A Deep Attachment

A New Mexico couple grieves for David Polreis, the prospective son they never got to meet.

Jim and Jamie Nesmith are grieving over the death of David Polreis, a little boy they never met but who, under different circumstances, could have become their son. They had hoped to adopt the two-year-old Russian orphan when the woman who'd brought him to this country decided, after just seven months, that she wanted to relinquish custody. They were told there was a "big problem" between the mother and child. The Nesmiths were well into the process of orientation, home visitation and background checks that would have enabled them to adopt the boy when they were told that David's adoptive mother had changed her mind.

Two weeks later David was dead, and his adoptive mother, Renee Polreis, was being booked into the Weld County jail, charged with beating him to death with a wooden spoon ("Whipping Boy," October 10, 1996).

It took a year for word of David's death to reach the Nesmiths, during which time they had adopted two other Russian orphans, a girl and a boy. But now that they know the truth about David, it's almost as if they've lost one of their own--Jamie cries when she talks about the boy, and Jim was unable to hold back his tears when he visited David's grave.

"I'm in the angry stage of grief," says Jamie, who works for the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service in Albuquerque. "I haven't accepted it yet. I'm angry that he's dead."

She's also angry at Renee Polreis and at those who are helping lend support to a controversial defense her attorneys hope to use in Polreis's trial, scheduled to start March 31. If successful in their pre-trial arguments (to be heard March 21), Polreis's attorneys will introduce evidence they say will prove that David suffered from reactive attachment disorder, a psychological theory used to explain why some children are violent, uncommunicative and cannot or will not bond to their mothers. The defense team has gone further, suggesting that two-year-old David caused the injuries that resulted in his death.

Attorneys on both sides say they think this would be the first use of an attachment-disorder defense in a homicide case.

Renee Polreis and her husband, David, lived a comfortable, though childless, existence in Greeley until 1992, when they adopted an infant boy they named Isaac. Three years later, when the process of adopting a second American baby seemed to have bogged down in bureaucracy, the Polreises decided to adopt a Russian child. They wanted a boy, Renee told staffers at the Rainbow House adoption agency. They wanted a two-year-old.

Rainbow House staffers then showed the Polreises a video of a bright, tow-headed tot who needed a home. And in July 1995, despite Renee's reported anxiety about stepping foot in an "atheist country," the Polreises traveled to Russia to pick up their new son.

The adoption was troubled from the start. David cried a lot, Renee complained, and he vomited in the car when they left the orphanage. Things worsened when they got back to this country. David had temper tantrums during which he'd throw himself on the floor and scream. He spit on his brother Isaac. And he wasn't becoming attached to Renee.

By that fall, Renee had begun taking David to psychologist Byron Norton, whose take on attachment disorder apparently fed into Renee's fears. According to Renee's friends, the therapist told her that there was no cure for attachment disorder and that the boy would become a stone-cold criminal, a la Ted Bundy or the Unabomber. After an incident in which David bit her finger to the bone, Renee grew afraid of him and expressed her desire to relinquish custody. Friends said Renee related a conversation with Norton in which she told him she feared that if she ever hit David, she would not be able to stop.

Renee's husband, however, was reluctant to give up the boy. And she told friends that if she did relinquish custody, she was afraid it would ruin her marriage.

It was at about this time, in late November or early December 1995, that Jamie Nesmith says she first spoke to Rainbow House staffers in New Mexico about the possibility of adopting a foreign-born child. As an immigration officer, she'd dealt with the agency for about nine years, and she was impressed by its professionalism.

"I asked [the staff director] if they ever get any children back. I think that's the way I put it," Jamie says. "And she said they very rarely do and that in sixteen years they'd had relinquishments in less than 1 percent of the cases.

"But she said that she was watching one case closely in Colorado because there was a big problem between the child and his mother. She said he was two and cute. And until this year, that's all I knew."

After discussing the situation over the course of a week, the Nesmiths decided to try to adopt the boy, whose name they did not know.

"Poor little guy, comes over from Russia to a strange culture, and suddenly his new home has problems," Jim Nesmith says of their decision to try to take in the toddler. "We felt we could provide a stable environment, a stable place, and we felt we had some things we could offer. Jamie had raised two biological children, and she works miracles with little kids. It sounded appealing."

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