No place for Sasha (part 1)

Date: 2007-01-07

No place for Sasha
Brandon Stahl
Duluth News Tribune

By all accounts, the story of Sasha, a boy living in Northwood Children’s Services in Duluth, is tragic. He was orphaned in Ukraine and adopted at age 7. He was given up by American families twice before he was 11, taken back to Ukraine by his adoptive parents and left there.

In Ukraine, he was shuttled between a psychiatric hospital and a boarding home for a year and a half, though he was an American citizen and had forgotten his native language.

The other side of Sasha’s story is his violent behavior. He broke his adoptive sister’s ankles, killed animals and threatened to kill his adoptive parents, they say.

Now almost 13, he is undergoing medical and psychological evaluation and hopes to one day live with an adoptive family.

“That’s what he wants so desperately,” said Patricia Zenner, the boy’s attorney. “He’s so clear about that.”

Dr. Jim Yeager, Northwood CEO, said Sasha’s history makes him likely to be diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder.

“That means he’s never bonded with a family and he’ll probably never bond,” Yeager said. For a family that adopts him, “it could be a disaster.”

A court hearing scheduled for Jan. 16 will take the first steps toward deciding whether Sasha should ever live with a family, or spend the rest of his childhood and teenage years in an institution.

What would you do with him?

‘BOOM, HE WOULD GO OFF’

The damage already was done before anybody tried to care for Sasha, his nickname in Ukraine. The News Tribune has decided not to use his real name in this story because of his age and the sensitive information about his situation.

For children to develop reactive attachment disorder, they have to be put through “grossly pathological care,” said Leslie Chaplin, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with the Duluth Clinic.

Those children are left to cry for hours in a crib and might be fed or have their diapers changed only rarely, Chaplin said.

“This isn’t something you’re born with,” she said. “There are kids who are severely neglected, abused or deprived of all basic needs.”

Chaplin, who has never worked with the boy, said some children with the disorder will respond to acts of affection with violence.

“They don’t want people to attach to them,” she said. “It’s not a logical thinking. It’s more of an instinctual survival. … They’re feeling very threatened with love and affection.”

That’s what faced Michelle and Jeffrey Bignell of Lakeland, Minn., in February 2001 when they traveled to Ukraine to adopt the 7-year-old boy and an unrelated 4-year-old girl from an orphanage. Michelle Bignell had met Sasha during a previous missionary trip and was taken by him.

“He was very smart, very charming, very cute,” said Jeffrey Bignell, 37.

They knew the boy had problems, according to court records — specifically, that he had been diagnosed with “hyperkinetic disorder” and “nervous hyper excitability syndrome.”

Those disorders, which probably would be classified now as attention deficit disorder, don’t often produce the violent reactions that children with reactive attachment disorder can sometimes display, Chaplin said. The Bignells couldn’t have known what was in store for them.

An e-mail Michelle later sent to an American missionary and included in court documents described only briefly the family’s hardships with Sasha.

“[The boy] was very abusive toward 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.”

Michelle’s father, Russell Martin, 63, of Elko, Minn., said last month that those few lines only scratch the surface of the fear their family lived in. Martin said the boy and his sister often spent weekends with him and his wife.

“He’d just go into a rage. He’d hit with fists, would go into a tantrum rage,” Martin said. “We never did know why. It was just boom, he would go off.”

Back at home, Martin said Sasha’s behavior became worse. Jeffrey Bignell said the boy would often beat his sister “for no apparent reason.” Other times, Bignell said, Sasha would hide knives in his room and threaten to stab and kill his family. When Michelle Bignell got pregnant, Jeffrey said, the boy would punch her in the stomach.

“When she was trying to calm him down, he would punch, pinch, pull hair — anything he could get his hands on,” he said. “When he would go into his rages, he picked any place that was available.”

The stress caused Michelle to miscarry three months into the pregnancy, Jeffrey Bignell said. Later, the strain caused by Sasha was one of the main reasons they separated and divorced, he said.

Michelle Bignell, 35, declined comment for this story, saying in an e-mail, “I don’t think it is appropriate for me to be discussing this at this time.”

About a year and a half after adopting Sasha, Jeffrey Bignell said, he and Michelle went to Washington County for help, hoping to have him put in an institution or foster home. County workers recommended the boy stay in the Bignells’ home for at least six months for an evaluation. At the time, Michelle Bignell was pregnant.

“We knew there was no way we could put a baby in that situation,” he said.

When the family told the county they couldn’t keep Sasha, Bignell said they were told, “We can’t help you.”

Washington County social workers can’t comment on the case, Social Services Supervisor Tamara Kincaid said. But in general, she said, the county assists parents who need help with troubled children. As a last resort, the county can find temporary housing for the children, Kincaid said.

“It’s not like the county says, ‘You’re on your own,’ ” she said.

According to a report Kincaid filed with the court, on at least two occasions, social services staff told the Bignells that “numerous services” were available to help them with the child.

“Mr. Bignell stated that because their family would be a charged a parental fee, he was not interested in any services Community Services had to offer,” Kincaid wrote, noting that Bignell refused even when the county offered financial assistance.

Said Bignell: “What they’re not stating is that with any other adopted child and family going through this, they have Medicare or Medicaid available to help alleviate some of the costs. Because [Sasha] was internationally adopted, those options are not available to a parent.”

Bignell said they tried to send him to boys’ camps but were told Sasha was “either too young or too violent.”

Desperate, the Bignells turned to a family they met on the Internet.

A second chance?

David and Glenda Kinghorn lived on their 100-acre farm in Meadowlands, about 43 miles northwest of Duluth. Though they had two biological children of their own, they wanted more. Because of a health condition, they had to adopt, Glenda Kinghorn said.

Though agencies approved them for adoption, Kinghorn said, they were never able to get children. Frustrated, the Kinghorns turned to the Internet.

By 2003, the Kinghorns had taken in seven children from all over the country, most from broken adoptions who suffered from various psychological illnesses, including reactive attachment disorder.

Glenda Kinghorn said she and her husband hoped to give each child a new start on life in a permanent home.

“What is the alternative for these children — to send them back to foster care?” Kinghorn said last week from her parents’ home in Arizona. “When they turn 18, they’re out on their butt; they have no parents, no home, no life.”

The Kinghorns met Michelle Bignell in early 2003 through an _ message board.

The Bignells talked with the Kinghorns about taking the boy in June of that year, but Glenda Kinghorn said she got a phone call from Michelle in February that rushed those plans.

“She was in tears. She said she can’t take it anymore and said please take him today,” Kinghorn said. “You could hear him growling over the phone, could hear things crashing on the wall while she was talking to me.”

That day, she and David met Michelle, Jeffrey, their daughter and Sasha at a Village Inn in Wyoming, Minn., “where he was a perfect angel,” Kinghorn said

They decided to take him with plans to adopt him. Kinghorn had experience with children with reactive attachment disorder and thought she knew how to handle him.

“At first, I thought I was right, that [Michelle] didn’t know how to handle children like him,” Kinghorn said. “She was an inexperienced mother with children like [Sasha].”

She was wrong. It would turn out to be a disaster — for both the Kinghorns and Sasha.

TODAY: The story of Sasha is tragic — orphaned in the Ukraine and adopted at age 7, but given up by American families twice before he was 11. Some who know him say he has a history of violent behavior.

Monday: For Sasha, there always seemed to be a honeymoon period. With David and Glenda Kinghorn, it lasted about four weeks. “If I were to believe there was such a thing as demonic possession, I think I saw it,” Glenda Kinghorn said.

Tuesday: After learning their adopted son, Sasha, would not be readopted by another family, Michelle and Jeffrey Bignell saw two choices. They could take back the boy who they say threatened to kill them or they could take him to Ukraine to undo the adoption.

Timeline

February 2001: Michelle and Jeffrey Bignell travel to Ukraine to adopt a 7-year-old boy nicknamed Sasha and an unrelated 4-year-old girl from an orphanage.

2002: Michelle founds Heart to Heart with Ukraine, a nonprofit agency that helps children in the country in orphanages and assists with their adoptions. (The organization still exists; Michelle has helped with 54 adoptions from Ukraine, but Jeffrey Bignell said she’s taken herself out of the organization because of her experience with Sasha.)

April 2003: Citing violent behavior, the Bignells give the boy to David and Glenda Kinghorn, a family they’ve met over the Internet who live on a farm near Meadowlands.

Sept. 1, 2003: The Kinghorns file a petition to adopt Sasha.

Oct. 10, 2003: A district court orders the child into pre-adoptive placement with the Kinghorns.

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