Terrible Two

In the weeks before her adopted son died, Greeley business owner Renee Polreis told friends she had come to fear David. Where others saw a delightful two-year-old towhead, she saw a monster who was destroying her marriage and making life, in her own words, a living hell.

David's tantrums were horrific, Renee told friends, and he seemed to care for everyone but her. Though the boy, an orphan adopted from Russia, had lived with the family for just six months, Renee confided that she wished desperately to give up custody. The only reason she didn't was that her husband, Dave, a vice president with the ConAgra conglomerate, resisted.

It was with uneasiness, then, that Renee saw her husband off for a trip to Houston on the morning of Friday, February 9. For the first time, she'd be alone with David and the couple's four-year-old son, Isaac, for an entire weekend. Friends offered to lend a hand should she need anything, but the 42-year-old Renee was relieved from some of the burden when her mother invited Isaac to spend Friday night with her.

Less than twelve hours after Renee's mother left the Polreis home with Isaac in tow, David lay dying on the floor of Renee's spacious bathroom. Renee--a woman friends describe as patient, religious and a wonderful mother--had allegedly beat the toddler to death. Police believe that she hit the boy repeatedly with a wooden spoon. When the spoon broke, they believe, she picked up another one and resumed the beating until that one broke, too.

Emergency-room doctors said the boy was cut and bruised over 90 percent of his body. According to the autopsy report, the boy was beaten so badly that he threw up and choked on his own vomit, cutting off oxygen to his brain. A second pathologist, after reviewing the autopsy report, says the boy suffered what amounted to "abject torture."

One of Renee's friends later told police that Renee had been afraid something like this would happen. According to adoption caseworker Kathy Edick, Renee said she'd told her therapist that "if she ever hit David, she wouldn't be able to stop."

David's death and his mother's arrest on a charge of child abuse resulting in death have cracked the complacent facade of Greeley, a quiet agricultural community that has retained a small-town feel despite seeing rapid growth in recent years. The case has created a rift among friends of the Polreis family over Renee's guilt or innocence. And it has added to the debate about an already controversial psychological theory known as attachment disorder.

Renee Polreis declined to be interviewed about her case. But when asked how to best tell her side of the story during a break in a court hearing last month, she told a reporter to "just research attachment disorder."

According to that theory, which was applied to young David Polreis by a Greeley psychologist, children who have been abused or abandoned at an early age--particularly adopted children--are prone to violence and rage. "Attachment disorder" has exploded onto the therapeutic scene in recent years, with significant increases in reported diagnoses and in the number of therapists offering treatment for the condition.

Children who suffer from attachment disorder, say therapists, tend to be superficially charming to outsiders while exhibiting cruelty to their parents, to animals and to other children. Those with the most severe form of the disorder are destructive, assaultive and might act out sexually.

Renee's repeated assertion that David was an "unattached child"--the most severe form of attachment disorder--has generated support for her from across the country from parents of children similarly diagnosed. According to Renee's friend Helen Kunze of Denver, Renee has received more than 100 calls and letters from other adoptive parents, many of whom have offered to testify on her behalf when she goes on trial next month.

Some of Renee's friends, however, believe she was victimized by child therapists who confirmed and then exaggerated her worst fears about her son. Others are angry at Renee and at her Denver attorneys, who they say appear to be building a defense around the psychological disorder as a way to excuse the boy's injuries and death.

"I'm concerned about the whole thing being portrayed as being the victim's fault," complains a business acquaintance of Renee's who asks not to be identified. "I don't care if this child was the devil himself. I don't care if he attacked his mother with a knife. That is no reason to beat him to death.

"Her own mother said to me, 'You know that Renee could not have done this,'" the woman continues. "But I think that's what the family has done to protect its own psyche. They're saying, 'Look what this child did to us.' It's like they believe a devil child came into the family and ruined it.

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Karen Bowers