STAR TRIBUNE EXCLUSIVE: The couple that adopted a boy from Russia knew of his troubles long before he brought a gun to Hastings Middle School.
Exactly one year before an eighth-grader allegedly pulled a gun in Hastings Middle School on Monday, the adoptive parents who plucked the boy from a bleak Russian orphanage at age 3 had warned Dakota County officials in a letter that he was potentially violent.
Their fears were based on a decade of wrenching struggle, dealing with a child who had deep-seated mental and emotional problems they hadn't realized until bringing him into their home, and into their hearts.
"There's two tragedies -- that this happened [Monday at the school], but the other tragedy is that those with the power to help did not listen," said the boy's adoptive mother. In Monday's school lockdown, he is accused of threatening students and staff members. The gun never fired.
The parents' journey from a hope-filled trek to rural Russia to eventually giving up their parental rights and now knowing he is facing five felony charges is as intensely personal as it is painful.
The Star Tribune generally does not identify suspects under age 16 who are charged as a juvenile. To avoid identifying the suspect, the paper is not naming his parents.
Confidentiality laws also prevent Dakota County officials from discussing specific social services cases, said Gail Plewacki, communications director for Dakota County. "We have a commitment to consistently protect the best interests of our clients." Plewacki said the foster home chosen for the boy had been licensed by the state since 2005 and had never been cited for a violation.
That is little comfort to the adoptive parents, whose grief is laced with frustration and anger over what they said were unheeded warnings they noted in a letter sent April 5, 2009, to several Dakota County officials.
"His needs far exceeded what the normal or even the super-family -- the two-parent home that we had and the love we had to give -- his needs far exceeded what we could do," his mom said. "We exhausted all of our resources -- financially, emotionally, spiritually -- I mean, all of the resources we had."
After years of trying to find proper treatment, the couple said, they came to a heart-breaking, guilt-filled conclusion that still brings tears: When it comes to serious mental illness, sometimes love -- even sacrificial, unconditional love -- isn't enough. They gave up their parental rights in August.
"We still think of him as our son. He will always be a part of us," said the mom. "... We pray for him daily. We remember him."
"But yet, we're afraid of him," said the dad.
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The couple said they sensed something was wrong from the moment they met their son.
"There were obvious signs of neglect from the beginning," the mom said. "And when he met us, he was scratching his upper sleeve. And we pulled up to the sleeve to discover that he had been burned. The whole arm was weeping from this burn that hadn't healed."
From what they could piece together, the parents said, the boy might have been brought to a hospital and left there before being brought to the orphanage. Though the staff tried to minimize the burn, it clearly had a profound effect, the dad said.
"What we noticed was that the orphanage staff was so standoffish toward him," the mom said. "They weren't hugging him. They were happy when he left. ... He didn't look back, and they didn't look back."
Nine months before, the dad said, the couple had adopted another baby through the same agency at a different orphanage, and things had gone smoothly.
They expected a similar kind of adjustment as they had with their other child.
But their new son was clearly different. They could see his speech was delayed, but they also noticed he was stoic and never cried.
"At that point, we had no way of knowing what was ahead," the mom said. "We just knew we were called to do this."
Their good intentions soon butted up against behavior beyond the range of even the most difficult of children, the couple said. "Basically, he was oppositional," the dad said. "He liked to hurt people."
It is difficult for them to share details: unprovoked attacks, hurting his siblings, breaking furniture, hurting animals, violent thoughts and dreams. He could cry on command. "It came in handy, he said," according to the dad.
"It's a sad, sad story ... because we did everything that we knew possible," the mom said. "And the closer we wanted to get to him, the further away he wanted to get to from us."
When it was obvious their son's problems were serious, the long road of seeking therapy, medication and support from social services began. The parents have reams of letters and records detailing years of struggles.
The parents eventually discovered what they had feared: Their son had reactive attachment disorder.
Stemming from neglect as infants, symptoms include: defiance and anger, resisting affection, manipulative behavior, lying, stealing, lack of remorse and more.
And they later learned that attachment disorder was further complicated by fetal-alcohol syndrome (FAS).
From only the news accounts of Monday's incident, Jody Crowe knew immediately that the boy had FAS. Crowe is executive director of Healthy Brains for Children based in Brainerd and he has done extensive research on FAS.
"When something like this happens, people always say, 'Well, what was he thinking?'" Crowe said. "The assumption is that they're thinking normally. That's not the case."
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The parents made their first hard decision when their son was about 10: To disrupt the adoption.
"We knew that he needed us, but we also knew we were in harm's way," the mom said. "So what do you do? So what we ended up doing was the best alternative that we could think of, which was the Ranch for Kids in Montana."
The renowned facility prepares kids for re-adoption.
Their son was eventually placed in two different homes on a trial basis. Neither worked out, and in one case the boy tried to poison his prospective dad, his parents said.
The parents then made another difficult decision: To take their son back into their home. "We were definitely worried, but we thought to ourselves that we were so much more prepared," the mom said.
Part of that preparation included notifying social services and police, and making their home safe -- including an alarm that beeped if their son got out of bed at night.
At first things went well, but the outbursts continued, and he was placed in a residential treatment center several months later. The parents were told by officials there that they had never encountered such a difficult case.
After private insurance refused to continue the treatment when it became clear their son needed long-term care in a state facility, the couple turned to Dakota County for help. After being rebuffed, they opted to give up their parental rights.
"What I hope happens is that he finally gets the help I've been asking for," the mom said.
"As a mother, my mother's heart is broken by this, because it is exactly what I had known would happen. But I never wanted this to happen. I always wanted him to get well."
Jim Anderson • 612-673-7199