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Mental health questioned: Defense claims victim, 7-year-old Lucas Ciambrone, had disorder before adoption


Natalie Neysa Alund

May 15--BRADENTON -- Heather Ciambrone's lawyers began their defense Monday, suggesting that her adopted son's mental condition, which might have caused his mother to discipline him, may have contributed to his death.

Dr. Foster Cline, a child psychiatrist, testified via closed-circuit television from Idaho about how some children, who are denied nurturing aspects at an early age, become severely disturbed and don't respond to love, causing parents to become frustrated.

Cline's testimony came after the state rested its case Monday.

In opening statements last week, defense attorney Adam Tebrugge told jurors that Lucas was a troubled child. Before he was adopted by Heather Ciambrone and her husband Joseph, Lucas lived with his biological mother and stepfather who abused him. Tebrugge told jurors that experience caused reactive attachment disorder, which Cline testified Monday can cause children with the disorder to be dangerous to others, including their parents and animals.

Symptoms of the disorder include children cutting themselves, pulling their ears and banging their heads against a wall, said Cline, who's worked with about 100 families who have dealt with the disorder.

Reactive attachment disorder is when a child experiences problems, including abuse, illness or hospitalization during the first 24 months of their life, causing them to have trouble forming relationships with caretakers.

"Something goes wrong very early in life when a child is learning to love their parents," Cline said. "For some reason . . . that normal affection does not take place."

Ciambrone, 38, faces life in prison if she is found guilty of the May 13, 1995, death of Lucas, stemming from what prosecutors called "long standing abuse" at the family's Rubonia home.

An autopsy, conducted shortly after Lucas' death, revealed he was malnourished and died of trauma to the brain. He had 203 scratches, bruises and cuts and an additional 113 scars. He also had five broken ribs and weighed 32 pounds.

Defense attorneys contend detectives did not investigate all aspects of the case, including Lucas' mental and physical health.

Cline testified that parents use punishment to sway children's actions and when they do not listen, parents get frustrated and tired. Some parents have to lock their children in a room so that they do not run away or hurt others.

During cross examination by the prosecution, Cline admitted that reactive attachment disorder can cause rage in parents.

Lucas' sister, Brenda Preston, who testified earlier in the trial, said her mother locked her brother in the bathroom on many times. Preston said the floor was concrete, the door could be locked from the outside and that the bathroom did not have any lights.

She also said her mother would feed Lucas noodles and oatmeal from a plastic bucket she placed in the bathroom.

Cline testified that normal parenting techniques are not effective with children with reactive attachment disorder.

Tebrugge also said testimony will reveal Ciambrone's actions were not motivated by malice, that she was an "increasingly desperate" parent.

In earlier testimony Monday, jurors watched a videotape of Lucas smiling and playing with classmates at Tara Elementary in East Manatee.

Kimberlie Westphalen, Lucas' teacher in 1992, testified that Lucas never showed any violent or angry behaviors at school.

During cross examination of Westphalen by Tebrugge, she explained Lucas' class at Tara Elementary was an early intervention class for children who may be at risk for future speech problems or other issues, like having a parent who died or is on drugs.

Ciambrone in 2001 pleaded no contest to killing Lucas and was sentenced to 55 years in prison. Last year, the conviction was overturned by an appeals court ruling that she was misled about how much time she would have to serve in prison. Her husband, Joseph Ciambrone, is serving life in prison for the boy's death.

Testimony was expected to resume at 9:15 a.m. today.

2007 May 15