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.

On February 10, 1996, two-year-old David was rushed to North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley. He was barely alive, his body covered with bruises from his neck to his knees. He was airlifted to Children's Hospital in Denver, where he died that morning.

David had been adopted from Russia just six months earlier by agri-biz executive Davis Polreis and his wife, Renee. He'd been exhibiting severe behavioral problems: rages, biting his older brother and Renee, smearing himself and his surroundings with feces, eating bugs.

Renee Polreis took her young son to see two therapists, and the boy was diagnosed with RAD.

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.

Renee had made no secret of the fact that young David was causing a great deal of turmoil in the home. She complained to friends and social workers that his tantrums were long and frequent and that she feared for her safety and that of her other adopted son. She confided that she desperately wanted to "disrupt" the adoption -- give David up -- but that her husband did not agree.

On February 9, Renee was alone with the boy. Although she did not testify at her 1997 trial, at a hearing last month she explained that she had spent a long and trying day with David before things came to a head. David had refused to comply with simple requests, had sat in one place and remained motionless for hours, and then at one point attacked her, she testified. Earlier in the day, she'd fended him off with a kitchen utensil.

When David finally calmed down, she said, she gave him a bath and put him to bed. Later that night, however, she discovered David in the laundry room, covered with feces. She hit the boy then, she testified. She could not remember how many times she'd hit him or how long she'd hit him.

When it was over, she put David to bed with her. She was beside him when David suddenly sat up and vomited, she testified. After taking him to the bathroom, she discovered that he was not breathing.

Before calling 911, she summoned her mother to her home and called two of David's therapists. She told one of the therapists that she'd hurt the boy.

At David's funeral, the Polreises distributed information on attachment disorder and asked that in lieu of flowers, mourners send contributions to the Attachment Center at Evergreen.

At Polreis's sentence-reconsideration hearing last month, Cline told the court that Polreis and her husband had been successfully raising another adopted son, "a wonderful little boy," when David came into their lives.

"I did not see anything to show that she was an abusive parent." Nor, he said, did he see anything to indicate that David died as a result of the beating. (Doctors were split regarding the cause of death.)

"It's not a blame game," Cline testified. "I hate to see her life and that of her basically healthy eight-year-old boy ruined by her being in prison 22 years."

Ten days after the hearing, the judge reduced Polreis's sentence from 22 years to 18.

"I appreciate the judge's shortening the sentence," Cline says, "but I still feel like a nasty chunk of her life is gone. I feel if I was a judge, I probably would have reduced it more."

Psychologist Gregory Keck, founder and director of the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio, says he's approached "all the time" by attorneys in cases involving the death or abuse of kids with attachment disorder. He avoids those cases, he says: The fact that a child is out of control doesn't justify his death at the hands of another.

Cline feels uncomfortable going to bat for those people, too. "I do not seek these things out," he says, "but people in their plight have asked me if there's anything I can do to help."

And that's why he volunteered his help in Joseph Ciambrone's case. Ciambrone is serving a life sentence in Florida for the first-degree murder of his adopted son, Lucas, in 1995. Prosecutors say that seven-year-old Lucas -- who died of a head injury -- had been starved, bitten, beaten and forced to sleep in a bathroom stripped of towels, soap, toilet paper and light bulbs.

Although Ciambrone's wife, Heather, is the one who reportedly abused the boy, Ciambrone was accused of doing nothing to help the child. Heather Ciambrone has pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity and is expected to go to trial this fall.

There is little doubt that Lucas was highly disturbed. The boy had been beaten and possibly sexually abused by his stepfather, who also killed Lucas's mother. Lucas then went to live with the Ciambrones -- who'd fostered about thirty children over the years -- in 1991.

Psychiatrists and others testified at Joseph Ciambrone's 1997 trial that Lucas had tantrums in which he would throw himself onto the floor. The boy urinated on the floors, banged his head against walls, drank from the toilet and was once placed in a psychiatric ward after burning another child with a light bulb. One therapist said Lucas sexually acted out with other children, threatened to stab Heather Ciambrone, and threatened to harm a younger brother.

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