REELEY, Colo. — By the time 2 1/2-year-old David Polreis was being airlifted to a hospital, he was brain dead with dark bruises on his chest, lacerations on his legs and swollen, bleeding genitals.
The fact that the Russian-born, adopted boy's mother, Renee Polreis, was out searching for a lawyer while he lay dying on the morning of Feb. 10, 1996, was only one of the reasons investigators believed it was a clear-cut case of severe child abuse.
Police who searched her home in an upscale subdivision here found two broken and bloody wooden spoons--one of them wrapped in a blood-splattered diaper and stuffed in a kitchen trash bag. A coroner's autopsy showed David had choked on vomit, which cut off oxygen to his brain.
Polreis, 43, the wife of an executive at a local meat packing plant and the owner of her own electrolysis business, has pleaded not guilty to charges of child abuse resulting in death.
Even a case this horrific might have garnered scant attention outside Colorado if not for the novel argument Polreis' lawyers want to take to trial on March 31: The towheaded boy may have died of self-inflicted wounds during a tantrum resulting from a condition known as attachment disorder.
That, or investigators are looking into whether his mother was driven to homicide by his antisocial, even sadistic behavior. Weld County District Judge Roger A. Klein is expected to rule as early as today whether to allow this unprecedented defense argument.
Symptoms of the disorder, which can particularly affect adopted or foster children who suffered severe abuse and neglect during their formative years, include an intense inner rage and hatred, an inability to love or trust, and a compulsion to hurt themselves and others without apparent remorse.
Never mind that Polreis once told a friend that if she ever began to hit David she would never be able to stop, according to police reports. Or, the reports said, that her methods of disciplining another adopted son, Isaac, 4, included having him stand beside the toilet and drop his pants before swatting him with a wooden spoon and then saying a prayer.
A growing number of supporters across the nation--including some mental health experts--sympathize with the woman who, if convicted, faces up to 32 years in prison. Those feelings have to do with the fact that while a majority of adopted children coming from Eastern bloc nations have minimal adjustment problems, a disturbing number show symptoms of attachment disorder.
Moreover, sensational cases of the disorder have become familiar on television newsmagazine shows. Some experts even believe that serial killer Ted Bundy and Unabomber suspect Theodore J. Kaczynski may have suffered from attachment disorder.
But critics worry the diagnosis is becoming the "attention deficit hyperactivity disorder of the 1990s," attracting faddish therapies and controversial treatments. That developmental disability affects children's behavior, attention and learning, and is now among the most common diagnoses in childhood.
Weld County Dist. Atty. A.M. Dominguez had other reasons for asking Klein not to allow Polreis to use the disorder as part of her defense. After all, he argued, at 2 1/2 years of age and 23 pounds, the child hardly presented a physical threat to his mother.
Beyond that, he fears that attachment disorder may become an excuse for child abuse. "Such a defense argument would defy common sense," Dominguez said.
But those who have dealt with this complicated disorder say few outsiders understand what it is like to parent such a child. To skeptics who doubt that antisocial behavior could manifest in a child as young as 2, experts say this is not unusual--particularly if there has been a lot of abuse.
"If someone said to me that Renee Polreis was driven to kill her child with a wooden spoon, could that happen with an attachment disorder child--I would say yes," said Thais Tepper, founder of a Pittsburgh group called the Parent Network for the Post-Institutionalized Child. "If somebody asked me whether this 2-year-old attachment disordered child could do something to himself to cause his death, based on what I know . . . I would say, yes."
Neither Polreis, who has posted bond of $80,000, nor her attorney, Jeff Springer, would comment on the case. But Tepper said defense attorneys have questioned her as to whether the boy could have died, not at his mother's hands, but as a result of some self-abusive behavior.
"I sent them a huge packet of stuff about self-destructive / suicidal behavior in young people," she said.
Laurie Holtz, a 39-year-old Seattle medical technologist whose adopted 8-year-old daughter, Tania, suffered from severe attachment disorder, also "feels compassion for Renee Polreis."
"Few people really understand the difficulties of parenting these children," said Holtz, whose daughter was adopted in Russia. "For several weeks I was afraid of Tania. She wanted to kill me and tried to."