Suffer the Children

Three kids with attachment disorder have died in Colorado -- but according to Foster Cline, their parents and therapists are the ones most in need of help.

Last month, after waiting almost four years for an explanation, the public heard what happened the night two-year-old David Polreis was killed.

Renee Polreis, who'd adopted the boy from Russia six months before his death, told a rapt courtroom that she apparently "lost it" the night of February 9, 1996. In the short time she'd had the boy, she testified, he'd driven her crazy with his tantrums and bizarre behavior, and it was destroying her marriage.

The tragic climax occurred after David smeared feces throughout the laundry room and Renee caught him sexually abusing himself with a spatula handle.

Psychiatrist Foster Cline has become an advocate for 
parents of children with attachment disorder.
Psychiatrist Foster Cline has become an advocate for parents of children with attachment disorder.

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"He came at me," she testified at the June 13 hearing, at which she requested a reduction in the 22-year prison sentence imposed after her 1997 trial. "I hit him with the spatula. I fought him. I didn't want him to hurt me. I didn't want to hurt him, either."

It was essentially what prosecutors had believed all along. They'd suspected that the boy, who reportedly suffered from Reactive Attachment Disorder (RAD), had driven Polreis to the edge with behaviors that included physical attacks on her and her other adopted son. But it hadn't stopped them from charging her with child abuse resulting in death, or in fighting her request for a sentence reduction now.

The real surprise came after a tearful Polreis stepped down and the defense called Foster Cline to the stand.

Cline, a former Evergreen psychiatrist who now practices in Idaho, is considered a pioneer in the diagnosis and treatment of attachment disorder -- and also one of Colorado's most controversial medical figures. He has spent much of the past thirty years teaching adoptive families and other therapists about the effects of severe trauma on infants and how to help children overcome a crippling past.

In his opinion, Cline now said, David Polreis had suffered from RAD. But that wasn't why he'd paid his own way to testify. Cline had come to Colorado to plead for leniency for Polreis.

"I'm doing it because there's been a great wrong, and I don't feel this woman's life should be ruined because of this incident," Cline told the court. "I believe in justice, but in an abnormal situation like I believe this is, the justice system can go wrong. In an abnormal situation, a mother can go wrong."

Cline has seen firsthand what RAD-afflicted children can do to a family. Parents seeking help for their children describe six-year-olds who hit, bite, swear, scream and kick, four-year-olds who try to choke a younger sibling, boys who hide knives under their beds, girls who threaten to kill their parents while they sleep.

Now he wants the justice system -- police, judges and prosecutors -- to understand, and have compassion for, parents and caretakers who kill children afflicted with the disorder. And so Cline is assembling a loose-knit team of parents and professionals to help "not necessarily to defend, but to educate," he says.

The Polreis case is just one of several in which Cline has decided to take a stand. He has provided "psychological support" for Dennis and Sandy Evers of Bayfield, who were convicted last year in connection with the 1998 death of their adopted daughter. He has also voiced support for former colleague Connell Watkins, who was charged earlier this year with reckless child abuse resulting in death after a ten-year-old girl died while undergoing "rebirthing" therapy at Watkins's clinic in Evergreen.

And in what may prove to be his most notorious move, Cline is going to bat for Joseph Ciambrone, a Florida man now serving a life term in the beating/starvation death of his seven-year-old son.

"All the parents I know who have been involved in tragedies could not imagine in their wildest dreams that they would end up in a tragedy," Cline says. "Most had fostered other children successfully."

Parents of children suffering from attachment disorder turn to unorthodox therapy -- and therapists willing to offer it -- as a result of desperation, he says. Desperation born of an inability to find therapists who are specially trained to deal with children who kill pets, harm siblings and burn down houses.

The few therapists who specialize in attachment disorder feel desperation, too; they realize that if they cannot help, the child might well end up institutionalized for the remainder of his life.

"I just want to say right now that I hate always ending up on the wrong side of public opinion," Cline says. "I do not like being controversial. But sometimes you have to do what you think is right. That's gotten me into a lot of hot water, but when I take my last breath, I want to be able to say that I always did what I thought was right.

"My heart goes out to people who are laying their life on the line for disturbed kids."


Dennis "Bones" Evers, a former police chief in Arizona, and his wife, Sandy, love kids. They had seven of their own before they started taking in foster children. "We always thought when we were done having kids, we'd take in others who were less fortunate," Sandy says.

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