'Still our son in our hearts'; Couple agonize as they cut ties with troubled, adopted boy

Date: 2004-07-09

Grand Rapids Press, The (MI)
Author: John Agar / The Grand Rapids Press

HOLLAND TWP. -- Holly Meyers doesn't know what she will do with her son's bedroom, or the toys he left behind a year ago when he entered a residential-treatment center.

She thought he might want his belongings when he is placed in a local foster home. But, as she and her husband, David, on Thursday formally severed rights to the 10-year-old, she wondered how much of his past he should keep.

His past has already haunted his young life.

The Holland Township couple adopted their Romania-born son three years ago, after adopting a baby girl from Russia.

They expected some troubles with their son, who grew up in an orphanage tied to his crib the first two years. But they never imagined the extent of his problems.

He was diagnosed with reactive-attachment disorder, or RAD, a condition caused by his lack of bonding with an adult in his early years. This surfaced after he brutalized his sister, and told investigators he planned to kill his sister and mother.

The parents blamed RAD for their son's troubles, and asked an Ottawa County Family Court judge to send him to Villa Santa Maria in New Mexico, one of only a handful of residential centers in the country devoted to RAD, for a two-year stay.

They planned to take him back, but midway through his treatment, they learned he had mental illness, and realized he posed too great a danger to their daughter. Experts say RAD children generally should not be in homes with younger children.

The Meyerses asked the judge, Mark Feyen, to sever their rights. They wept Thursday as they signed the papers.

"He's still our son in our hearts," she told her husband outside of court. "I still feel like his 'Mamika.'"

The judge, who made the child a ward of the court, said efforts were under way to place the boy as soon as possible in a specialized foster home with no younger children. The boy then would receive outpatient treatment.

Attorney David Zessin, representing the parents, asked the judge to place the boy outside Ottawa County, to reduce the chance of inadvertent contact between the boy and the Meyers's daughter. But the judge said placing the boy in Ottawa County, with 235,000 residents, "doesn't create a huge danger for her."

He said, however, that court workers could look to other counties, too, for placement.

Sandi Metcalf, the assistant juvenile services director, said he should remain at Villa Santa Maria until a foster family is found to ease trauma during the transition. She recently visited the New Mexico center.

"He is very attached to that environment," she said.

Counselors at the center said the boy -- described as charming, personable and charismatic -- did not appear to be a "typical perpetrator" of sex crimes. He has no fascination with setting fires, which occurs among some.

Because of his history, he is watched closely, but "at this time, they do not see him as a threat to other children," she told the judge. Counselors said the boy "has a lot of remorse and talked a lot about concern for his sister, and that he has shown to be a rather sensitive young man," Metcalf said.

The Meyerses are hopeful he has a chance at success, but are worried: RAD children focus on survival, and are remarkable manipulators.

Feyen took the unusual step of sending the boy last year to the New Mexico center at a cost of $219,000 a year. He did so only because the parents vowed to be there for their son at the end. But the parents learned this spring that their son had mental illness, including hearing voices, which prompted psychiatrists and counselors to say he posed too great a risk to their daughter if returned.

The couple said this was the best solution. Holly Meyers thanked the judge.

"I know you made a difficult decision (to send the boy to Villa Santa Maria) against others' opinions but (the decision) was in the best interests of our family," she said.

She and her husband are working to educate others about RAD, which essentially leaves children with severe cases without a conscience. They think training should be required when adopting children from other parts of the world, particularly those growing up in orphanages.

"We want to lead the way so there are things put in place to help families so it doesn't result in this," she said.

Her husband said adoptive families should "just assume there are going to be problems," and learn about attachment issues. They still support international adoptions.

"These kids need to get out of orphanages," he said.

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