Running out of answers

When Sasha was 7, a Minnesota family traveled to Ukraine to adopt him. By the time he was 11, two families had given him up, saying they couldn't handle him anymore. He was taken back to his native country, where he was left in a psychiatric hosp...

When Sasha was 7, a Minnesota family traveled to Ukraine to adopt him. By the time he was 11, two families had given him up, saying they couldn't handle him anymore. He was taken back to his native country, where he was left in a psychiatric hospital. "Sasha" was his nickname in Ukraine; the News Tribune has decided not to use his real name in this story because of his age and the sensitive information about his situation. Now, he is in a Duluth children's home, waiting for a court to decide what will happen to him.

After learning their 11-year-old adopted son, Sasha, would not be readopted by another family, Michelle and Jeffrey Bignell of Lakeland, Minn., saw two choices before them.

They could take back the boy who, they say, had broken their daughter's ankles and threatened to kill them. Or they could try to undo the adoption.

Glenda and David Kinghorn of Meadowlands took Sasha into their home at the Bignells' request, but they had no more success in dealing with the troubled boy than the Bignells had. Now that Sasha was in Millcreek of Arkansas, a treatment center for children, and the Kinghorns refused to adopt him, the Bignells were forced to act.

Sasha had been diagnosed with reactive attachment disorder, a serious mental illness found in children severely neglected as infants. Children with the disorder resistmaking personal connections and can react to affection with violence.


Jeffrey Bignell said he contacted Washington County for assistance after the Kinghorns' decision, "but they told me my only option was to place him back in our home for a 90-day evaluation."

Afraid the boy would again harm their daughter, Bignell said, "That wasn't an option."

Washington County social workers say they cannot comment on the case, but the recommendation Bignell refers to doesn't appear in county documents filed with the court.

What the family did next "was the best thing we could think of," Jeffrey Bignell said

In April 2005, the Bignells took Sasha to Ukraine and filed papers to annul his adoption.

Because Sasha was still a Ukrainian citizen, Bignell said he hoped the boy would get good care. They paid to put him in a mental hospital under a doctor's care, Bignell said, and had two friends and their lawyer check on him at least once every two weeks.

"We never abandoned him," Bignell said. "We never told him we would be back."



Gerald King, an American missionary working in Ukraine, believed otherwise.

He first met Michelle Bignell after a church service on April 17, 2005, when he asked her why she was in the country.

"She responded, somewhat hesitantly, that she was returning an adopted child who had been very problematic in their family," he wrote in an e-mail on Dec. 21, 2005, to Washington County social workers. "I really didn't how to respond. I had never heard of such a thing, and so just listened."

Several weeks passed and he had no more contact with Michelle Bignell. "Suddenly it struck me," he wrote, "that somewhere in the city, in a psychiatric hospital was an 11-year-old boy who probably was feeling very much alone."

The missionary went to visit Sasha and struck up a relationship with him that would last for the next year and a half.

On Dec. 21, 2005, King began sending e-mails detailing the boy's life and situation back to the Washington County Social Services Department. They are included in Sasha's Child In need of Protective Services, or CHIPS, file in Washington County, which is conducting legal proceedings to decide what should be done with the boy.

What King learned at the Ukrainian psychiatric hospital horrified him. He wrote that at various times the Bignells had told Sasha, hospital officials or Ukrainian authorities they would return for the boy in May, in June, in July and once more in September.

"September came and went and she never returned," King wrote.


Months before that, according a petition filed by a Washington County social worker, the Ukrainian court put the annulment on hold because it "had not been submitted in compliance with the court rules." Jeffrey Bignell said his family worked with their attorney in Ukraine to have the dispute resolved and was under the impression the case was going forward.

Meanwhile, as the case stalled, the Ukrainian government determined that Sasha had been abandoned, according to Washington County court records.

King felt that Sasha was languishing in Ukraine.

"He has often expressed a desire to 'go home.' I've asked him, 'Where is home?' " King wrote, "and he has replied, 'Minnesota.' I see this as a tragic situation where a child has been literally dumped, treated worse than most people would treat an animal. [The boy] did not ask for any psychological problems, but now he has even more to deal with, being rejected again and facing life on his own."

Over time, King's e-mails revealed that, even though he described Ukrainian authorities as providing tough but good care for Sasha, they had difficulty handling him.

When he was transferred from the psychiatric hospital in February 2006, almost a year after arriving in Ukraine, to a boarding school for orphans, a consultant to the U.S. embassy in Ukraine wrote that the boy became so disruptive -- poking a boy in the eyes, running and jumping on the beds of other kids -- that he was transferred back to the hospital only 17 days later.

Over the next several months, King would continue to visit Sasha once or twice a week, noting that at times he received pills and injections to control his behavior and at least once he had to be restrained in a bed. He wrote that the boy rarely attended classes, becoming "for all practical purposes" illiterate, and he disobeyed and fought with authority figures.

Still, Sasha hoped a family would adopt him, King's e-mails reported. He would often ask when he would be able to go home, but King couldn't give him an answer.


"He wants a good life and doesn't understand why all these bad things happen to him," King wrote on March 30, 2006, after Sasha had been transferred back to a boarding home. "In our time today I again saw a very sensitive and soft side of a child who is all alone in the world."

By October, King wrote that Sasha had been transferred back and forth at least four times from the hospital to the boarding school, which he ran away from twice. By September, authorities were finally moving forward with his case. In November, a Ukrainian court ruled the boy should be returned to the United States. On Dec. 6, Sasha arrived back in the United States with a suitcase containing a few clothes, a watch and a blanket.


That day, Jeffrey Bignell got an unexpected phone call from Tammy Kincaid, Washington County's Social Services supervisor.

"She said [Sasha's] back in the U.S. and [Michelle and I] have to be at a court hearing the next morning at 9," he said. Up to that point, Bignell said he had no idea Sasha was returning.

At the hearing, a judge gave temporary custody of the boy to Washington County, which placed him at Northwood Children's Services in Duluth the next day.

According to his attorney, Patricia Zenner, Sasha wanted her to ask the judge to place him back with the Bignells.

"I literally said to this boy, 'Please don't make me do that,' " she said. "In heavy tears, he said 'OK.' "


Michelle Bignell admitted at the hearing that she was unwilling or unable to provide the necessary care for the boy. At a Dec. 28 hearing, Jeffrey Bignell admitted the same thing, paving the way for termination of their parental rights. But the Bignells, who divorced in July 2006, expect the effects of the failed adoption to be with them for years.

"Right or wrong, we're likely going to end up paying for his care until he's 18," Jeffrey Bignell said.

At Northwood, CEO Jim Yeager said the 12-year-old began with a "normal testing of limits," but nothing unusual or violent.

Two weeks later, Yeager said, "the honeymoon phase has pretty much worn off."

"The boy isn't physically violent," he said, but constantly fights authority and has a "tendency to lash out and be aggressive" and "likes to challenge everything."

Yeager said there is hope to correct the boy's psychological problems. "Otherwise, we wouldn't have him here if there wasn't," he said. "He's pretty resilient in many ways. He's been a survivor."

Yeager would not grant permission for the News Tribune to interview or observe Sasha, saying it "would not be in his best interest."

In mid-January, after a comprehensive 35-day assessment has been completed, Zenner said many of the people charged with overseeing the boy's case -- including her, staff members from Northwood and Washington County social workers -- will meet at Northwood to discuss what should be done with Sasha.


A court hearing will also be held on Jan. 16 where Zenner said preliminary steps will be taken to decide Sasha's long-term fate. Yeager said the boy probably will end up staying at Northwood for a while, but he didn't know how long.

Zenner said the boy has repeatedly asked to be put with a family, and some potential parents have stepped forward and offered to take him. Those people are being evaluated.

"We don't want another failed placement," Zenner said.

But many experts say a child with violent reactive attachment disorder, especially an older child who hasn't been treated, shouldn't be placed with a family. They say a child with those characteristics would do better in smaller group homes, where parenting structures don't exist.

"There's never pressure from someone saying, 'I am your mom and you're supposed to feel this way about your mom,' " said Leslie Chaplin, a child and adolescent psychotherapist with the Duluth Clinic. "For some kids, this may be the absolute best thing."

As for their violent outbursts, as they grow up into their teenage years, the children either learn through natural consequences that their behavior won't be tolerated, or "they end up in jail."

"It just all depends on the care and treatment he gets," Chaplin said.

BRANDON STAHL covers health. He can be reached at (218) 720-4154 or by e-mail at .

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