Abuse charges against Walworth County couple bring international attention
Town of Bloomfield - Last summer, while taking a walk, Lynne Marquette came upon a girl in front of a neighbor's home attempting to shove a dull push mower through a swath of thick, long grass.
Marquette was bewildered. She had lived in the vicinity for 39 years and she knew the couple that lived in the home - Martin and Kathleen O'Brien - owned a riding mower. Why, she wondered, would this child be out on such a blistering day attempting to accomplish what appeared to be an impossible task?
"She doesn't look at me. She doesn't smile. She doesn't wave," Marquette said this week.
"It just wasn't natural," she said. "I thought, 'Something isn't right.' "
A few weeks later, in early August 2011, child protective services took custody of five of the O'Briens' six adopted children - three of them siblings from Russia.
Another adopted child, a sister of the three Russian siblings, had been handed $200 and told to leave the house when she turned 18, according to investigative reports.
The O'Briens were charged in May with 11 felony counts of child abuse and 12 misdemeanor counts of disorderly conduct involving their adopted children.
The allegations come at delicate time.
On Monday, Russian President Vladimir Putin's office announced that he has ratified a long-awaited agreement with the United States that tightens the rules for U.S. citizens adopting Russian children.
"Not every international adoption ends happily," the office of Pavel Astakhov, Russia's children's rights commissioner, said in a statement. "According to official data only, 19 Russian children died at the hands of U.S. citizens over the last 10 years."
The O'Briens, who declined to comment for this story, have four biological children. According to a criminal complaint filed in May, they adopted six children beginning in 2004. The physical abuse charges involve three of the children: a Russian-born boy who is now 18, a Russian-born boy who is now 13 and an American-born boy who is now 14.
While these three children were, according to the complaint, beaten, stabbed, kicked in the groin, slapped and doused with pepper spray, it was the treatment that the adopted children experienced as a group that seem most cruel.
Court records paint a household divided into the biological family and the adopted children.
While executing a search warrant last summer, for example, investigators examined the bedroom used by two of the O'Briens' biological sons still living at home.
The room was messy, the closet overflowing and the floor cluttered with clothes. The room contained two flat screen televisions and several game systems.
The adopted boys were housed in another bedroom and the adopted girls in another. The rooms did not contain televisions or game systems. The closets and dressers contained few clothes.
Forced to stand naked
The 18-year-old told police that the O'Briens would make the six adopted kids stand naked on an enclosed back porch as the biological family ate dinner, the complaint says.
The O'Briens' oldest biological daughter told authorities that the adopted children were stripped and forced to stand naked in front of her and her siblings. The children said the parents made fun of them and told them they should go back to Russia.
The 18-year-old told authorities that the adopted kids were often hungry and were punished differently than the biological children.
For example, he said, one of the adopted children was caught stealing food. Kathleen O'Brien threw several loaves of frozen bread on the floor and ordered all six adopted children to eat the bread before they could go to bed, the complaint says.
The 18-year-old told authorities that the children were sometimes punished by being forced to stand barefoot in the snow, by being locked together in a room for days at a time, by being forced to kneel on sharp rocks or by being told to stand in the sun in the dog pen among the dog feces.
The 18-year-old told authorities that the adopted children were not allowed to read books or go to school, that during the summer, while the O'Briens' biological children came and went as they pleased, the adopted children were not allowed into the house during the day, according to an investigative report.
One of the children said that when they were outside, they had to work. They were not allowed to use the family pool.
One of the children told authorities that Kathleen O'Brien would slap them across their faces as many times as their age. The children got to pick out which hand they were slapped with, the report says.
A child told authorities that if one adopted child broke a rule, all six were punished. In the winter, they would be give parts of the family's large driveway to shovel. If one child tried to help another child shovel an assigned spot, both would be forced to remove their shoes and socks and stand in the snow.
It is clear from the investigative reports that the O'Briens have had several contacts with Walworth County child protective services since 2008.
State law requires child welfare agencies to file a public notice when a child dies, suffers a serious injury or endures an egregious incident. The law also requires that the agency file a report within 90 days detailing what services the family was being provided, what contacts the agency had with the family, what reports the agency received regarding the family and when action was taken in response to those reports.
The Walworth County Department of Health and Human Services did not file an egregious incident report in the O'Brien case until the Journal Sentinel contacted the state Department of Children and Families, which ordered the county to do so.
While it has been almost a year since the children were removed from the O'Brien home, the county has yet to file the follow-up report required by law.
An official at the Department of Children and Families said state law precludes them from commenting on the case.
A Russian television network has been covering the early stages of the O'Brien case.
Boris Koltov, a Russian television reporter, told a local reporter that Russians cannot understand "why American families with children of their own adopt Russian children and then mistreat them."
Russia is a major source of adopted children in the U.S. It was the third-largest source of foreign adoption by Americans in 2011, trailing China and Ethiopia.
But Russian adoptions have slowed since April 2010, when an American adoptive mother sent her 7-year-old son to Russia with a one-way ticket and a letter that said he was violent, disruptive and she didn't want to be his mother anymore.
Some Russian officials called for a halt to all American adoptions. The adoption of Russian children by Americans became a political flash point.
While Secretary of State Hillary Clinton signed an adoption agreement between the two nations last year, Putin's approval was pointedly slow in coming.
As for Marquette, who showed up at Walworth County Circuit Court on Tuesday for a minor hearing in the O'Brien case, the international ramifications are distant rumblings.
"These children lived nearby," she said.
"They were neighbors."
Journal Sentinel wire services contributed to this report.