A Deep Attachment

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."

The Nesmiths began attending the all-day classes for potential adoptive parents, which included discussions of attachment disorder and other parenting issues. They filled out the necessary paperwork. And every couple of weeks, Jamie would ask about the boy and his parents, checking to see if a decision had been made about relinquishment.

"The last time I asked--it was around the end of January [1996] or the first of February, somewhere around there--I was told that his parents were going to try to work it out," Jamie says. "The director told me that the parents had taken a trip to Mexico and that they were getting good counseling, or that it had been set up. And I thought everything had worked out."

The Nesmiths say they were happy for the boy, but by that time, their hearts were committed to parenting. They decided to adopt a three-year-old girl whose video they'd seen. And then their attention was riveted by a younger boy, aged two. "We didn't start out to get two," Jamie says. "But that's what happened." Three months after learning that they could not adopt David, the Nesmiths returned from Russia with the children they named Laura and Josh.

The Polreises' trip to Mexico that Jamie had heard about took place at a time when Renee was nearing the end of her rope with David. In January 1996 Renee told Fort Collins therapist Lloyd Boggs that if he could not see her prior to her weekend getaway to Mexico, she would not come back. She later told friends that the initial meeting with Boggs had gone very well and that she felt optimistic about her future and that of her son.

The trip to Mexico, which she and her husband had taken without the kids, was "heaven," Renee told friends when she returned. But coming back to Greeley and to young David, she said, was "hell."

Soon after their return, Renee's husband planned a weekend trip to Houston. It would be Renee's first time alone with the boys. David left town on Thursday morning, February 8. The following night, Renee's brother, Kevin Risk, took her son Isaac to spend the night at his house. At approximately 4 a.m. February 10, Renee phoned her brother and said that David had choked on vomit and that he wasn't breathing. When Risk arrived, Renee told him David had been sleeping with her in her bed when he began choking. Risk told his sister to phone paramedics.

But before calling for an ambulance, Renee phoned Norton and Boggs--both of whom reportedly told an attorney that Renee admitted hurting the boy. Renee did not call for medical help until approximately 4:20 a.m., and she remained silent when paramedics asked her what had happened to David.

The moment David arrived at North Colorado Medical Center in Greeley, doctors suspected that he might have been beaten, although they considered an alternative theory that the boy's horrific bruising, which covered 90 percent of his body, might have been caused by a raging infection.

David's condition was so grave that he was flown by helicopter to Children's Hospital in Denver to be treated by a trauma team that specializes in child-abuse cases. Dr. Emily Dobyn later told police that he had received "one of the worst beatings [she'd] ever seen." David was pronounced dead at 11:30 that morning. He was two months shy of his third birthday.

Renee never saw David at the hospital because, she told a police officer, she was "hospital-phobic" and she'd been busy trying to find a lawyer.

In a search of the Polreis house that same morning, police discovered two broken wooden spoons in a kitchen trash can. One of the spoons was wrapped inside a bloody diaper.

Social workers, concerned for the safety of the Polreises' son Isaac, removed the boy from the home. Within a month or so, however, mother and son were reunited. (At a child-custody hearing held last week regarding Isaac's placement, that arrangement reportedly was made permanent.)

Renee was arrested the day after David's death and had barely posted the $80,000 cash bond when a defense theory began taking root. The Polreis family asked that in lieu of flowers for David's funeral, contributions be sent to the Attachment Center in Evergreen--a clinic that specializes in treating children with attachment disorders, but a place to which Renee had never taken her son. And both she and her husband began collecting names of doctors who treat children with the alleged disorder.  

From that time on, proponents of the attachment theory and parents of other disturbed adopted children began rallying around the Polreises.

Pennsylvania housewife Thais Tepper claims no special knowledge of the Polreis case, but she has become something of an expert regarding attachment disorder. She adopted a boy from a Romanian orphanage in 1991 and then spent the next two years dragging him from doctor to doctor in an attempt to discover the cause of his autistic-like symptoms. She finally found an answer at a Washington, D.C., institute that specializes in the study of the psychological disorders of early childhood. Her child, she was told, had an attachment disorder.

"I came to realize," Tepper says, "that I couldn't be the only one with an adopted child from an orphanage who looked and acted like this." She began contacting other families and within a week found 24 other parents whose adopted children exhibited similar problems. Within six months the number grew to 150. And since April 1993, after forming a group called the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child, she and others in the organization have answered 4,000 requests for information. They process 30 to 50 applications or letters each week, Tepper says, and the group recently held a conference--their eighth--in Chicago.

"To say that all children with attachment disorder will become Ted Bundys is absurd," Tepper says. But after a flood of Russian children began arriving in the United States in the mid-Nineties, her group began hearing from parents whose children suffered severe emotional problems and who seemed more violent and self-destructive than the Romanian children.

"One [Russian] boy," Tepper says, "tried to walk out a seventh-story window. One tried to snip his penis off with a pair of scissors. One child took a hammer and killed 24 chicks. One kept a dead cat in a plastic bag under the porch. Several children have attempted suicide or talked about it. I've heard of them breaking glasses and then sticking the shards into their arms and laughing.

"Smashing their heads into stuff is very popular--running into poles, into sides of buildings. I know someone whose child wears a helmet because she bashed her teeth out." Nothing, Tepper says, is surprising to her anymore. And that includes the story of David and Renee Polreis. In fact, says Tepper, the death of an adopted Russian child is something she's been expecting for years. She says she can believe that a child such as David could end up killing himself. And she can also imagine an overwrought mother killing an attachment-disordered child.

"I recently talked to a woman in New Jersey who told me, 'I hate who I have become,'" Tepper says. "She said, 'I was not prepared for what this would do to my family. It has literally destroyed me.'

"I can't tell you how many parents have said to me that when their child is sick that they wish their child would die. The only unique thing about Renee is that her child is dead."

And for those reasons, Tepper says, she is infuriated by Weld County Deputy District Attorney Todd Taylor's stated contention that attachment disorder is "pop psychology at best and voodoo at worst."

Reactive attachment disorder may be a legitimate diagnosis in the cases of some children bent on self-abusive behavior, concedes a pediatric pathologist who asked that his name not be used. But he says the defense suggestion that David may have caused his own injuries is ridiculous. "A three-year-old does not have the developmental capability of carrying out a systematic, brutal beating on himself," says the doctor.

That David might have caused his own fatal injuries, the doctor adds, "is the most bullshit argument I've ever heard."

The Nesmiths, while less outspoken than the doctor, believe that a snap diagnosis of attachment disorder can interfere with the way a parent deals with a child. "It becomes such a huge thing in the minds of those who have children with attachment problems that they try to [apply] it to every family and insist that we all have problem children," Jamie says. "And we don't."

If a disciple of the attachment theory had seen her son when he first arrived in the United States, Jamie says, "they would have said he had it, because I couldn't hold him without him biting me." Now, she says, she and her son are very close.  

"They don't know that this new person is their mother," Jamie says of the children. "All they know is that this person yanked them out of familiar surroundings. You have to look at it from their point of view--it was our choice, not theirs, that this happened. They are not there to fulfill us. We are a resource to tend to them and nurture them." Still, she and her husband say they have received a great deal of happiness from their children, and they hope to adopt a third child in another year or two.

The Nesmiths were able to work through their children's emotional upheaval, but they did have concerns about their health--both Josh and Laura tested positive for hepatitis B. Seeking support, Jamie began logging on to a computer chat room devoted to parents who'd adopted Russian children. One day while on the chat line, she read a note by someone who mentioned that she was concerned about a woman in Colorado who'd killed her child.

"Something went up my spine," Jamie says, and she "knew" it was the same child she and her husband had tried to adopt. She found an Internet article on the Polreis case that contained a reference to the Polreises' trip to Mexico, which intensified her suspicions.

That same night, Jamie says, she sent an e-mail message to the director of Rainbow House seeking confirmation of the boy's identity. "I told them, 'I'm in shock,'" Jamie says now. "I said, 'I feel like I've been punched in the stomach.'"

Yes, Jamie was told, David Polreis was the boy she'd been trying to adopt. Agency workers hadn't told her sooner, they explained, because they, too, were grieving.

The mourning for the boy she and her husband never met "has been awful," Jamie says. "I have never even seen a picture of him, but I care about him."

Last month Jim Nesmith made a special trip to Greeley to see David's grave. "I arrived just as the sun was rising," he tells Westword. "It was incredibly sad. Poor little David.

"I am not a man given to extremes of emotion, but standing over his grave in the crisp morning air and the rising sun blasting me in the face, I lost it. I cried, raged and prayed for that little boy. Nobody stood up to defend and protect him."

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