Posted on Sun, Dec. 17, 2006
BY MARY DIVINE
The journey started with great hope - a Ukrainian orphan adopted by a Minnesota couple. But 4 years later, describing violent behavior, the boy's adoptive parents left him back in his native land. Now the 12-year-old waits for a Washington County court to tell him what's next.
The troubled boy was adopted when he was 7 and brought to Minnesota from the other side of the world.
Four years later, his parents were saying they had given up trying to deal with the disturbing, sometimes violent, behavior his mother described: He broke his little sister's ankles. He killed animals. He ran away.
They tried and failed to have another family adopt him. Then they returned with him to Ukraine, where he was born. They left him at a psychiatric hospital. They said they would be back. And they never returned.
That was a year and a half ago. Today the boy is in Minnesota, retrieved by a social worker for Washington County and living in a treatment home in Duluth.
The dark-blond, brown-eyed 12-year-old now says he has a single wish: "To get a family." But some children - especially those who have been institutionalized for
lengthy periods - cannot function in a family. Many are deeply troubled and can't bond with adoptive parents or caretakers, said James Yeager, the
president of the center where the boy is now living.
"I don't want to be hard on the parents. Believe me, they have a story to tell, too, about what it's like to live with these kids," Yeager said. "I believe they mean well. I've learned over the years to not judge the families harshly and to not jump to conclusions."
In general, parents who adopt do so "with their best hopes for their family and what can happen, and it's devastating when things don't turn out as they had imagined," said Tamara Kincaid, a social-services supervisor for the county. "Either the child has needs that the parents just don't have the capacity to meet, or the parents just aren't able to follow through with it."
But, she said: "We don't have lemon laws on kids. There isn't a return policy."
FOUR YEARS, FOUR HOMES
Jeff and Michelle Bignell married in 1994. Seven years later, they adopted two unrelated children at a Ukrainian orphanage - the then-7-year-old boy and a 4-year-old girl.
The Bignells were aware Ukrainian doctors had diagnosed the boy with hyperactivity disorders, according to social worker Maggie Hansen's sworn petition filed in Washington County District Court, where the county has launched a child-in-need-of-protection case.
The Bignells declined requests to be interviewed earlier this year and after court hearings this month.
Michelle Bignell, 35, is executive director of Heart to Heart with Ukraine, a Christian nonprofit organization that aims to help children in Ukrainian orphanages. She kept an online journal of the couple's month-long adoption journey - meals at McDonald's, temper tantrums, sightseeing, shopping trips - and detailed the highs and lows of bringing two new children home at the same time.
But as the new family settled into their Lakeland home in March 2001, blocks from the St. Croix River, the boy had a hard time adjusting to the structure and rules of family and school, according to Hansen's petition. Deputies responded twice to reports he had either tried to run away or had done so.
In an e-mail obtained by Washington County, Michelle Bignell wrote that the boy "was very abusive towards our daughter and me. He broke both of our daughter's ankles. He killed several animals. He tried poisoning others."
"He said he would kill us and other people when he was older," Bignell wrote in the e-mail, which was sent to an American missionary who knew the boy in Ukraine. The missionary forwarded the message to Washington County, where it was filed in court Dec. 6 with a report signed by Kincaid.
In April 2003, according to Kincaid's report, the Bignells gave the boy to a northern Minnesota couple with the intent that they would adopt him. David and Glenda Kinghorn filed a petition in September 2003 in St. Louis County District Court seeking to adopt the boy, according to Hansen's sworn petition, and the boy was ordered into a pre-adoptive placement in the couple's home.
St. Louis County Health and Human Services officials began investigating the Kinghorns after discovering they had 14 children in their home - including eight who were adopted and four who had been placed there illegally, according to the petition. The Kinghorns moved to Arkansas while the legitimacy of their adoptions was being investigated, Hansen said in her petition, and in February 2005 they placed the Bignells' son in an Arkansas psychiatric hospital.
In her report, Kincaid said Arkansas doctors diagnosed the boy with impulse control disorder and reactive attachment disorder, a condition that inhibits some adopted children from bonding with caretakers and new parents.
In March 2005, Arkansas officials alerted St. Louis County authorities to an allegation that the Kinghorns had abused the boy in Minnesota, according to Hansen's petition.
The lawyer appointed to represent the boy, Patricia Zenner, told Washington County District Judge Tom Armstrong at a Dec. 7 court hearing that the boy had told her he was scalded with boiling water and punched repeatedly and suffered several bruises at the hands of the Kinghorns.
David Kinghorn, 54, was convicted in Arkansas last year of raping a girl who had been in the couple's care. He is serving a 10-year sentence. In a telephone interview from prison Thursday, Kinghorn said he and his wife never abused the boy. He said he thinks the boy was "reliving some of the past in the Ukraine" when he made the allegation.
'WELL, OK, WE'LL GIVE IT A TRY'
Kinghorn said his wife met Michelle Bignell over the Internet. A former mental health aide, Glenda Kinghorn had made a practice of trying to help parents of troubled children; she and Bignell "started talking about (the boy) getting new parents, and we thought, 'Well, OK, we'll give it a try,' " David Kinghorn said.
Kinghorn said the Bignells told him and his wife that the boy had "behavior problems, anger problems - you name it, it was there." For example, he said, the Bignells told him the boy had let a kitten out of their house, apparently realizing it could be killed by dogs outside - and then blamed the kitten's death on his sister.
The couples met at a restaurant to discuss the boy's adoption. "We met him there, and he seemed like a good kid," Kinghorn said. "We had some pie and we talked during the dessert, and then decided to do it."
The Kinghorns took the boy from that meeting back to their home in Meadowlands, Minn. The boy did not react when he left with the Kinghorns - no tears, no tantrum, Kinghorn said. The boy lived with the Kinghorns for almost a year and a half, Kinghornsaid. After they moved to Mena, Ark., the boy exhibited what Kinghorn called
"extreme behavior" - threatening to stab family members and trying to poison them.
"He would take the sugar bowl and put drugs in it from the medicine cabinet," he said.
No phone number for Glenda Kinghorn was listed in the Mena area.
There is no indication the Bignells were aware of any allegations against the Kinghorns before seeking to have them adopt the boy. The boy's name is available in public court files, but the Pioneer Press is not publishing it to protect his privacy, given his psychiatric problems and the alleged abuse.
In her petition, Hansen said the Bignells arranged for the Arkansas hospital to have a passport photo made for the boy, who is a U.S. citizen. In April 2005, Hansen said, Jeff Bignell flew to Arkansas, retrieved the boy and flew with him to Ukraine.
In Ukraine, the Bignells tried unsuccessfully to legally annul the adoption, according to Hansen's petition.
They brought the boy to a psychiatric hospital and told a doctor they would be back for him within a month, according to Kincaid's report; they did not return, nor did they contact the hospital to learn how he was doing.
Before the boy left the United States, Washington County social workers told the Bignells the county could help them and even find a place for the boy to live, Kincaid wrote in her report. The Bignells declined the assistance, according to Kincaid's report, and "insisted that services in the Ukraine would be good enough . and may even be better than anything he would get in the United States."
'I HAD NEVER HEARD OF SUCH A THING'
While in Ukraine, Michelle Bignell met American missionary Gerald King and told him she was returning an adopted child "who had been very problematic in their family," King told Kincaid in a December 2005 e-mail filed with her court report.
"I had never heard of such a thing," King wrote.
King visited the boy regularly, bringing him extra food and helping with errands, such as getting his broken eyeglasses fixed. After the Bignells did not return, King contacted the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, where officials in turn contacted Washington County Community Services in December 2005, according to the petition. The county swung into motion. Hansen filed her sworn petition seeking the boy's protection on Dec. 22, 2005, and county officials worked with the U.S. State Department and the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine for almost a year, petitioning Ukrainian courts to allow the boy to be returned.
The process was difficult. The boy became a U.S. citizen when he was adopted but also has Ukrainian citizenship, and it was not clear which government
had jurisdiction over him, Kincaid said in her report.
The boy stayed at the psychiatric hospital in Donetsk for a year, Kincaid wrote. State Department officials visited him in December 2005 and reported he "looked skinny, but not malnourished," according to Hansen's petition.
"(The boy) appeared intelligent and comported himself well in a manner beyond what one might expect from an 11-year-old child," State Department officials told Washington County authorities, according to Hansen's petition. "When asked how he was doing, (the boy) said that he was well, but that he wanted to return home.
"When asked, he said that 'home' was Minnesota."
The boy eventually moved to a boarding school. He speaks only English and had difficulty there, according to Kincaid's report: He "did not often get along with the other children. He no longer spoke Ukrainian or Russian and there was almost no one in the facility to speak English with him."
On Nov. 16, a Ukrainian court cleared the way for the boy to be returned to the United States. Hansen flew to Ukraine and arrived back in Minnesota with the boy Dec. 6.
Staff from Northwood Children's Services in Duluth met him at the airport, stayed with him at AmericInn in Stillwater and took him to Ruby Tuesday's for a steak dinner.
He was in court the next day, and again Wednesday.
The boy played with a new Nintendo Game Boy - a gift from Washington County social workers - in the hallway before the Dec. 7 hearing. In the courtroom, he sat at a table next to his attorney, cracked his knuckles and repeatedly glanced back at Michelle Bignell and her father.
The Bignells divorced in July. Jeff Bignell, 37, was not present at the first hearing, though he was there Wednesday.
At the Dec. 7 hearing, Zenner, the boy's lawyer, told the judge the boy had said he wanted to return to the Bignells.
But last week, the boy told the Pioneer Press he had changed his mind. "They're saying what (the Bignells) did is not very good," he said. "My heart broke after talking to him," Zenner told Judge Armstrong at the Dec. 7 hearing. "The Bignells took him to the Ukraine and promised to return in one month, and it's been almost two years."
Michelle Bignell spoke briefly at that court hearing and requested a court-appointed lawyer.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to say," she said. "I don't know what I'm entitled to say."
Bignell told Armstrong information in the court file was incorrect and said she wanted the chance to clear her name. She also said she hoped the case would be resolved quickly.
"I don't want this dragging on," she said. "How soon can I see this being done?"
At the Wednesday hearing, Bignell said under oath that she was unwilling and unable to care for the boy. She also admitted there were grounds for the child-in-need-of-protection petition the county had filed.
Jeff Bignell told Washington County District Judge Mary Hannon on Wednesday he would "probably file the same as Michelle" but first wanted to talk with a lawyer.
He has a hearing set for Dec. 28.
County officials must wait a year before they can ask a judge to terminate the Bignells' parental rights. The period gives the Bignells time to try to keep the boy, if they choose.
Dressed in a new black pinstriped suit, blue dress shirt and maroon tie, the boy sat behind the Bignells during Wednesday's hearing. Neither looked back at or talked with him. Both declined to comment afterward.
The child-in-need-of-protection case is a civil proceeding, and no criminal charges have been filed against the Bignells. Washington County Attorney Doug Johnson said he is reviewing the matter.
Johnson said parents adopting troubled children have to expect problems and deal with the consequences.
"These are not throwaway kids," he said.
'THAT'S ALL THIS LITTLE BOY KNOWS'
Watching "Harry Potter," playing basketball, and eating potato chips and pizza top the boy's list of favorite things to do at his current home. He was eager to have visitors Tuesday and is happy to be back in Minnesota.
"It's clean, not like in Ukraine," he said with a slight accent. "Here, you can do a lot of stuff. There, you sit in one place and you cannot do anything. And it's better food than in Ukraine. I like to eat food. I don't want to be thin."
The boy is small for his age but in good physical health. He needs to see a dentist to fix a chipped front tooth and an optician for new eyeglasses. He proudly pointed out the finger he bruised playing basketball the night before.
"I was the fastest. I ran into the wall," he said. And he acted politely, saying "God bless you" when a visitor sneezed and asking for permission to get a second glass of milk at lunch.
He shares a room at Northwood with two other boys and sleeps on the top bunk. All the rooms have a precise cleanliness; his dark blue comforter is tucked in tightly.
He showed off his possessions: a lime-green wristwatch, a photo of him and friends at the Ukrainian boarding school, a 100-piece jigsaw puzzle of the United States, Matchbox cars, stuffed animals. He wears four crosses around his neck - two from America, two from Ukraine - and two religious medals.
"It's protective stuff," he said, pulling them out from his shirt. "It's very good to have crosses because what I learned in Ukraine is that you can do a lot of things with crosses."
Energetic and quick to smile, he posed in front of the Christmas tree and demonstrated a Ukrainian dance in the living room. While dancing, the boy noticed a counselor watching him through a window from an adjoining office. He stopped, apparently embarrassed, and joked to the counselor: "Oooh, I'm going to cut your tongue off."
He has behaved well, mostly; he did talk back to a counselor who corrected him during a meal. "He's here now and he follows our rules, and we don't eat butter out of the bowl," campus operations director Rosemary Milczark said.
Northwood is evaluating the boy's educational and psychological needs. Yeager, the center's president, said the boy is smart, charming and skilled at reading people.
"Basically, when you're growing up in an orphanage, you're just interested in getting your basic needs met: food, clothing, shelter and certainly some type of attention to validate that you exist," he said.
The boy's court-appointed advocate, guardian ad litem Julie Friedrich, told Judge Hannon in court Wednesday that the boy wants "to be in a family as soon as possible. He does not want to stay in an institution."
Yeager doubts that will happen easily. "He doesn't have any clue about what that would be like," he said. "He's an institutionalized kid."
The boy said he likes Northwood but doesn't want to stay. "I want to go to a family, but I want to see my sister first," he said. "She is at my old family."
In court Wednesday, Zenner asked the judge to allow the boy to see the girl, who is in the Bignells' joint custody. The judge told the lawyer that both children will have to be evaluated before that would be allowed.
The boy "was abandoned completely in the Ukraine, knowing absolutely no one," Zenner told Hannon. "Really, in this world, he's very limited in who he has.
"He's essentially figured out he doesn't have a mom or a dad, but he has a sister, and that's all this little boy knows."
Mary Divine covers Washington County. She can be reached at mdi...@pioneerpress.com or 651-228-5443.