'No one listened to me'
Mother opposed Legler's adoption by Iarussi
The choice was one Rosa Pollard could not make.
It was a choice, she said, that no mother, anywhere, under any circumstance, should have to make.
But Rosa Pollard said she was asked to decide:
Which of her five children did she want to keep?
Which of her five children did she want to put up for adoption?
Pollard said she was unwilling to choose. She said she asked Erie County child-welfare workers to make the choice for her about five years ago.
"I couldn't do it," Pollard recalled. "I can't make that decision. I love all my children equally."
What happened next transformed Pollard's life and set in motion the series of events that culminated in the May 9 death of Pollard's oldest child, Brittany Pollard Legler. Police said the developmentally disabled 15-year-old was the victim of 17 months of physical abuse at the hands of her adoptive mother, Lisa M. Iarussi.
County child-welfare officials years earlier decided Legler was one of two children Pollard should put up for adoption, Pollard and others involved in the case said. They said the child-welfare officials, including those in the Erie County Office of Children and Youth, or OCY, pushed for Pollard to keep only three of her children because of concerns that Pollard, 36, a divorced single mother with mental disabilities of her own, lacked the means and abilities to care for all five of her children by herself.
OCY and ultimately a judge chose Legler's adoptive mother: Iarussi, a friend of Pollard's since high school. Pollard said she initially agreed with the selection of Iarussi, though she said that, toward the end of the adoption proceedings, she repeatedly objected to it.
"My client continues to be opposed to Brittany's permanent placement with Lisa Iarussi," Pollard's lawyer wrote to a judge in November 2000, as the adoption entered its final stage.
Legler's former foster mother previously told the Erie Times-News that she let people involved in the adoption know she also opposed having Iarussi adopt Legler and wanted Legler to stay in foster care. She said she was concerned because Legler's learning disability required special attention at home. One of Legler's teachers has described her as "borderline" mentally retarded with a low IQ. Pollard, who said she receives Supplemental Security Income for her mental disability, said Legler was receiving a monthly SSI check of $591.
Iarussi, 35, told the Erie Times-News she is also mentally disabled and receives benefits through SSI. She and Pollard said they became friends when they attended special-education classes together at Erie's Strong Vincent High School in the mid-1980s. Iarussi said she agreed to adopt Legler because she had helped care for her at times when Legler was younger.
Iarussi said that before the adoption she did not know the extent of Legler's mental disabilities.
"I thought I was getting involved with, like, a child, that she was just a little slow," Iarussi said in a recent telephone interview from the Erie County Prison. "I didn't know she was as bad off as she was. I didn't know she was fully mentally retarded.
"I feel guilty because I wasn't skilled to take care of her."
Iarussi remains in prison, unable to post $250,000 bond. She is awaiting a preliminary hearing, tentatively set for Wednesday, on the felonies of aggravated assault and endangering the welfare of a child and the misdemeanor of recklessly endangering another person. Investigators also are exploring whether a homicide charge is warranted.
Detectives and the coroner are considering the possibility that Legler suffered from a congenital heart defect. And they are looking into allegations that in the moments before Legler collapsed, Iarussi beat her with a hairbrush as she forced her to wrestle with Iarussi's 44-year-old female housemate on the floor of Iarussi's mobile home.
As the prosecution of Iarussi moves through the criminal-justice system, county officials have launched a confidential investigation into how OCY and other agencies handled Legler's case, including how OCY dealt with complaints that she was being abused. Millcreek Township school officials made repeated complaints about suspected abuse of Legler to OCY, according to the arrest warrant for Iarussi and information from school and law-enforcement officials.
OCY, which investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect, also has a separate department that handles adoptions of abused or neglected children that the courts rule dependent on the county's care. OCY was the agency most closely involved in Iarussi's adoption of Legler.
By all accounts, OCY and other county agencies were trying to make the best out of the already difficult circumstances surrounding Rosa Pollard and her children. But in the eyes of Pollard and her relatives, what OCY and the other child-welfare officials decided did nothing to improve the well-being of the one person who mattered most in the adoption proceedings: Brittany Legler.
"I told the judge that if she goes with Lisa, I would never see her again, and that's what happened," Pollard said.
"They failed me. They put my daughter somewhere where she was being abused."
The start: OCY gets involved
The case of Brittany Legler is complex. It involves a series of problems that accumulated in a way that eventually limited the options for the child-welfare workers seeking to place Legler in an adoptive home.
At the same time, according to court records and interviews, Rosa Pollard often found herself at odds with the child-welfare workers. Pollard's goal was to be reunified with all her children. Short of that, she said, she wanted the children placed with relatives in "open" adoptions, so she could at least visit them regularly.
Pollard said she came to see Iarussi as a threat to that goal.
"After the adoption," Pollard said, "it all went downhill."
Brittany Amanda Pollard was born March 15, 1989 — "7 pounds, 13 ounces and 21 and a half inches long," Rosa Pollard said without hesitating. Brittany took on the last name of Legler, Iarussi's maiden name, after she was adopted.
On March 23, 1989, Rosa Pollard, then Rosa Johnson, married Brittany Pollard's father, Robert Pollard. According to their marriage license, they were both unemployed at the time.
By 1996, the Pollards had six children. One of those children, a son born in 1992, was placed in the custody of Rosa Pollard's aunt shortly after he was born, according to court records. The aunt eventually adopted him.
By January 1999, the Office of Children and Youth had opened a case on the Pollards and placed the five remaining children in foster care, according to Rosa Pollard and court records. The records also show that by 1999 Rosa and Robert Pollard were living apart and had been involved in custody disputes with each other, including one in 1992. They were divorced in August 2001.
The available court records do not specify what prompted OCY to remove the children from the Pollard home. Robert Pollard, in an interview, blamed "bogus allegations," which he declined to specify but that he said unnamed family members made against him out of spite.
Rosa Pollard said OCY was concerned that she was unable to care for all the children on her own. She said she often lacked enough food to feed all her children, and at one point had only a box of macaroni and cheese for the five of them. Pollard said she was never accused of abuse.
With her children in foster care, Pollard said she worked toward getting reunified with them by enrolling in parenting programs at the Mercy Center for Women in Erie.
"There were some problems that I had," Pollard said, "some things that I had to work out."
Looking for a home
Pollard wanted to get all her children back, excluding the one son who had been placed in the custody of the aunt years earlier. But in 1999 and 2000, it appeared less likely that she would be reunified with all five children. Pollard said child-welfare workers told her she could keep no more than three, and that two would have to go up for adoption.
Pollard said she resisted having to make that choice. "I said it wasn't right for me to pick out the three children I wanted," she recalled.
OCY decided Legler and another daughter would go up for adoption, and that Pollard would keep two daughters and a son, Pollard said. She said she became resigned that Legler and the other daughter would go up for adoption, and that she made an effort to make sure they were placed with relatives.
The one daughter was adopted by Pollard's aunt, the same aunt who adopted one of Pollard's sons, according to court records. That left OCY to decide where to place Legler, Pollard said. She said that's when Iarussi became an option.
The adoption records for Legler are closed to the public, as are most adoption records. But two people involved in the adoption of Legler said Pollard's recollection of the events is consistent with what they remember. Those people asked not to be identified because of the pending criminal case against Iarussi.
Erie County President Judge William R. Cunningham said he presided over the final adoption hearing for Legler on Aug. 22, 2001, and that he signed the adoption order. Cunningham declined a request from the Erie Times-News to unseal the adoption records, saying he had to protect the privacy rights of people involved in the case.
Cunningham also declined to discuss the adoption case, citing a section of the Pennsylvania Code of Judicial Conduct that prohibits judges from commenting "about a pending proceeding in any court." Legler's adoption is no longer pending, but Cunningham said that comments on the adoption case could influence the pending criminal case against Iarussi.
Michael Cauley, the solicitor for OCY, said state-mandated confidentiality rules prevent the agency from commenting on the adoption.
Based on limited adoption records the Erie Times-News obtained from the Pollards, Legler's case entered the court system in 1999. In April 1999, Legler was ruled a dependent child, which means OCY became involved in her care. "Parents stipulated to dependency based on chronic neglect," said a June 9, 2000, report OCY sent to Erie County Judge Ernest J. DiSantis Jr., who handled some of the pre-adoption proceedings.
Legler was in foster care at the time, and OCY sought to place her in an adoptive home. The agency was limited in which family members might adopt Legler because of their financial constraints and other problems, said Pollard and her mother, Rose Burroughs.
Pollard said she wanted Legler to be adopted by her aunt, who already had two of her children. But she said OCY officials were concerned about whether the aunt and her husband had the means to care for another child. The aunt declined comment for this story.
With the options dwindling, Rosa Pollard said, she suggested that Lisa Iarussi adopt Legler. Pollard said she initially considered Iarussi a good choice because of their longstanding friendship.
In its June 9, 2000, report to DiSantis, OCY said visits between Legler and Iarussi had gone well.
"Brittany Pollard has had several weekend visits at the home of her prospective caretaker, Lisa Iarussi, and the events have been uneventful and positive for Brittany," according to the report.
While the adoption process moved forward, Pollard said, she grew concerned about Iarussi. She said Iarussi criticized her parenting skills at a pre-adoption meeting, and she said she got worried that Iarussi would not let her see Legler after the adoption.
Opposition to Iarussi
Pollard's concerns grew serious enough that her lawyer, Carol Morehouse, sent a letter to DiSantis on Nov. 22, 2000.
"My client continues to be opposed to Brittany's permanent placement with Lisa Iarussi," the letter said. "Although they have been friends for a long time, Lisa is not family and their relationship has become very strained in the past year. My client is seriously concerned that she may be cut off from any contact with Brittany if she remains in that home as a permanent placement.
"Additionally, I have spoken with (Pollard's aunt and uncle) who have offered themselves as a permanent placement for Brittany. You may recall that (they) are the family who already have two of the Pollard children in their household and they are willing to accept Brittany on a permanent basis."
Morehouse could not be reached for comment. DiSantis, in an interview, said he would have forwarded the letter to OCY, and that the letter would have been part of the official record of Legler's adoption. The notations on the letter show Morehouse had it copied to OCY.
DiSantis said the letter raised concerns about whether Pollard would get to see Legler rather than concerns about Iarussi's ability to care for Legler. He said that in "open" adoptions, in which the natural parents know who adopts a child, some natural parents want to continue to see the child.
"The letter does not raise a concern by the mother based upon the safety of the child, but the ability to visit the child once she was adopted," DiSantis said. "It is totally up to the adoptive parent as whether there can be contact with the child and the natural parents, in most cases."
Pollard said she did not recall attending a court hearing before DiSantis. She said she expressed her concerns about Iarussi's willingness to let her see Legler during a hearing before Judge Cunningham, who approved the adoption after the final hearing on Aug. 22, 2001.
"I expressed that opinion at the court hearing," Pollard said. "But no one listened to me."
Once the adoption was final, Rosa Pollard said, she spoke to her oldest daughter by phone but never again saw her in person. She said Iarussi refused her requests to visit.
"After three years, I have to see my daughter in a casket," Pollard said.
'My guardian angel'
Lisa Iarussi said she had nothing to do with the injuries to Brittany Legler, and she blamed the abuse on what she described as her former female lovers.
An autopsy revealed more than 200 bruises to Legler's body. Iarussi also said Legler, whom she said she knew since Legler was an infant, was anemic and bruised easily. She said she never realized how much work would be involved in caring for Legler.
"I was always told Brittany was slow," she said in the interview from prison. "I never knew she was mentally retarded. I never knew she was as totally bad as she was.
"I loved her and I bonded with her ever since she was 6 months old," Iarussi said. "Why would I start abusing her now?"
Rosa Pollard regularly sees her five children, including the two her aunt adopted. She said she gets plenty of help raising her three children from her mother and her relatives.
Pollard lives in a rented home in western Erie County, not far from her mother. Of the five surviving children, Pollard said: "Everybody is doing fine."
She and her mother helped build a memorial garden in her mother's yard for Brittany Legler. It includes a statue of an angel.
"I have three children," Pollard said. "I have to keep myself going for them. I've got a guardian angel in heaven. She is my guardian angel now."
Iarussi faced mental, financial issues
Rosa Pollard had to give up her oldest daughter for adoption because of financial and personal difficulties.
The daughter's adoptive mother, Lisa M. Iarussi, had financial and personal problems of her own.
According to court records, tax records and an interview with Iarussi, she suffers from a mental disability, has experienced chronic financial problems and has been in a series of broken romantic relationships with men and women.
Iarussi is facing three criminal charges that she abused her adoptive daughter, Brittany Pollard Legler, for 17 months until the 15-year-old's death May 9.
Many of Iarussi's problems developed before August 2001, when the Erie County Office of Children and Youth and the courts gave Iarussi final approval to adopt Pollard's oldest daughter, Brittany, who was developmentally disabled. Pollard wanted a relative to adopt Legler.
Mental difficulties — Iarussi and Pollard said they became friends while they attended special-education classes together at Erie's Strong Vincent High School in the mid-1980s.
Iarussi in an interview said she receives Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, for her disability. Asked to describe her mental disability, Iarussi said: "To be honest with you, I don't know. I am slow. I am just slow."
Personal problems — Court records show that Iarussi, 35, was married once, in 1986, when she was 17 years old. Her husband was 19 years old at the time. Iarussi's mother, who declined comment for this story, signed the marriage license to show she consented to the marriage because her daughter was younger than 18.
The marriage ended in divorce in September 2002, though Iarussi and her husband were estranged for an extended period of time prior to the divorce, based on Iarussi's comments.
The former husband declined comment for this story through a relative.
Iarussi in September 1995 had a daughter by another man, who now lives near Pittsburgh. He said in an interview that he saw Iarussi verbally abuse Legler but never witnessed physical abuse.
His daughter, now 8, had been living with Iarussi and Legler, but was placed in other care after Iarussi's arrest on May 19.
Iarussi, in a recent interview from the Erie County Prison, said she also had five previous women lovers, who she said were to blame for the abuse of Legler.
Iarussi said that, one by one, she kicked those women out of her mobile home at 554 Polito Drive in Millcreek Township, near Waldameer Park, because of the abuse.
Those women are cooperating with police, according to a search warrant in the case.
Financial problems — Iarussi said she has not worked in eight years. Tax records show she has been delinquent in her real-estate taxes since January 2001, and that she nearly lost her mobile home at a tax sale in August 2003. Iarussi avoided a sale by reaching an agreement to pay off the back taxes. Her outstanding balance was $643, according to the county Tax Claim Bureau.
Staff writer Jule Gardner contributed to this report.
ED PALATTELLA, can be reached at 870-1813 or by e-mail.