A dead child, a troubling defense
U.S. News & World Report
JULY 14, 1997
Section: U.S. News
Page: 24-26, 28
Renee Polreis says her son was fatefully scarred by his infancy in a Russian orphanage. Prosecutors say she killed him
Author: Miriam Horn
A small body, covered with cuts and bruises. A mother charged with child abuse resulting in her son's death. When 2-year-old David Polreis Jr. died, it seemed a familiar American tragedy, played out on the western edge of the Great Plains.
Seemed so, that is, until last May, when a Colorado district court judge agreed to allow David's mother, Renee Polreis, to offer an extraordinary defense. When her trial begins in Greeley July 14, defense attorney Harvey Steinberg will argue that because David spent his infancy severely neglected in a Russian orphanage, he suffered from a psychological syndrome called "attachment disorder" and inflicted upon himself the terrible bruising found on his buttocks, genitals, belly, and thighs; he died, the defense will contend, of natural causes. Prosecutors called the defense "pop psychology at best and voodoo at worst," but Judge Roger Klein ruled to allow it.
The outcome of the trial could affect at least two other cases. Last month, Richard and Karen Thorne of Phoenix, Ariz., were arrested at New York's Kennedy Airport on arrival from Moscow: Passengers and crew reported seeing the Thornes abuse the two 4-year-old Russian girls they had just adopted, striking them in the chest, face, and head with such force that the girls screamed and cowered throughout the flight. Adoptive parents sympathetic to the Thornes speculate that the girls have attachment disorder and were impossible to control. In Rubonia, Fla., Joseph and Heather Ciambrone are in jail awaiting trial on charges they murdered their 7-year-old adopted son Lucas, who died weighing 27 pounds. The parents claim he refused food, another attachment disorder symptom, and broke his own ribs in a rage.
Indelible scars? More broadly, the Polreis case will bring under scrutiny an intensely controversial diagnosis and therapy that is rapidly gaining acolytes across the nation. The label of "attachment disorder" has become increasingly common since a flood of adoptions from orphanages in Eastern Europe began in 1989; last year Romania and Russia accounted for more than a quarter of the 10,000 children Americans adopted abroad. Institutionalized children subjected to chronic physical and emotional neglect are the most likely, say attachment therapists, to develop symptoms of the disorder: an incapacity to form bonds of trust and love, coldness, even cruelty, to primary caregivers, indiscriminate affection for strangers, destructiveness without remorse, a gift for lying and manipulation, brutal self-abuse.
The Polreis story began in 1996, when the long-married, affluent couple--he is a vice president of ConAgra Red Meat Cos., she owns an electrolysis salon--decided to adopt a second son. (They had adopted an American child, Isaac, in 1992.) Through an agency called Rainbow House International they found a Russian boy: The video showed a blue-eyed, blond, plump-cheeked toddler romping with other kids. In July 1995, they flew to Moscow and drove to an orphanage in Tula, an uneasy trip for the devoutly Christian Renee, who feared adopting a child from "a bunch of atheists," her friends told police. (Renee Polreis, her defense attorney, and the members of her family declined to be interviewed by U.S. News.)
The couple brought David to their new split-level home in Greeley, cheerful with bird feeders and potted flowers. Set on a cul-de-sac in a neighborhood where children still play out of doors safe from harm, the Polreis home looks like the American dream, its tidy lawn shaded by a clump of aspen trees, a basketball hoop and Isaac's apple-green bike in the drive, the front door wide open on a warm summer's eve.
Renee worried on the trip back: David cried and vomited in the car, she complained to friends. But it wasn't until November that the situation deteriorated enough that Polreis sought therapy with psychologist Bryon Norton. David threw fierce tantrums, she told Norton. He spit on his brother, Isaac, dumped his food, refused to use the toilet, banged his head on the floor, and tugged at his penis until it bled. She feared that Isaac, a sweet-tempered boy, was becoming mean in self-defense. Renee's mother, Alice Risk, described similar behaviors to a Weld County social worker: David would stiffen and fall to the ground, striking his face or head. Norton said in a court hearing that Renee told him in January that David had bitten her finger so hard she'd had to pry his teeth apart with a sink drainer. His face terrified her: He looked like a demon, she said, and seemed gleeful at her pain. Norton watched David play with a dollhouse, stuffing it full of toy soldiers, then shaking them out the windows and throwing them in the trash. "He's telling us how bad the orphanage was . . . the feeling inside of himself, that he's no good, trash," Norton told Renee. His diagnosis: attachment disorder.
Northern Colorado is the nation's center for the treatment of attachment disorder. Norton himself trained with Dr. Foster Cline of the Attachment Center at Evergreen, the most well-known purveyor of attachment disorder diagnoses and therapies. According to statements given to police by Polreis's friends, Norton told her that David's chances of developing a happy bond with the family were slight and that he might well be dangerous and grow up to be a criminal like serial killer Ted Bundy. In the attachment disorder support group Polreis joined, she heard parents tell how they locked their bedroom doors each night, fearing for their lives. Polreis talked of being so afraid of her son, friends reported to police investigators, that she feared that "if she ever started hitting David, she would not stop."
Norton denies ever telling Polreis that David would never bond or that he would be without morals or conscience. "I even told her not to read the literature, like High Risk: Children Without a Conscience [the bestselling book on attachment disorder], which is very, very scary." In fact, Norton testified, he had seen marked improvement at each session with David. He had seen the toddler hand his mother a baby bottle and climb into her arms to be fed. In their final session the boy had rolled into his mother's lap, held her face, and kissed it all around. "When that happened, Mrs. Polreis got a little rigid, and that concerned me," Norton told the court. Polreis asked for medication for depression and stress. Norton asked to see her by herself, but she never came back.
"A happy guy." Workers at the day-care center David attended also reported that he was a loving child. He became terribly upset when his mother left (a sign of strong bonding, according to attachment theory). And when his parents came to pick him up, says owner Sandy Bright, "he would be so excited to see them he could hardly stand it." Though he didn't speak much English, "he understood and responded so well to what we asked him to do. He was just a happy little guy." Day-care staff members said they never saw any bruising on David nor observed any self-destructive behaviors. Bright describes Renee as "a mother who cared deeply about her children. She would often visit with me for 20 minutes, wanting to know how the boys' day had gone." David's father was equally loving, running and playing with the kids. "I used to watch them," says Bright, "and think 'what a fortunate child.' " Renee still brings her other son, Isaac, to the center and seems to Bright totally unchanged. "She's at peace; she shows no anguish, which I believe is because of her faith. Her theology makes it easy to dismiss what happened. She believes that David is in a better place."
When Polreis goes on trial, the defense will suggest that David behaved so well at the day-care center because it resembled his Russian orphanage. Her attorney will also argue that often only the primary caregiver sees an unattached child's worst behaviors. Cline, Norton's teacher, describes "unattached children" as almost diabolically deceptive, ". . . like the psychopathic adults they become, [they] have an uncanny ability to appear attractive, bright, loving. These manipulative, intelligent children twist things so that the parent may even be accused of child abuse." Even Renee's husband saw no serious problem with his younger son; when Renee wanted to give David up and learned of an Albuquerque couple eager to adopt him, friends told police, her husband said no.
On Friday, February 9, David Polreis Sr. left for a short trip to Houston, leaving his wife alone all weekend with the boys for the first time. To ease her daughter's burden, Renee's mother took Isaac to stay with her at her nearby home. At 4 a.m. on Saturday, Renee called her brother Kevin Risk and their mother and told them David had been sleeping with her when he began choking. They hurried over, they later told police, and found Renee giving mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to David, who had brown liquid seeping from his nose. Renee also called a friend, Kathy Teal, and asked her to come over. She then phoned Norton and another therapist: Both later told an investigator that Renee admitted to them that she had hurt David. When Norton got the call, he dialed 911.
Finally, at 4:17 a.m., Renee herself called for an ambulance. When the paramedics got to the house, they found only Teal with the boy, who was lying on his back on the bathroom floor, wearing red-and-blue pajamas with plastic feet. When they opened his pajamas, they asked about his cuts and bruises. Teal told them that he was an unattached child. Medic Curt Walter told police that everyone in the house was strangely calm.
David was taken to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley. The 23-pound boy was bruised over 90 percent of his body, the worst of it on his genitals: His testicles were swollen to the size of plums. His condition was so grave he was flown to Children's Hospital in Denver to be treated by a trauma team specializing in child abuse. Dr. Emily Dobyns told police that David had finger marks on his arms, blistered buttocks, and linear cuts on his abdomen, as if struck with a straight-edged object. She called it "one of the worst beatings" she had ever seen. An autopsy found massive generalized blunt trauma, causing respiratory arrest and brain death. A police officer scraped David's fingernails for signs of struggle; he noted they "were very clean and well groomed."
Renee's brother Kevin went to the hospital. So did her husband, after rushing back from Houston. He could be heard, a police officer reported, sobbing uncontrollably in his dead son's room. Renee stayed away: She was "hospital phobic," she told the police, and was too busy finding a lawyer. Later that morning, when she refused to let officers into her home, they got a warrant. Their search turned up two broken wooden spoons and bloodied diapers in the kitchen trash. On the counter they found the wooden handle of a rubber spatula, spattered with what DNA testing reportedly showed was David's blood. When police interviewed Kevin, he told them he had seen Renee discipline Isaac by making him stand by the toilet and drop his pants. She would swat him with a wooden spoon and say a prayer.
Cain and Abel.
Polreis was arrested the next day but was freed when her husband posted the $80,000 cash bond. She sat in the front row at David's memorial service at St. Paul's Congregational Church. Mourners were invited to make out checks to the Attachment Center at Evergreen. Renee has continued to attend St. Paul's every Sunday. Late last month, just a few weeks before her trial was to begin, she waved excitedly and beamed with pride as Isaac sang in a children's program. Wearing a lavender dress, her black hair neatly bobbed, she listened serenely as Pastor Steven Oeffling delivered a sermon on Adam and Eve: "They were wonderful parents. And they had a good son named Abel. They also had a son named Cain, from the same home and parents, that caused this family great grief and pain."
It does not appear that the defense will argue that 2-year-old David killed himself: Experts will say that he died from a lung infection, which also caused a breakdown of his blood coagulation system, adding to the bruising. But they have secured materials from the Parents' Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child (PNPIC) on suicidal behavior in preschoolers, including studies by Cornell University Medical School child psychiatrist Cynthia Pfeffer, who believes "it is plausible that a child of 3 would commit suicide. We've seen kids that young who've jumped out of windows, tried to hang themselves, burned themselves."
What the defense will find easy to prove is that institutionalization can be horribly damaging. In the 1940s and '50s, landmark studies by British psychiatrist John Bowlby and American psychologist Mary Ainsworth demonstrated the devastating effects on children of institutional care, studies that led to the closure of most U.S. orphanages. Since then, a growing body of research has shown that the physical and emotional deprivations of institutionalization can cause deficits in brain development and altered brain chemistry--though what is perhaps more remarkable is that the vast majority are not badly damaged.
Attachment disorders derive from the disconnect between need and gratification: In the worst facilities, crying brought no response, hunger brought no food. 'The [damaged] kids effectively spent years in a gulag," says PNPIC head Thais Tepper. "It's like Lord of the Flies: The ruthless ones got fed; the weak died." Tepper describes how hopeless she felt about her own son, a Romanian Gypsy, when at 28 months he was not talking and seemed autistic. "After four years of infertility treatments, here I had a kid who couldn't stand me. He was hypersensitive to touch. If I tried to bathe him or brush his hair, he screamed and arched his back or threw up. Everything in this world was an enemy." Tepper quit her job and dedicated herself to finding the proper treatment for her son. "What we heard for years is that all they need is love and care. Then you find yourself spitting back, screaming, 'Shut up. I hate you.' "
Yet if it is well documented that neglect in infancy can cause severe damage to a child, the eagerness with which many therapists have seized upon the diagnosis is worrisome to researchers, who feel the label is being applied to adopted children too quickly and much too frequently. They are alarmed, for example, that many clinicians who claim expertise in treating the disorder have rejected the definition used in the official Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM IV) as inadequate, asserting that it fails to include many symptoms. Among those left out, author Ken Magid asserts in High Risk, are "viciousness to pets and devil worship." University of California--Davis Prof. Phillip Shaver, who is editing a handbook on attachment theory and research, says that "most of what is written about attachment disorder is by clinicians who don't know much about the research or much about the theory. Attachment disorder is a vague term that's become very popular to the dismay of those who work in serious science."
Still more disturbing is the nature of therapies some clinicians employ--treatment for which worried parents often pay thousands of dollars. In "holding" or "rage reduction" therapy, four or five adults forcibly hold down a child, sometimes swaddled in a blanket, arms pinned to his sides in an "angel wrap." He is then provoked into a rage: The therapist or parent jabs at the child's ribs, presses a fist or elbow into his abdomen, shakes him, pours water in his face, taunts him, and shouts. Then the adult professes love. Children subjected to this treatment scream in pain, plead for mercy, and are praised for "getting out all the bad feelings of childhood" and "capitulating . . . acknowledging who is boss." Michael Pines, a psychologist at the Association for the Treatment and Training in the Attachment of Children, has said that "for kids with severe symptoms, the interventions need to be intrusive and confrontational. . . . Making the child acknowledge his rage is key to healing." Paula Pickle, executive director of the Evergreen attachment center, describes it as "revisiting the trauma so the child can work it out a different way." She also describes a therapy designed to access "traumatic memories stored in sensory motor memory by going back to that development stage"; the therapist "regresses" the patient to his first year by holding him across the lap like an infant.
Advocates say holding therapy "forces a kid to be trusting." Some boast that it is like an exorcism: "The child enters with the devil inside him," writes Magid, "and then emerges at the end of the therapy as a loving individual." Some children who go through the therapy do grow docile. Other times, Pickle says, nothing works, and "we tell parents their kid will never be capable of attachment. Parents suffer from post-traumatic stress and tend to minimize the problems."
Critics of these therapies call them a barbaric form of brainwashing. For a child previously restrained or abused, says Peter Fraenkel, director of research at New York's Ackerman Institute for the Family, such therapy risks "re-enacting the abuse and retraumatizing the child." He adds that "the idea that you can age-regress someone has never been established." Beverly James, author of the Handbook for Treatment of Attachment-Trauma Problems in Children, believes that the only bond formed by holding therapy is a trauma bond, like that hostages feel for their captors. If the kids succumb, she says, it is out of terror rather than love. Therapist Byron Norton used holding therapy on his own adopted son but later rejected it, turning instead to the "play therapy" he used with David Polreis. "My philosophy was less controlling than that model," he says. As for the efficacy of these therapies: The Attachment Center Web site has a "research" page, which offers just one study speaking to their effectiveness, the doctoral dissertation of a student at the Professional School of Psychology in Sacramento.
The brutal nature of holding therapy was tragically proved last January, when Donald Lee Tibbets, 37, a nurse from Midvale, Utah, was sentenced to up to five years in prison for the July 1996 murder of his 3-year-old adopted daughter, Krystal. He killed her using the therapy to cure her attachment disorder, said to have been caused by abuse in her biological home and frequent moves to different foster homes. The therapy, he testified, involved pinning the 35-pound girl to the ground with his body and pressing his fist into her abdomen to evoke and release her pent-up rage. Even when another foster child told Tibbets that Krystal was turning blue and "looked dead," he continued. Defense Attorney Ed Brass told the court that Tibbets had been taught that the child's loss of consciousness was normal "dissociation" and that she would revive; she died "because Tibbets loved her so much and believed so much in the therapy." He also noted that holding therapy had been recommended by the Utah Division of Family Services when Krystal was adopted.
That kind of official sanction is not uncommon. Weld County, where the Polreises live, just received its second federal grant to teach local health workers about attachment disorder. County Public Health Director John Pickle contracted with his wife, Paula, and the Attachment Center at Evergreen to do the training; he also helped establish support groups for parents of unattached kids. In Fairfax, Va., the county Department of Social Services also has a federal grant--$300,000 from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services--to send local care providers for training in Evergreen. High Risk has a foreword by former Colorado Rep. Pat Schroeder, who thanks the authors for their "gift" at a time when inadequate day care, rising divorce rates, and teen pregnancy threaten to inflate the numbers of unattached kids.
A cartoon in the book Schroeder promotes depicts a spectrum of well-being: from the securely attached like "Mother Teresa," illustrated with a haloed saint holding a cross, to the severely unattached like "Charles Manson," depicted as a horned devil holding a bloody knife. Paula Pickle says of the kids her center treats that "there often doesn't seem to be a heart or soul." Tepper explains in chilling terms the effort by Russian orphanages to get rid of their most troubled charges: "Who are you going to send abroad, the healthy kids or the little minions of Satan? Don't be fooled. Just because a kid is 3 doesn't mean he can't be an abuser." These views are not just espoused by an eccentric fringe. A caller to the Children's Defense Fund is referred to the Attachment Disorder Parents' Network in Boulder, Colo. President Gail Trenberth says that she could completely relate to Renee Polreis, and that many of the 600 parents in her network have said, "Oh, my God, that so easily could have been me."
Those closest to Renee Polreis use similar language: Her friend Tracy Kimsey, whose three foster children, she says, all have attachment disorder, believes that "you can't be lenient. You can't give an inch. Ever." Colorado Adoption Center Director Julie Haralson, who assessed the Polreises as parents, considers a week long enough to tell that a kid is severely unattached and says she has "never seen such a kid improve." In interviews with the police, she repeatedly called David that "crazy unattached kid" and added, "sometimes these crazy kids just up and die." She calls the Polreis story a tragedy. "You have this totally wonderful family who gets this totally crazy kid, and it ruins their life."
Deputy District Attorney Todd Taylor, a 32-year-old Greeley native with two sons, ages 2 and 7, has been prosecuting child abuse cases for many years. David Polreis's death and the responses it stirred have deeply disturbed him. After the trial is over, he says, he will resign.
Pictures: On trial. Renee Polreis (here with husband, David Sr.) faces charges in the death of her adopted son. (Photo illustrations by Doug Stern and Rob Cady--USN&WR); Photograph George Kochaniec--Rocky Mountain News:
Picture: Fear in flying. Richard and Karen Thorne are accused of beating their two newly adopted Russian girls on the flight back from Moscow. (David Karp--AP)
Picture: First years. The Polreises adopted David from this Tula orphanage. (Jeremy Nicholl--Matrix for USN&WR)