c.1997 The Boston Globe
GREELEY, Colo.Motherhood was a dream that Renee Polreis nurtured through years of fertility treatments, her desire for children growing more palpable with each failure to conceive.
On the other side of the world, a blond 2-year-old boy grew out of infancy without a mother's love, spending his early months in a Russian orphanage.
The two seemed perfectly matched to fill each other's needs. But six months after Polreis and her husband, David, adopted the child and named him David Jr., the little boy was dead, and Renee Polreis, 43, stood accused of killing him.
Rescue workers took him from his parents' bathroom on Feb. 11, 1996, nearly brain dead and with bruises coating his body like a rash. He had been alone with Polreis all night. Doctors called it one of the worst child abuse cases they'd ever seen. Police found a broken wooden spoon wrapped in a bloody diaper in a trash can.
The death shocked people in placid, family-oriented Greeley, many of whose residents described Polreis as the model of a caring mother.
But their shock turned to puzzlement and even to anger when Polreis's lawyer declared that he intended to prove that David Jr. caused his own wounds while raging under a psychological ``attachment disorder'' that sometimes strikes children from neglectful orphanages.
The little boy, the lawyer said, harmed himself while thrashing in a fit sparked by his refusal to accept his new family.
Three weeks ago, a skeptical judge delayed Polreis's trial to give her lawyer a chance to prove that a 2-year-old might be capable of injuring himself so gravely and to prove that attachment disorder is a medical syndrome, not the ``pop psychology'' name tag derided by the prosecution.
If the lawyer, Harvey Steinberg, can satisfy the judge, a jury will hear testimony this summer on the defense that some observers are calling the apotheosis of 1990s-style excuse mongering: The child abused himself.
``It's preposterous,'' said Dr. Eli Newberger, medical director of the child protection program at Boston Children's Hospital. ``I'm not aware of any behavior we could call suicidal in 2-year-olds. To my mind, it falls into the same category of fabulous explanation as 2-year-olds being capable of murdering infants, an excuse used by some murdering parents.''
``There's a whole lot of quackery in attachment theory,'' said Newberger, a pediatrician. He said the case illustrates the dangers of psychologists elevating theories about the necessity of infant ``bonding'' into medical diagnoses.
Around the country, the Polreis case is fueling powerful arguments among adoption professionals. Some maintain that problems with adopted children are no different from those of others. To suggest that adopted children are more troublesome, some say, is an unfair stereotype.
But many mental-health professionals have lent some credibility to Polreis's assertion by stating that attachment disorder is a growing problem among adopted children. Steinberg has filed court papers offering a long list of psychologists he says will vouch for the syndrome.
And some adoption professionals do suggest a higher incidence of violent behavior in children from the former Eastern Bloc.
``I know her, and I know him, and I know attachment disorder,'' declared Julie Haralson, director of the Colorado Adoption Center, which assessed Renee and David Polreis as parents. ``I definitely think he could have done this to himself.''
Haralson said her agency has had terrible experiences with children from Russia and Romania, with many of them unable to bond with their adoptive parents. In an interview with detectives after David Jr.'s death, Haralson called the boy ``that unattached, crazy kid'' more than 30 times, according to police.
But Donna Clauss, director of the Denver office of Rainbow House International, the agency that introduced the Polreises to David Jr., said that she has never known such a disorder.
``Our agency has been working for five years in Eastern Europe, and I've never had it reported in any of our placements,'' she said, adding, ``but just as in the delivery room there are no guarantees, the same is true of adoption.''
Still, adoption can be a cumbersome process. Many agencies maintain long waiting lists for American-born babies. Therefore, more and more Americans are looking overseas for children.
About 10,000 foreign-born children each year are adopted into American homes. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, rising percentages of those children are from the countries of the former Soviet bloc.
The Polreises fit a common profile of adoptive parents. They are a long-married professional couple with high incomes who were unable to have their own children. David Polreis is a vice president of ConAgra, one of Greeley's largest employers. Renee runs a storefront electrolysis business.
The Polreises adopted an American-born infant in 1992, whom they named Isaac. After Isaac grew out of infancy, Renee began yearning for another baby.
After reportedly confiding in friends her fear of adopting a child from ``an atheist country,'' she and her husband journeyed to Russia and adopted David Jr.
The growing family moved to a new home, in a subdivision reminiscent of the ``Brady Bunch'' bedroom communities of the 1970s. A split-level with two bird feeders, potted flowers and a basketball hoop outside, the Polreis home seemed from the outside a vision of domestic harmony.
But inside, little David Jr. was the focus of problems. He would fight with his mother and brother, Renee reported to friends. Once, he bit her finger almost to the bone.
After several stressful months, she sought help from a local psychologist who specialized in childhood disorders.
Kathleen Edick, the Polreises' adoption agent from Rainbow House International, said Renee became alarmed when, during a therapy session in the psychologist's office, David Jr. picked up a rubber knife and began stabbing her.
Edick testified that the psychologist, Byron Norton, diagnosed David Jr. with an attachment disorder and said his chances of developing a happy bond with the family were slight. Norton did not testify and did not return a phone message.
Renee Polreis consulted other specialists, including counselors at the Attachment Center in Evergreen, Colo., said a friend, Kathy Brown. She testified that Polreis told her that all the therapists suggested that David Jr. would not grow up to be ``a normal, moral adult.''
``She stressed the moral part of it, that he would be without morals, wouldn't be capable of learning morality and a sense of morality, described it actually sort of as a criminal personality,'' Brown testified.
At one point, Edick testified, Polreis said she feared she would abuse her son. ``She disclosed to me that ... if she ever started hitting David, she would not stop,'' Edick said.
Polreis moved to place David Jr. in foster care, but her husband objected, friends say, and soon the husband and wife began arguing.
Tracy Kimsey, who also talked to Polreis during this period, said her friend was dismayed by David Jr.'s problems but only because she was a loving mother. ``When you're a parent, everything is for your child,'' Kimsey said.
On Friday, Feb. 9, David Polreis went to Houston to visit a friend. Renee's mother took Isaac to stay at her house. At 4:19 a.m. that Sunday, emergency dispatchers received a call from Renee Polreis saying that her son was choking.
Telephone records indicate that before dialing 911, Polreis called her mother, brother, and two therapists. The therapists finally persuaded her to call for help. It was too late. The injured David Jr. never regained consciousness.
Almost as soon as word of Polreis's arrest began circulating in the adoption community, offers of support began to arrive. Her private investigator lined up many sympathizers at a meeting in Cleveland of an organization called the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child.
``We see kids who are self-injurious, who take X-acto knives and slice up their arms, their bodies, their faces,'' Gregory Keck, a Cleveland psychologist, told a reporter.
But other mental-health professionals profoundly disagree.
Herb Schreier, chief of psychology at Children's Hospital in Oakland, Calif., said studies have shown that neglect in orphanages usually does not render children unable to bond with adoptive parents. When problems do pop up, Schreier said, children get better through therapy.
Meanwhile, in Greeley, Polreis is free on an $80,000 cash bond. She is back at work, but she remains a polarizing figure to her neighbors.
``From working in a barber shop, where people talk, I can say they got her as guilty,'' said Linda Bass, of Linda's Barber Shop. ``They don't think a baby can kill himself.''
David Jr.'s funeral was private, but people from town, some deeply grieving, were allowed to attend a memorial service at St. Paul's Congregational Church. Renee Polreis sat in the front row, appearing a mournful mother.
``I believe in times like this it is difficult to come up with human words, and we have to turn to God for comfort,'' said the Rev. Ken Fulton, who conducted the service, alluding to the swirl of emotions buffeting the town.
The Polreises, however, pointed at attachment disorder. Mourners were asked to make out checks to the Attachment Center.
c.1997 N.Y. Times News Service=@
Rigid and wide-eyed with terror, 9-year-old Oliver Wyatt (Sam Bould) steals into the recesses of his mother's garage where he cowers in the darkness like a frightened animal, clutching his injured hand, and waits for his mother to return home from work.
Oliver has just been brutally punished by Frank Donally (Jason Flemyng), his mother's architect boyfriend, for some imaginary infraction. It's not the first serious injury Oliver has suffered at Frank's hands, but the boy is scared to tell his mother that the man who has made her so happy is responsible.
The scenes of this frightened child navigating through the house in which this abusive monster could spring out at any second are among the most wrenching moments in Angela Pope's powerful and unsettling film, ``Hollow Reed.'' Adapted from a short story by Paula Milne, the British film is a probing sociological tract fitted into the contours of a suspense thriller. Casting a cold inquiring gaze on contemporary British attitudes toward divorce, child custody and homosexuality, the film looks deeply into the network of troubled adult relationships surrounding Oliver and finds a maelstrom of resentment and sorrow.
At the heart of the drama is a failed marriage fraught with extreme bitterness. Oliver's parents, Martyn (Martin Donovan) and Hannah (Joely Richardson), have divorced after Martyn, a family doctor who had been struggling to suppress his homosexuality, finally acknowledged his orientation and left his wife for a male lover. Hannah, who also works in the medical profession, has assumed custody of Oliver. She unabashedly hates her ex-husband, whose live-in boyfriend, Tom (Ian Hart), works in a record store.
Whenever Oliver is hurt, he runs home to his father, who has been granted limited access to his son. After the boy has suffered several mysterious ``accidents'' for which he invents unsatisfying explanations, Martyn intuits that Frank is the culprit. And when Hannah unexpectedly returns home and discovers her lover beating Oliver, she throws him out of the house.
If the movie ended right here, it would be a pat little drama of child abuse, denial and discovery. But Frank weeps and loves his way back into Hannah's good graces and vows never to strike the boy again. A vicious child custody battle ensues in which Hannah and Frank unite against Martyn, whose homosexuality is used against him in court interrogations that are loaded with nasty insinuation. And in the film's ugliest scene, Frank takes Oliver aside and poisonously tries to instill him with a fear and loathing of homosexuality. At the same time, Martyn's and Tom's edgy relationship is severely tested.
``Hollow Reed'' makes no bones about whose side it is on. Martyn is a gentle, caring father who, although far from comfortable living as an openly gay man, stands up for the truth no matter how personally embarrassing. Hannah may be a loving mother, but her decision to lie in court about Frank's behavior is an unforgivable betrayal of her son.
The exceptional performances go a long way toward shading characters who might easily have been painted in black- and- white. Donovan gives Martyn an anguished perplexity and stubbornness that is not altogether heroic, while Flemyng reveals the frightened little boy (who was abused by his own father) inside the macho man. Hart's tartly fiery Tom has no patience for Martyn's initial impulse to try to conceal their relationship. Ms. Richardson delivers a compellingly scary portrait of a determined woman driven by revenge and her own sexual needs to do the wrong thing.
If ``Hollow Reed'' is a little too schematic and builds to a clumsy soap-opera finale on Hannah's front lawn, it gets under the skins of its major characters in a way that movies seldom do. Long after it's over, you will remember their hurts and worry about the damage done to the child caught in the crossfire of their passions.
Directed by Angela Pope; written by Paula Milne; director of photography, Remi Adefarasin; edited by Sue Wyatt; music by Anne Dudley; production designer, Stuart Walker; produced by Elizabeth Karlsen; released by Cinepix Film Properties. Running time: 106 minutes. This film is not rated.
Cast: Martin Donovan (Martyn Wyatt), Joely Richardson (Hannah Wyatt), Ian Hart (Tom Dixon), Jason Flemyng (Frank Donally) and Sam Bould (Oliver Wyatt).
c.1997 San Francisco Examiner
SACRAMENTO, Calif.Northwest Airlines Co-chairman Al Checchi has all but declared himself a candidate for governor and laid out his views on several hot topicsincluding support for extending San Francisco's landmark domestic partners law throughout California.
But he got a quick sample of the rough road ahead when reporters at the Sacramento Press Club grilled him about his voting record, his reference to Sen. Dianne Feinstein 's age and his view of a possibly nasty campaign.
The questioning followed a Wednesday speech in which Checchi said, ``I probably will run'' for the 1998 Democratic nomination for governor.
Checchi, who is spending $3 million exploring a gubernatorial bid, said his decision rested on concerns for his family and his ability to develop a comprehensive platform.
Outlining stances on issues while not declaring outright, he talked like a candidate. For the first time, he provided his views on several potential campaign issues.
Checchi said he would support domestic partnership plans for the state like the one San Francisco has instituted. The city soon will require all companies it does business with to offer employees' domestic partners the same benefits as spouses of married employees.
Northwest doesn't have a domestic partners policy, Checchi said, but it's ``on the table'' in management discussions.
Checchi also said he would ask voters for a two-year moratorium on initiatives to give him a chance to improve government before they take measures to the ballot box.
He also favors ``very stiff employer sanctions'' to punish those who hire illegal immigrants, rather than punishing the workers.
Checchi, 48, of Beverly Hills, has begun to increase his public appearances. He and his wife, Kathy, worked the crowds at the state Democratic Convention earlier this month, and last week he made the rounds of Sacramento legislators. He already has hired a campaign consultant.
``I'm starting to find my voice,'' he said, but he acknowledged, ``I still need lots of work.''
Still, his views on policy issues were largely overshadowed Wednesday by reporters' demands for an explanation about his failure to vote in recent off-year elections.
Voter records show Checchi failed to vote in four of the past six statewide elections.
Checchi said Wednesday he opposed Proposition 187, the anti-immigration initiative on the 1994 ballot, but had failed to vote in the election.
He also opposed Proposition 209, the 1996 affirmative action measure recently upheld by the court. Checchi first said he had not voted on the matter, then corrected himself, saying he had cast a ballot in the November presidential election.
On his failure to vote in other years, Checchi said he had felt a ``lack of choice,'' or he had failed to obtain an absentee ballot before traveling on business abroad.
Checchi also handicapped his potential Democratic opponents in what could be a crowded and contentious 1998 campaign.
Lt. Gov. Gray Davis is the only declared Democratic candidate, but other possible candidates are Feinstein, former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta and state Controller Kathleen Connell.
Attorney General Dan Lungren is the only Republican candidate.
Checchi said Connell and Panetta might lack the funding for a prolonged campaign, and said Davis did not appear to ``excite or ignite wild popular support'' among Democrats.
And he responded to Feinstein's recent comments that appeared to compare him with other wealthy people who had run for office.
``I am different from Michael Huffington and John Seymour,'' he said, referring to past political opponents of Feinstein.
``I did not come from nowhere,'' he said. ``I have a set of accomplishments and experiences a bit different from hers ... I have built organizations.''
Then he raised eyebrows by citing what he called ``generational differences'' with Feinstein, 63.
Checchi repeatedly said he didn't mean the Democratic senator from San Francisco was too old for the job. Instead, he said the remark was meant to distinguish their ``experience,'' not their ages.
Checchi also was asked what would happen to his pledge to run a positive campaign if his rivals got tough.
``If it gets nasty, it won't be because of me,'' he said. ``But if anybody attacks me personally ... or my family, then it will indeed get nasty,'' he said. Asked whether that meant he would retaliate, Checchi said, ``Yes, I would.''
He said one of the chief obstacles to a campaignfamily concernsappeared to be easing. Checchi and his wife have three children: Adam, 20, Kristin, 17, and Kate, 12.
His wife, and his two older children, have already offered support for a candidacyand ``Kate says if she had a dog, she might be able to get through this,'' he said.
Go back to SOCIOLOGY 260 -- Sociology of Marriage and the Family Page
If you have any questions or comments please email: