Date: 1997-04-17
Source: Boston Globe


c.1997 The Boston Globe


GREELEY, Colo.—Motherhood was a dream that Renee Polreis nurtured through years of fertility treatments, her desire for children growing more palpable with each failure to conceive.

On the other side of the world, a blond 2-year-old boy grew out of infancy without a mother's love, spending his early months in a Russian orphanage.

The two seemed perfectly matched to fill each other's needs. But six months after Polreis and her husband, David, adopted the child and named him David Jr., the little boy was dead, and Renee Polreis, 43, stood accused of killing him.

Rescue workers took him from his parents' bathroom on Feb. 11, 1996, nearly brain dead and with bruises coating his body like a rash. He had been alone with Polreis all night. Doctors called it one of the worst child abuse cases they'd ever seen. Police found a broken wooden spoon wrapped in a bloody diaper in a trash can.

The death shocked people in placid, family-oriented Greeley, many of whose residents described Polreis as the model of a caring mother.

But their shock turned to puzzlement and even to anger when Polreis's lawyer declared that he intended to prove that David Jr. caused his own wounds while raging under a psychological ``attachment disorder'' that sometimes strikes children from neglectful orphanages.

The little boy, the lawyer said, harmed himself while thrashing in a fit sparked by his refusal to accept his new family.

Three weeks ago, a skeptical judge delayed Polreis's trial to give her lawyer a chance to prove that a 2-year-old might be capable of injuring himself so gravely and to prove that attachment disorder is a medical syndrome, not the ``pop psychology'' name tag derided by the prosecution.

If the lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, can satisfy the judge, a jury will hear testimony this summer on the defense that some observers are calling the apotheosis of 1990s-style excuse mongering: The child abused himself.

``It's preposterous,'' said Dr. Eli Newberger, medical director of the child protection program at Boston Children's Hospital. ``I'm not aware of any behavior we could call suicidal in 2-year-olds. To my mind, it falls into the same category of fabulous explanation as 2-year-olds being capable of murdering infants, an excuse used by some murdering parents.''

``There's a whole lot of quackery in attachment theory,'' said Newberger, a pediatrician. He said the case illustrates the dangers of psychologists elevating theories about the necessity of infant ``bonding'' into medical diagnoses.

Around the country, the Polreis case is fueling powerful arguments among adoption professionals. Some maintain that problems with adopted children are no different from those of others. To suggest that adopted children are more troublesome, some say, is an unfair stereotype.

But many mental-health professionals have lent some credibility to Polreis's assertion by stating that attachment disorder is a growing problem among adopted children. Steinberg has filed court papers offering a long list of psychologists he says will vouch for the syndrome.

And some adoption professionals do suggest a higher incidence of violent behavior in children from the former Eastern Bloc.

``I know her, and I know him, and I know attachment disorder,'' declared Julie Haralson, director of the Colorado Adoption Center, which assessed Renee and David Polreis as parents. ``I definitely think he could have done this to himself.''

Haralson said her agency has had terrible experiences with children from Russia and Romania, with many of them unable to bond with their adoptive parents. In an interview with detectives after David Jr.'s death, Haralson called the boy ``that unattached, crazy kid'' more than 30 times, according to police.

But Donna Clauss, director of the Denver office of Rainbow House International, the agency that introduced the Polreises to David Jr., said that she has never known such a disorder.

``Our agency has been working for five years in Eastern Europe, and I've never had it reported in any of our placements,'' she said, adding, ``but just as in the delivery room there are no guarantees, the same is true of adoption.''

Still, adoption can be a cumbersome process. Many agencies maintain long waiting lists for American-born babies. Therefore, more and more Americans are looking overseas for children.

About 10,000 foreign-born children each year are adopted into American homes. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, rising percentages of those children are from the countries of the former Soviet bloc.

The Polreises fit a common profile of adoptive parents. They are a long-married professional couple with high incomes who were unable to have their own children. David Polreis is a vice president of ConAgra, one of Greeley's largest employers. Renee runs a storefront electrolysis business.

The Polreises adopted an American-born infant in 1992, whom they named Isaac. After Isaac grew out of infancy, Renee began yearning for another baby.

After reportedly confiding in friends her fear of adopting a child from ``an atheist country,'' she and her husband journeyed to Russia and adopted David Jr.

The growing family moved to a new home, in a subdivision reminiscent of the ``Brady Bunch'' bedroom communities of the 1970s. A split-level with two bird feeders, potted flowers and a basketball hoop outside, the Polreis home seemed from the outside a vision of domestic harmony.

But inside, little David Jr. was the focus of problems. He would fight with his mother and brother, Renee reported to friends. Once, he bit her finger almost to the bone.

After several stressful months, she sought help from a local psychologist who specialized in childhood disorders.

Kathleen Edick, the Polreises' adoption agent from Rainbow House International, said Renee became alarmed when, during a therapy session in the psychologist's office, David Jr. picked up a rubber knife and began stabbing her.

Edick testified that the psychologist, Byron Norton, diagnosed David Jr. with an attachment disorder and said his chances of developing a happy bond with the family were slight. Norton did not testify and did not return a phone message.

Renee Polreis consulted other specialists, including counselors at the Attachment Center in Evergreen, Colo., said a friend, Kathy Brown. She testified that Polreis told her that all the therapists suggested that David Jr. would not grow up to be ``a normal, moral adult.''

``She stressed the moral part of it, that he would be without morals, wouldn't be capable of learning morality and a sense of morality, described it actually sort of as a criminal personality,'' Brown testified.

At one point, Edick testified, Polreis said she feared she would abuse her son. ``She disclosed to me that ... if she ever started hitting David, she would not stop,'' Edick said.

Polreis moved to place David Jr. in foster care, but her husband objected, friends say, and soon the husband and wife began arguing.

Tracy Kimsey, who also talked to Polreis during this period, said her friend was dismayed by David Jr.'s problems but only because she was a loving mother. ``When you're a parent, everything is for your child,'' Kimsey said.

On Friday, Feb. 9, David Polreis went to Houston to visit a friend. Renee's mother took Isaac to stay at her house. At 4:19 a.m. that Sunday, emergency dispatchers received a call from Renee Polreis saying that her son was choking.

Telephone records indicate that before dialing 911, Polreis called her mother, brother, and two therapists. The therapists finally persuaded her to call for help. It was too late. The injured David Jr. never regained consciousness.

Almost as soon as word of Polreis's arrest began circulating in the adoption community, offers of support began to arrive. Her private investigator lined up many sympathizers at a meeting in Cleveland of an organization called the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child.

``We see kids who are self-injurious, who take X-acto knives and slice up their arms, their bodies, their faces,'' Gregory Keck, a Cleveland psychologist, told a reporter.

But other mental-health professionals profoundly disagree.

Herb Schreier, chief of psychology at Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif., said studies have shown that neglect in orphanages usually does not render children unable to bond with adoptive parents. When problems do pop up, Schreier said, children get better through therapy.

Meanwhile, in Greeley, Polreis is free on an $80,000 cash bond. She is back at work, but she remains a polarizing figure to her neighbors.

``From working in a barber shop, where people talk, I can say they got her as guilty,'' said Linda Bass, of Linda's Barber Shop. ``They don't think a baby can kill himself.''

David Jr.'s funeral was private, but people from town, some deeply grieving, were allowed to attend a memorial service at St. Paul's Congregational Church. Renee Polreis sat in the front row, appearing a mournful mother.

``I believe in times like this it is difficult to come up with human words, and we have to turn to God for comfort,'' said the Rev. Ken Fulton, who conducted the service, alluding to the swirl of emotions buffeting the town.

The Polreises, however, pointed at attachment disorder. Mourners were asked to make out checks to the Attachment Center.


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