When love is not enough; Troubled 9-year-old will get help, but not without cost

Date: 2003-05-18

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

HOLLAND TWP. -- As they left the orphanage in Siberia four years ago with an infant daughter, David and Holly Meyers knew they would open their home to more children.

They were haunted by the looks of the older kids -- none older than 5 -- whose window for adoption had probably closed. Girls wiggled little fingers through the chain-link fence, then turned back to the playground as the family drove away.

"Both mine and Dave's heart just broke," Holly Meyers recalled.

They vowed to adopt an older child. On a church mission trip two years later, they found their son, a 7-year-old, in Romania. He had a horrible life to that point, tied to his crib his first two years.

But he was a charming, personable boy -- "delightful," his first-grade teacher said later -- with a smile that warmed hearts.

The Meyers family, who live near Zeeland, expected some problems. Their son had spent his first year in a hospital, then stayed in a state-run orphanage and foster homes where, he said, he was molested and beaten. The Meyerses knew they had a lot of love to give. What they didn't know, she said, glancing at her children's portraits above the mantel, was that it would not be enough.

"A lot of people go in thinking, 'Oh, this poor child, he just needs to be loved,'" Holly Meyers said. "Love is not enough once the damage has already been done."

At 9, the boy has repeatedly sexually assaulted his sister and threatened to kill her and their mother.

Now, an Ottawa County judge is wrestling with the thorny question of whether the boy's shot at a normal life -- one clinic claims an 80 percent success rate -- justifies the estimated $219,000 cost that would be borne by taxpayers.

Doctors say the boy has severe reactive-attachment disorder, or RAD, blamed on his lack of attachment as an infant and the abuse he suffered in later years. In essence, this little boy who likes to sit on his "momika's" lap while playfully twirling her hair, has no conscience.

The therapy cost could be a small price to pay: With proper treatment, experts say, he stands a good chance of recovery -- or, without it, as his mother says, the life of a sociopath.

"We can spend the money now to fix the problem, or pay when he victimizes or assaults somebody else," said attorney David Zessin, representing the parents.

If he isn't successfully treated, he is "certain to be a career criminal," Zessin said.

Mother's Day

Ottawa Family Court Judge Mark Feyen said he would decide this week if the boy should be placed in Villa Santa Maria, a 16-patient residential facility in New Mexico. Costs would be shared by the county and state Family Independence Agency.

A resource team -- comprised of mental health, school and social work professionals -- has studied the case. An Ottawa County prosecutor made the placement part of an agreement in which the boy pleaded guilty to gross indecency, reduced from first-degree criminal-sexual conduct. If the judge does not order such placement, the boy can revoke his plea.

"This situation is unique, and I think I can say that without abusing that word," Feyen said. It would be the first time Feyen, on the bench 14 years, has sent an offender to out-of-state placement.

After hearing the recommendation in court two weeks ago, Holly Meyers wept.

"There is hope for my son, and this is the best Mother's Day that I think any mother would ever have because my son has got hope for a future," she said.

The parents have been up front with their son, who thinks he has a "bad" heart. He knows about the placement: "It's not a heart surgery, they're going to take care of me," he told the judge.

The boy's parents, who sought several expert opinions, wanted him placed at Villa Santa Maria, one of three residential facilities in the nation devoted to RAD. His father took him there last week for testing, and he was accepted, court officials said.

It is the only option -- he can't stay with family and receive outpatient therapy because he poses too great a risk to his sister and mother, his family says.

William Russner, a clinical psychologist, said in a report that the boy showed no normal attachment to anyone, and perceives "everyone as a potential threat from whom he must protect himself."

Foster care "should be avoided, as he will require constant supervision and will likely not receive the intensive, daily treatment he requires."

The cost for a residential facility comes to $219,000 -- $300 a day, for two years. The daily cost is not out of line, but adds up with the length of stay, Villa Santa Maria officials said.

By comparison, court officials figure it costs $130 a day at the Ottawa County Juvenile Detention Center, where the boy could spend two or three months, then be placed in foster care, also at the county's expense. Experts say the high likelihood of future problems as an adult would entail additional public costs.

Family Court administrator Jack Plakke said the resource team looked at less-expensive options, too.

"If you pay huge amounts of money, you expect what you're paying for will pay off," Plakke said. "We're always struggling with these types of issues. We're not talking a few hundred dollars; we're talking hundreds for one day."

Holding therapy

The Meyerses' situation sounded "very common" to Nancy Thomas, a therapeutic parenting specialist in Colorado who has shared her home with troubled children for more than 25 years, and specialized in bonding and conscience development.

She has adopted two children with RAD. Both responded to treatment, which includes big doses of "holding therapy."

"My son, at 12, wanted to be Jeff Dahmer. He was fascinated. Now, he's graduated from high school, he's a loving, caring human being. He volunteers at Bible camp, and went to Hong Kong to work in the orphanages there. My son is going to be a good addition to society, rather than what he would've been."

Her daughter, a "cold, mean little 6-year-old when I got her," now plans to be a pediatric nurse.

Thomas, author of "When Love is Not Enough: A Guide to Parenting Children with RAD," said that too many families find out too late that the children need to get into therapy as soon as they arrive.

She said the Meyerses should not have adopted a RAD child with a younger child in the house, and that the adoption agency should have explained the risks. Parents have to watch such children "24 hours a day, every second of the day."

She said she has successfully treated children who have killed. Attachment disorder is a common thread of serial killers from Theodore Kaczynski to Ted Bundy, she said.

Beryl Davis, a psychologist who spent six years working for the California Department of Corrections, thinks the "vast majority" of prisoners had attachment disorders as children.

She said that RAD is sometimes missed by doctors; children can have other problems, too.

"If they have the appropriate treatment with people who really understand the disorder, the prognosis is anywhere from excellent to guarded," Davis said.

It is no surprise that some children coming from Romania are troubled. When dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was in power, he demanded women bear five children. When his reign ended, parents abandoned children, unable to afford them.

The Romanian government issued a moratorium on international adoptions soon after the Meyerses adopted their son in an effort to end corruption.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in 1999 issued 895 immigrant visas to Romanian orphans coming to the United States. In all, 16,396 adopted children came that year, most from Russia, China and South Korea. More than 50,000 children have been adopted in the United States from Eastern Europe since 1991.

Some say up to 80 percent of Romanian orphans older than 5 come here with some level of attachment disorder. Others put the figure far lower.

Thomas said any child can be helped. Adoptive parents just need to be prepared.

"We need to be careful we don't turn people away from adopting. Then, these children have no chance at all."

Pre- and post-adoptive counseling is important for parents, said Viki Vogli, community liaison for the Institute for Attachment & Child Development in Colorado.

"All they want to do is give a good home to kids, figuring love will conquer all," Vogli said. "Unfortunately, with these kids, it doesn't."

Her non-profit group says it has an 80-percent chance of turning RAD children around. That should give parents hope.

"A lot of these kids can be turned around. They're not bad seeds."

Bethany Christian Services, which was not involved in the Meyerses' placement, places 1,800 adoptive children a year, about half of them international.

The non-profit organization has ministries in 16 countries to help children and their parents. In Romania, Bethany works with mothers who are at risk of abandoning their children.

"There is no Aid to Dependent Children or welfare," Bethany spokeswoman Dawn Dean said. "We're actively trying to help women not leave their baby in the orphanage."

Bethany requires adoptive parents of international children to attend a day-long seminar in which RAD experts explain the disorder and the symptoms. The experts also tell parents they should not be afraid to ask for help. Bethany also refers parents to area professionals.

Lynn Wetterberg, executive director of Uniting Families Foundation, in Lake Villa, Ill., arranged the adoption of the Meyerses' Romanian child. Her group believes 25 percent of older children from Eastern Europe have attachment issues. She said parents realize that adopting children from other countries carries risks.

"It is a big issue, one that many families feel they can deal with," she said. "Attachment issues don't necessarily mean attachment disorder. There is a wide range of things they can have in addition to attachment issues" including bi-polar disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder.

She said: "Many, many, many children of older ages do very well in adoptive families."

She disputed the idea that a possible RAD child should not be adopted into a house with younger children.

RAD children focus on survival. They are often precocious, intelligent, charismatic and manipulative.

That described the Meyerses' son. He was adopted May 2001. He never went to school in Romania, but started at Zeeland Christian School that fall.

One teacher said he "is a delightful boy and we love having him." Another said: "(He) is a special boy. I count it a privilege to have him in my class."

But his parents were concerned about his behavior.

"I said, 'Uh oh,' in September of '01," his mother said.

After he hit his sister and the family dog, a therapist suggested he had RAD. His mother noted odd behavior that started after school, and ended when his dad got home. She could count on one of three moods: "Off-the-wall happy, extremely sad and depressed, or fuming, brooding mad."

He didn't throw tantrums -- he was just a volcano waiting to explode.

But once his dad got home, "He was bouncing off-the-wall happy."

He didn't show his mood swings to his father. At the time, David Meyers could not grasp his wife's frustration.

"I sat back in disbelief, just his ability to do what he could do," his mother said.

Other mothers told her that their RAD children did the same thing: pick a parent to show their bad side.

"I would forget I was angry at (her son) because he had the ability to be so charming, delightful and fun," she said.

She thinks he started abusing her daughter while the mother was being treated late last year at the Mayo Clinic. The boy said he went into his sister's bedroom, and turned off her night light and music to scare her.

The boy told investigators he threatened to kill his sister if she told anyone, and punched her in the stomach as a warning.

When the parents discovered that he had gone into his sister's room, they put a lock on his door. His dad started sleeping in the hallway.

The boy said in court he was jealous that his sister got attention from their parents. When asked about threats to his mother, he said in reports: "I'd feel happy if I killed her, because then she'd be gone and then I could get attention from my dad."

But he said he also felt sad when she was in the hospital.

The parents discovered early this year that he had molested his sister at night. It explained why she started to throw fits before going to bed.

"When I play that back in my head, it just breaks my heart what she went through," her mother said, crying.

The parents reported the abuse to their counselor, who contacted the FIA.

She said RAD is to blame, not her son. He shows strong promise if therapy works. But the Meyerses can't bring their son home now, to protect their daughter. They visit him in foster care, and will fly to New Mexico every other month.

"I don't know what the future's going to hold, but whatever the outcome is for his placement after treatment, I love him and I will always want what's best for him," Holly Meyers said.

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