An adoption tragedy: did this baby ever have a chance?

Date: 1997-09-01
Source: Redbook

An adoption tragedy: did this baby ever have a chance? (death of toddler David Polreis Jr.)
Redbook Engeler, Amy; 09-01-1997

THE SKY WAS STILL DARK AT 4:30 a.m. on February 10, 1996, when the firemen and paramedics rushed up the short driveway of Renee and David Polreis's residence. a two-story blue contemporary in a subdivision of Greeley, Colorado. Upstairs, in the master bathroom, they found David Polreis Jr. -- a 2 1/2-year-old boy the couple had recently adopted from an orphanage in Russia -- lying unconscious on the tile floor, in red sleeper pajamas. Blond and fair-skinned, he looked peaceful with flushed cheeks, but brown vomit leaked from his nose and his half-opened blue eyes looked distant, one pupil larger than the other.

As the firemen searched for a pulse, they unzipped David's pajamas to a startling sight. From his shoulders to his knees were fresh purple and red bruises, and broken blisters on his buttocks. He had been alone that night with his mother, Renee, 42, the owner of an electrolysis salon; his father a vice president at ConAgra's nearby meatpacking plant, was out of town, and his older brother was visiting their grandmother. As the paramedics hooked the boy up to an oxygen bag and rushed him out the door. Renee remained downstairs, not speaking to anyone.

At the hospital, David's bruising appeared so massive the doctor initially suspected sepsis, a rare bacterial infection that causes blood to leak out of the blood vessels into the skin. Because the boy's condition was considered critical, he was airlifted -- comatose and hooked up to a respirator -- by helicopter to Denver Children' s Hospital, 50 miles south. By daylight his bruises had darkened into defined patterns: odd oval shapes on his inner thighs, handprints on his arms, abrasions in straight lines on his stomach -- evidence, the doctors concluded, of a beating, not sepsis.

At 11:20 a.m., David Alexander Polreis, 2 years and 10 months old, was declared dead.

Later that day, two broken and bloody wooden spoons, one wrapped in a bloodstained diaper, were retrieved from the Polreises' garbage. Renee had not shown up at either hospital; instead she'd spent part of the morning in her minivan parked in front of her house, calling attorneys on a cellular phone. By the next evening, she was in jail, charged with child abuse resulting in death, a felony equivalent to second-degree murder. Her husband posted her $80,000 bail and helped her begin to mount what has become one of the strangest defenses in criminal history: At her pretrial hearing, Renee's attorney suggested the child may have killed himself during a fit of rage.

Whichever way the case against Renee Polreis goes, it has unveiled problems of tragic proportion that no one in this country could have ever imagined would ensue from an act as loving and hopeful as a foreign adoption.

Baby to Go

Encouraged to believe that love and Western medicine can fix just about anything. American families have flown to the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries to adopt an estimated 11,000 of the unwanted children from the region's orphanages since the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989. While the majority of these children have adapted to America, there are numerous stories of others with severe problems: 6-year-olds who hide knives under their mattresses, and siblings who attack each other with two-by-fours. Many of these children are said to suffer from a condition called reactive attachment disorder -- a failure to become emotionally attached to anyone.

It is the diagnosis a therapist assigned David Polreis a few months before his death. It is also the reason dozens of letters of support have poured in to Renee Polreis over the past year. As preposterous as the defense sounds, other parents of children adopted from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries have lent credence to the possibility that a 2 1/2-year-old could kill himself. "David Polreis wouldn't be the first Russian adopted child to try to snuff himself," says Thais Tepper, an adoptive mother in Pittsburgh who founded the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child. But, she adds, "I'm open to both sides of the story. I hear from parents every day who wish their kids were dead. They say, `I just wish he would die and my life would go back to normal.'"

Until recently, attachment disorder was considered extremely rare, found only among severely neglected children, according to Charles Zeanah, M.D.. professor of psychiatry at Louisiana State University Medical School and a leading researcher on the disorder. But with the influx of children from the Eastern Bloc have come increasing reports of such cases, particularly from the parents of children who had lived in orphanages for long periods of time.

Children thrive on one-on-one nurturing. The longer they remain in orphanages -- with sporadic and often indifferent attention -- the greater the risk for psychological, emotional, cognitive, and physical damage, according to Barbara B. Bascom, M.D., and Carole A. McKelvey, authors of The Complete Guide to Foreign Adoption. A recent study of 46 Romanian adoptees by Canadian psychologist Elinor Ames, Ph.D., showed that 30 percent of the children failed to thrive in their new homes, exhibiting severe behavioral problems and IQs under 85. Most of this 30 percent had also been institutionalized past their second birthdays. "You have a population of heavily drinking mothers, environmental pollution, and low birth weights," explains Teena McGuinness. a Ph.D. candidate in psychiatric nursing at the University of Pittsburgh. "To top that off, you add institutionalization, and you have a high-risk group."

In the worst cases. the children from the Eastern Bloc arrive in their adoptive homes defiant, uncooperative, wary of adults, and unwilling to be touched or held. Where secure children might run to Mommy for care, post-institutionalized children often comfort themselves by rocking violently back and forth or banging their heads against a wall. One woman recalls watching an 18-month-old boy throw himself repeatedly against the cinder block wall of a Russian orphanage, bloodying his shoulder, until an attendant carried him away. Another remembers her 13-year-old Russian son putting his head through the drywall of their house. "If they feel bad, they go into this repetitive banging to ward off the uncomfortable feelings," explains Gregory C. Keck, Ph.D., a psychologist in Cleveland who specializes in the treatment of adopted children and who cowrote the book Adopting the Hurt Child.

As the parents of these children struggle through long days of tantrums and regret, they are often accused of ineptitude by friends, family, and the adoption agencies that made the match. Many of them are forced to admit they took on more than they could handle. Actress Jessica Lange was so touched by a 1993 television report on Romanian orphanages that she flew over and brought home a 6-year-old partially blind and bedridden girl. After 18 months, she gave the girl up, because, Lange told Vanity Fair, she began "to see a disruption in my own family."

At Denver Children's Hospital, it was assumed that David Polreis died by asphyxlating vomit caused by the beating. But an autopsy showed injuries to the base and crown of the head which, Renee's lawyer later argued during pretrial hearings. supported his client's claim that the baby's injuries were self-inflicted: David could have banged his own head on the bathtub a few times, passed out, then vomited, accidentally causing his own death.

The problem with that theory, according to Deputy District Attorney Todd Taylor, is that David had no medical history of self-abuse. His teachers at preschool hadn't noticed bruises or episodes of repetitive banging. And. Taylor ruminated, was it really possible that the boy hit himself with a wooden spoon until welts formed on his abdomen and his penis was bloody? What about Renee's conversation with one of the boy's therapists on that tragic morning, in which, according to the police, she said. "I hurt him. I hurt him bad"?

Were Her Misgivings a Premonition?

Ironically, Renee and David Polreis fit the ideal profile of adoptive parents: They were mature, had financial resources, and had already adopted a child -- Isaac, an infant they got through an agency in Fort Collins, Colorado, in 1992. They very much wanted a sibling for him.

In the former Soviet Union, there were plenty of children in orphanages who'd been abandoned by destitute mothers or removed from abusive or alcoholic homes. Adopting them was fairly easy: Before 1995, only children diagnosed as disabled were made available for international adoption. U.S. adoption agencies, however, frequently boasted they could locate relatively healthy children who'd been assigned phony diagnoses by Russian officials anxious to get a cut of an adoption fee that can run to several thousand dollars.

As these private adoption agencies worked the corrupt Russian system, their wily dealings sometimes spilled over to their treatment of adoptive parents. Some agencies were up-front about potential health problems. but others discounted parents' concerns, failing to mention that the rate of fetal-alcohol syndrome in Russia was several times greater than in the U.S., and that nearly half the children adopted from Soviet orphanages had birth weights low enough (under 4.5 pounds) to suggest prematurity, prenatal malnutrition, or alcohol abuse. A handful of American adoption agencies have been sued for misleading clients regarding the health status of the children. Says Leslie Scherr, a Washington. D.C.. attorney who has filed many of the suits: "If the agencies don't start policing themselves and giving parents information that is accurate and complete, there is going to be regulation from the courts."

The Polreises signed on with one of the more reputable agencies, Rainbow House International, a New Mexico adoption service with a branch in Denver, which charges $10,500 per placement. In the spring of 1995, the agency offered the couple a Russian boy with a cleft palate. After looking at the photographs, Renee and David rejected the child. Shortly thereafter they received a videotape of an adorable 2-year-old Russian boy who appeared robust except for a growth on the base of his spine. The doctors they consulted dismissed the lump as a small concern, and they proceeded with the adoption.

As the paperwork went through, Renee's excitement about the blond boy was tempered by anxiety about visiting Russia. A devout Christian, with strong negative feelings left over from the Cold War, Renee still used the terms "godless society" and "the evil empire" to describe Russia, her friends remember.

In July 1995, the Polreises left for Moscow, leaving Isaac with Renee's mother. The adoption of their first son had one so easily -- proved to be an amiable and docile child who adapted quickly to his new home -- they carried high hopes for similar success with this adoption, despite their misgivings about Russia. A driver took them from Moscow to Tula, a dreary industrial city a three-hour drive to the south. The Tula Regional Children's Home is an old, colorless building, staffed by attendants in bleached uniforms. Parents who' ve been there describe a scene out of the nineteenth century: children sitting quietly at tables with their hair cut so short it's hard to tell boys from girls, many exhibiting the signs of psychosocial dwarfism (failure to thrive) so common with institutionalized children.

David and Renee were shocked by the orphanage and sensed something was wrong with the tiny boy intended for them. "But it was too late, " says Byron Norton, Ed.D., a child psychologist in Greeley who eventually became the boy's therapist. "The paperwork was done. The child was theirs." Like other parents before them, the Polreises were told their boy was the director's pet. "It's supposed to make you feel you're getting someone special," explains Norton's wife, Carol. who heard the same line years ago at an orphanage in Cali, Colombia, when they adopted their son at 9 1/2 months.

As extraordinary as it may seem, not all adoption agencies prepare parents for the confusion and terror children feel as they leave an orphanage. Parents often assume their child will be glad to leave such an awful place. Yet that orphanage is the only home they know. From Russia, and again upon her return, Renee complained to Rainbow House that David, 27 months old, vomited during the car ride back to Moscow and cried for most of the flight to the U.S.

Back home, Renee took several weeks off from work to help David acclimate. Though she spoke no Russian, sources say that communication was not a problem, since the little boy seemed to pick up English easily.

As the weeks wore on, Renee told friends she was growing more and more concerned about her new son. He wasn't adjusting and his anger, she said, was directed toward her. When her husband left for work, she told her friend Cindy Wilkinson, David defecated throughout the house. He held his urine, she told another friend, until he could pee on her. His tantrums -- or rages, as she described them to friends -- came up to a dozen times a day. During the worst fits, Renee's mother later told social workers, David would stiffen up and topple to the floor like a tin soldier, without using his arms to break the fall, At night. David spat on Isaac, until Renee finally separated the boys.

Some acquaintances who heard Renee talk about David's problems didn't believe the situation could really be that bad. They figured she wasn't handling it well, or didn't understand the boy and was unprepared for an energetic 2 1/2-year-old. "Isaac was a very compliant and quiet child," says Sandy Bright who owns ten day care centers in the Greeley area. "David was very outgoing, aggressive. He hit and pinched and pulled. He would get excited. [It seemed] he had not learned appropriate ways to show physical affection, coming from an orphanage."

Yet many of those who chat on an internet forum for Russian adoptive parents believe that parents like Renee are to blame for their children' s failure to adjust. Dean Kirschner, Ph.D., a child psychotherapist in Baltimore, who adopted a 3 1/2-year-old boy from Tula, remembers that the child went through several bad weeks after arriving in his next home. To soothe him, Dr. Kirschner pulled out pictures of the orphanage or popped a video of the farewell to Tula into the VCR and let his son watch and cry. "These children are grieving and mourning, " he says. "You have to allow them to get through it."

When he went back to Russia to adopt his second son, Dr. Kirschner lay on the orphanage floor for 45 minutes playing with a teddy bear until the boy mustered the courage to approach him. "If I had gone after him, he would have felt threatened," he say. "People go to Russia and try to shape these children into who they want them to be. It' s their unrealistic expectations that get them into trouble."

By October, Renee was under stress. Worst of all, she told her friend Kathy Edick, a Rainbow House counselor, her husband didn't see any problems at all. Around David Sr., the boy was happy. "Renee told me Dave thought she was being mean to the kids," says a friend who requested anonymity. The Polreises' marriage began to feel the strain.

Can Therapy Help?

In clinical literature, reactive attachment disorder is described as a failure to form bonds with others, but during the past few years many therapists have observed a particular bonding problem with the mother. No one knows exactly why children like David take to their new fathers and not their mothers, but some experts theorize that perhaps these children merely recognize that the adoptive mother may seek a deeper emotional bond. "The whole theme with attachment disorder, " says Dr. Keck, "is that because of their fear of intimacy, these children must be in control at all times."

Because the disorder was until now so rarely seen and barely studied, there is no model of standard therapy -- certainly not for the severity of symptoms demonstrated by children adopted from the Eastern Bloc. "Their deprivation is severe -- the terms bonding and attachment don' t capture the complexity of the situation," says Mary Carlson, Ph.D., a neurobiologist at Harvard Medical School. "Psychology doesn't have answers for the deficits of these children. So when people call me about their adoptive children I refer them to other parents, like Thais Tepper," of the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child.

Not surprisingly, the therapeutic field is wide open for innovative -- and also questionable -- methods of treatment. One of the most popular but highly controversial approaches is called holding therapy. Pioneered at the Attachment Center at Evergreen in Evergreen, Colorado -- 65 miles from the Polreises' home in Greeley -- the technique forces physical contact between child and parents. It has come under increasing criticism since the 1995 suffocation death of a Utah girl by her father during one of these "holds." [ppl note: Krystal Ann Tibbets]

Yet some parents believe the treatment has value. The same summer that Renee Polreis went to Tula, Laurie Holtz, a medical technologist in Auburn, Washington, awoke every day hoping her adoption of a 6- year-old Russian girl was a dream: "I'd open my eyes and think, 'Tell me she is not here.'" At breakfast, she knew, Tania would throw her plate, possibly at Laurie's 4-year-old biological son, Ben. Then the girl might refuse to put on her shoes, and Holtz's insistence would most likely cause her to jam her fingers up her nostrils and start a nosebleed. Sunk in a serious depression, Holtz knew she didn't love the girl or even like her. "I thought I'd destroyed my life," she says.

Despite Laurie and George Holtz's careful preparation -- they'd not only attended adoption classes, but also workshops on troubled children -- Tania's inability to show them any respect or accept their nurturing astonished them. Shortly after the girl's arrival, they sought help from a local therapist who recommended holding therapy: Each time Tania flew out of control, either Laurie or George was to hold her down -- for up to a couple of hours. George was strong enough to embrace her on his lap, but Laurie had to sit on her to keep her down. "At first, I was pretty leery of this. Tania would flip out and it scared me," recalls Laurie. "Her voice changed, kind of like in the movie The Exorcist, and she'd gnash her teeth."

At first, the therapy seemed as successful as it was disturbing. After being held, Tania seemed happy. The Holtzes thought they'd found a cure and stopped seeing the therapist. But in a month Tania started attacking them again, once with a head butt that permanently damaged Laurie's front tooth. So they located a new therapist who gave them alternate tactics -- no holds unless both parents were present, babysitters for some time away -- and the perspective for them to see their own missteps. "The therapist made me understand that these tiny little interactions Tania and I'd have during the day were ways she used to push me away," says Laurie. "Really minor things, like accepting a gift of candy, were difficult for her because she was so threatened by intimacy." Gradually, Tania let down her defenses. "After about nine months, she'd climb on my lap and hug me," Laurie remembers. "It doesn't sound like much, but what other parents take as normal is special when you've had to work so hard for it."

Her Damaged Boy

Finally, Renee decided to seek professional help, and Sandy Bright referred her to Dr. Norton. In a treatment room filled with dolls, a plastic rifle, and other playthings, she poured out to Dr. Norton a description of David's behavior, and the therapist observed the boy play. Dr. Norton diagnosed him with reactive attachment disorder, and gave his prognosis: It can be alleviated in children under age 5; good citizens can be made from those ages 5 to 12; at adolescence, prospects for therapy are poor.

The diagnosis shocked Renee, according to friends, and confirmed her worst fears that the gorgeous little Russian boy was damaged. She started telling friends that Dr. Norton said David had a bad case of attachment disorder and that these children grow up to be criminals. Although David had every chance for improvement, according to Dr. Norton -- he was not even 3 and doing fine with his dad -- Renee was pessimistic. At a New Year's Eve party, her brother told his friend Ardis Ferdig, a Greeley police officer, that there was no way to cure the child.

Dr. Norton's plan was to use a form of play therapy that he and his wife developed. Convinced that emotional development is arrested with trauma, Dr. Norton helps children revisit the time of trauma -- whether it be abandonment or abuse -- and work through it by taking them through a series of developmental games, from peekaboo to patty- cake, with the adoptive mother watching. The therapy takes at least 18 months, he says; during sessions the parents are discouraged from embracing the child. Instead, they must wait for the child to approach them, so the child learns to trust that a parent will be available.

Renee seemed to follow Dr. Norton's instructions religiously, even withholding, embraces at home. Kathy Edick told police that once when she stopped by to visit, she heard Renee admonish her mother not to pick David up when he ran excitedly to greet her. To give Isaac and David time apart, Renee enrolled them in separate classes, as Dr. Norton suggested, at Sandy Bright's ABC West Child Development Center for two days a week.

Things went smoothly at preschool. Like any other child, David screamed when Renee went out the door the first day. "Dr. Norton had warned Renee that he might not miss her. She was pleased, and so was I, that he was reacting that way," says Bright. "I tried to pick him up and hold him but he'd say, `Nyet. Nyet.'"

Once he settled down, David seemed to know instinctively how to behave at school. He didn't play with the other children, but was obedient and showed no violent behavior. David could sit quietly at lunch, yet when his parents came to pick him up he went into overdrive, arms and legs flying, even slapping his father's cheeks from excitement.

Despite therapy, problems at the Polreis home escalated throughout the early winter. Renee's mother later told a social worker that she watched David climb under a bench at home, then bang his head repeatedly on its underside and the floor, apparently indifferent to the pain.

Renee seemed increasingly pessimistic about any chance of love developing between her and David. Although Sandy Bright suggested to her that they could enjoy a more superficial relationship -- like a stepmother and son -- Renee seemed to want no part of that. David hated her, she told friends. Renee admitted to Kathy Edick that she wanted to give the child up, but her husband wouldn't allow it. The boy (whom she'd taken to calling "a little General Patton" for his manipulative behavior) so enraged her, she told Edick, that if she ever started hitting him, she'd never be able to stop. Edick was alarmed, and referred Renee to another therapist.

Renee drove at least a couple of times to Fort Collins to see Lloyd Boggs, a practitioner of holding therapy. Part of that therapy. according to Dr. Keck, is getting the parents to realize the dimensions of the power struggle created by their child. Once they understand that every move is intended as a provocation, they can become "empowered" and stop reacting. Renee seemed to take the information as a challenge. because she began to tell friends she was determined to gain control of the boy.

In January, Renee told Sandy Bright that she'd been working in the kitchen one day, with David perched on the counter so he could watch, when she reached out to get something, bracing David with her hand so he wouldn't fall. The boy clamped down on one of her fingers, biting into flesh. When he wouldn't loosen his teeth, she hit him. Renee was horrified at what she had done.

She also talked to friends about discipline measures. "She asked me what I thought about spanking," Bright says. "I said I didn't have a problem with it." Police later learned that a friend of Renee's suggested she spank little David with a wooden spoon. She was also shown how to wake the boy in the middle of the night and make him stand before the toilet until he urinated, as a way to show him who was boss. Renee apparently tried the routine at least once, because she told a friend that it seemed to work.

Nobody Heard a Sound

Like other post-institutionalized children, David was in the habit of staring into space for long stretches of time, lost in his own world. On the afternoon before his death, that is how he sat on the floor, still in pajamas at 4 p.m., while his mother entertained her mother and a friend. From Renee's mother's account, the women took David's behavior as a snub.

Later in the afternoon, Renee told a friend who called that she was determined to gain control and show David who was boss. The friend thought she sounded upset. When Renee's mother offered to take Isaac home for the night, Renee accepted and was left alone with David.

Whatever happened that night in the master bathroom was not loud enough to wake the neighbors. At 4 a.m. Renee called her brother, Kevin, and told him the boy was choking. She then phoned Lloyd Boggs and Dr. Norton and told them David was hurt. It was at their insistence that she called 911, at 4:17 a.m.

As the ambulance sirens faded into the distance, en route to the hospital. Renee called Julie Haralson, who had arranged Isaac's adoption through her Fort Collins agency, and told her that she wanted her to take David when he was released from the hospital. Haralson later told police that Renee said she didn't want the boy back.

David Polreis flew in from Houston, where he'd been visiting a friend, highly agitated, and reached his son's bedside in Denver shortly after noon. He saw the boy's body, still hooked up to life support, and sobbed. "This is such a shock," he told police officer Russell Keller. "Renee would not even beat an animal."

Whatever shock he felt about his son's death did not turn him against Renee. He came home and, by all appearances, devoted himself to her defense. They appeared together at church on Sundays. He took her to court hearings, to meetings with lawyers. and has refused, like Renee, to speak to reporters or the district attorney.

A Case for Justice

Many adoptive parents see Renee Polreis as a kind of martyr, ill- served by her adoption agency, her therapists, her family, and her community. "I have great compassion for Renee," explains Laurie Holtz. "She just didn't understand what was going on. It's bard to see the light at the end of the tunnel when you're in that situation." Few have kind words for her husband, including Dr. Norton, who says simply, "She wasn't getting support."

But prosecutor Taylor has heard more than enough sympathy for Renee Polreis. "You know, I get real tired of people saying, 'Look, here is a woman who did everything right. She went to therapists, she went to counselors, she was reaching out for help. She was under an incredible amount of stress and strain. And you need to cut her a break.' I still come back to, 'So what?' Even assuming that this kid had the most horrible attachment disorder the world has ever seen, I don't care. It's not an excuse. I don't care how many other parents felt like beating their own kids. The fact of the matter is that they didn't. She beat him to death."

The Polreises were not prepared, Taylor says, for what they had gotten themselves into. "From what I've learned about foreign adoptions, that seems more common than not," he says. "You've got people who are totally clueless as to the challenges they are about to confront."

Even adoptive parents can agree with that sentiment. That's the reason they feel betrayed, as if their "good deed" didn't come with a big enough warning label. "We have to get over the idea that we are rescuing these children," says one woman whose two Russian sons proved so violent that she now has them committed to a psychiatric facility in New Jersey. "We have to stop thinking that putting them in OshKosh and taking them to Disney World is doing them a favor."

East of Greeley's jail, past the railroad tracks and liquor distributors, and not far from the gigantic feed lots where the cattle are fattened before slaughter, is a large cemetery shaded by cottonwood trees. At the northern end, in a small area designated Babyland, is a grave marked with a small stone simply carved, DAVID POLREIS, 1993-1496. Underneath is a little blond Russian boy buried in a western outfit, with cowboy boots and fringe.

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