Parents sever ties with adopted son

Date: 2004-06-11

Grand Rapids Press, The (MI)

Parents sever ties with adopted son
The boy has a disorder that led him to abuse his sister, forcing the couple to choose between their children.

Author: John Agar / The Grand Rapids Press

OTTAWA COUNTY -- As their Romania-adopted son entered an intensive, two-year treatment program in New Mexico a year ago, his parents vowed to be there for him.

"There is no way I can let him go," Holly Meyers of Holland Township told a judge then. "He's my son, and I love him."

On Thursday, Meyers wept as her attorney told the judge she and her husband, David, had to sever parental rights. Their son, 10, who developed serious problems growing up in a Romanian orphanage, posed too great a risk to their 5-year-old daughter if returned to their home.

"It's very heart-wrenching," attorney David Zessin said after a hearing in Ottawa County Family Court. "They love this kid a lot. You're really choosing (between the children), and you don't want to."

Now, the parents, therapists, social workers and the judge -- who last year granted the parents' wish to place the boy at Villa Santa Maria at $300 a day -- have to figure out what to do next. He is halfway through his two-year stay at the New Mexico center, where he is being treated for severe reactive-attachment disorder, or RAD, caused by abuse and neglect in his early years in Romania.

In severe RAD cases, children who are neglected and abused after birth do not bond with a parent figure, and do not develop consciences.

Adopted in 2001, he came to the court's attention last year after he brutalized his sister. He told investigators he planned to kill her and his mother. Experts say such children eventually will commit crimes until they wind up in prison. That was the expectation in this case.

The New Mexico treatment program -- at county and state expense -- was approved as part of a plea agreement for the boy sexually assaulting his sister.

Like a lot of RAD children, he is very personable and charming, charismatic and manipulative. To an outsider, he would appear to have a very loving, close relationship with his parents.

Judge Mark Feyen ordered placement at Villa Santa Maria, one of three residential RAD centers in the country, only after assurances the parents would take him back.

On Thursday, he said the boy would be returned to Ottawa County for placement with foster parents, after he receives treatment, in the hope he would be adopted.

Doctors told the Meyerses the boy was a danger to their daughter. They recently learned the boy had psychotic episodes, including hearing voices.

"It's not safe for (the daughter)," said Leah Brouwers, who specializes in attachment and bonding therapy at The Therapy Clinic in Cascade Township.

"She's too traumatized. She would not be able to heal from post-traumatic stress disorder if the abuser was in the same house with her."

She spoke after the hearing; the Meyerses were too distraught.

She said the couple did everything they could to help their son. During the past year, the Meyerses spent about $45,000 for plane tickets and hotels to visit their son and are selling their house to cover the costs.

Finding placement in another home in West Michigan will be difficult, said Pat Verduin, the court's juvenile services director. The court will work with area public and private agencies to find a home with very committed foster parents, probably with no other children.

In a story that had hope one year ago, everything changed when recent reports raised additional concerns about the boy's mental health.

"The question is, what is the exit plan?" Zessin said. "How do we get from where we are now to eventually (the boy) being placed in another home?"

Therapists at the New Mexico center said by conference call in court the boy should stay for the remainder of treatment at the facility, where surroundings are familiar. Workers can help him through the grieving process.

"So I've got to find (foster parents) willing to drive to New Mexico" to meet regularly with the boy? Feyen asked the therapists.

"When you've got 2,000 miles separating you, that's very difficult to do," Feyen said.

Feyen set a hearing in four weeks. He wanted the Meyerses to tell the boy about the severance by then. He was not at Thursday's hearing.

Last year, the judge said he had to consider the cost of the treatment -- $219,000 for two years -- against the benefit for the boy as well as the community. Left untreated, the boy most likely would have been a danger to society.

Zessin said the case has taken an emotional and financial toll on his clients, as well as a cost to taxpayers.

He called for changes in adoption laws so agencies -- not parents or taxpayers -- cover the costs of treating damaged children. Children adopted from Romanian orphanages, where they receive little adult attention, are particularly susceptible, experts say. RAD children tend to focus on survival, but can be helped with intensive counseling.

The Illinois adoption agency that provided the boy for the Meyerses said the parents were told about the potential for attachment disorders. Zessin disputed that, and said no parent could have imagined such problems.

He said some agencies "take the $10,000 and they're out of it. That's what the social issue is. Now, we as American taxpayers have to fix the problem. That's not the fault of the Meyerses, that's the fault of the placing agency."

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