhotens already had a son. But they were unable to conceive again. They wanted a second child so badly they say they paid an attorney $25,000 and flew a rickety plane into a hilly rainforest village of corrugated metal shacks. They met the 23-pound girl in the lobby of a stucco orphanage with bars on its windows. She held a doll. She was wearing a dress.

The Rhotens saw signs of neglect and trauma, they say. When authorities allowed the parents to return a month later, the girl's jet black hair had turned white with lice. The doll and dress were gone. Later, in Panama City, they realized she spoke no formal language, just a torrent of obscenities, they say.

The Rhotens are not the only ones to make these jarring journeys to orphanages in search of a child to raise and love.

Between 1989 and 2005 the U.S. Department of Homeland Security counted more than 234,000 children adopted by Americans from foreign countries, most from China, Russia, Eastern European nations and Guatemala. A great majority of these adoptions, particularly those from China, result in happy outcomes and families who overcome early obstacles to raise thriving children.

"Our family has been made complete by our daughter," said Jan Wondra, mother of Katie, 16, a blond, blue-eyed girl she and her husband adopted from Russia when she was 3.

This seemed to be the case for the Rhotens. Members of the First Presbyterian Church of Edwardsville said the little girl, though a challenge, had become a loved and active member of its Sunday school. By second grade she wrote a book about her adoption with crayon illustrations.

"One day a lady and a man from the United States came to the orphanage," she wrote under a drawing of two smiling adults beside an emerald mountain, tulips at their feet. "They wanted to adopt a sweet little girl. ..."

But she, like many of these children, has been diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder. That diagnosis did not come until October 2007, about eight months after the daughter first cut herself and the parents used the restraints, Kathy Rhoten said.

Reactive Attachment Disorder is an affliction of orphanage children who spent their time as babies and toddlers mostly alone in cribs with few, if any, caregivers to comfort, hold or speak to them. Prior to the diagnosis, the family did not seek professional help and felt they could deal with their daughter's numerous bizarre behaviors on their own. They attributed their daughter's actions to her orphanage experiences, the influence of some of her friends and an earlier childhood diagnosis of attention deficit disorder.

The Rhotens suspect that, like many children with reactive attachment disorder, their daughter also suffered from abuse and neglect prior to even being put in the orphanage. Many children like their daughter also suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome and other undiagnosed disorders.

Some, like St. Charles resident Lisa Markel's then 5-year-old daughter, had never left a room in her remote Romanian orphanage until the day she met her parents.

Markel said she realized her daughter, now 12 and making headway with her attachment issues, wasn't being shy the day she met her new mother and refused to look at her or speak: It was terror.

Therapist Shirley Crenshaw, who works with area families — most recently Steve and Kathy Rhoten — said these children lacked the hard-wiring to connect with those who loved them. Brain scans reveal limited activity in the area associated with bonding.

With an excess of stress hormones in their bodies, they exist mostly in a state of "flight or fight" and use conflict to cope, she said. They often vent their rage at their adoptive mothers to split the family and gain control.

Mothers of these children recently met at a coffee house in Chesterfield for a support group. They've dealt with everything from school problems to feces smeared on the walls to glass under pillows.

From their purses they proudly brought out holiday card photos: They show poised children beaming for the camera. But the parents said those smiles were often saved for strangers.

"What they're doing is mommy shopping," Crenshaw said. "They're looking everywhere because they do not trust these parents to keep them."

Many parents have been ostracized by relatives because they didn't understand the hard-line parenting and other methods recommended by therapists to deal with their kids.

"I went from being a respected officer of a well known firm and a hero for adopting children from an orphanage to a bad parent," said Lynda Baker at a support meeting.

Some families also have been mistakenly reported to child welfare because people sometimes hear the rages and suspect abuse.

Lake Saint Louis resident Sandy Davis, local chapter head of Families For Russian and Ukrainian Adoption, said families had drained their bank accounts to find effective therapies. Without help, she's seen families crumble.

Some parents give up and place the child up for adoption or commit their child to the state — or return him or her to the foreign country, basically putting the child out on the street, said Thomas DiFilipo, chief executive of the Joint Council on International Children's Services.

An official with the U.S. State Department said it had no reliable statistics on the outcomes of intercountry adoptions. Officials don't know how many are disrupted. Most states, including Missouri and Illinois, don't track whether foster children are foreign adoptees.

When adoptions fail, Davis said, the children are re-traumatized, increasing their odds for institutionalization — or prison.

BITTERSWEET REUNION

The Rhotens continue to wait for their daughter's return — often on a wood bench outside the family court in Edwardsville. Friends are writing letters in support.

Instead of being forced to spend money on lawyers, the Rhotens "need to be spending their money on getting help for this child," said Peggy Lambdin, their daughter's former Sunday school teacher.

Kathy Rhoten's attorney Jack Spooner said he was optimistic that a judge or jury would find that the Rhotens aren't criminals, "just a family who is in love with their daughter and doing basically what they needed to do to protect her."

Kathy Rhoten said they all hoped to participate in a bonding program in Ohio for Reactive Attachment Disorder.

But Rhoten said her daughter was ambivalent about coming home.

"She has no understanding of the consequences of what she's done," she said.

If her daughter does return, the parents will stow their kitchen knives in their bathroom because it has locks on both doors. Kathy Rhoten will resume her regular purge of her daughter's room of sharp objects, such as the glass paperweight she once found sharpened to a point.

"You never know, though," Rhoten said. "She could climb in the bathroom window. Nothing surprises us about her."

Nancy.Cambria@post-dispatch.com 314-340-8238

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