By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 2, 2006
Peggy Sue Hilt, standing in a Manassas courtroom yesterday, admitted killing her adopted Russian daughter, punching and kicking the 2-year-old so much that the tiny body was bruised all over. Between her eyes, on her chin, across her back and stomach.
Hilt had been enraged, she told police, and she had never bonded with the child.
Her court appearance was brief -- just long enough for a detective to describe the abuse and for Hilt to whisper a guilty plea to second-degree murder -- but the child's slaying has caused an international uproar.
Few familiar with Russian adoptions talk about Nina Victoria Hilt's death without mentioning the others. There was 8-year-old Dennis Merryman, who starved to death five years after coming to the United States. Before him was 6-year-old Alex Pavlis, beaten to death, and Liam Thompson, 3, who died after he was scalded by hot bath water. And so on and so on until the first known death in 1996. David Polreis was 2 when he was beaten to death with wooden spoons, authorities said.
In all, 14 adopted Russian children have been killed in the United States, officials say.
"If more and more children are being hurt, I am concerned about the future of adoptions with Russia," said Patrick Mason, with the International Adoption Center at Inova Hospital for Children. Since Nina's death, many Russian officials have shuffled through Mason's Fairfax office. "They see these children are coming here and they are being abused and they are being killed," he said. "Do you keep sending kids if they are being hurt?"
That question has troubled Russian citizens and the U.S. adoption community in the months since Nina's death July 2. Russian officials initially called for a moratorium on U.S. adoptions, and although they have eased back on the threat, many fear that Russia will halt adoptions if additional abuse occurs. Romania currently has such a ban in place. U.S. and Russian officials have also called for reforms, including stricter screening of prospective parents, improved pre-adoption training and a reevaluation of independent adoptions, those done through agencies not accredited by Russia.
According to the U.S. State Department, Russia is the second most popular country for international adoptions, after China. In 2005, the United States issued 4,639 immigrant visas to Russian orphans, down from 5,865 issued in 2004.
Adoption experts said they could not point to as many deaths among children adopted from any other country, including China. They said this could be in part because many of the Russian children who are adopted have behavioral and developmental problems either passed to them from parents with poor prenatal care, including fetal alcohol syndrome, or the result of their growing up in orphanages. Adoptive parents, they add, are given little preparation for what to expect.
An estimated 600,000 Russian children live in orphanages.
"These children came out of darkness, out of desperate institutions. This is all they've known," said Dr. Ronald S. Federici, an Alexandria neuropsychologist and expert on inter-country adoptions. He has adopted seven children, three from Russia. "Parents try traditional parenting, try to treat them as normal kids, and they are so far off."
"Anyone can get in over their head," Federici added. "So what happens if they are not trained, if they are not prepared? Disasters happen like this one."
In a 42-page transcript of her statement to police, Peggy Sue Hilt, 33, detailed the abuse that erupted July 1 at her home in Wake Forest, N.C.
"I hurt Nina," she began. "I choked her and I hit her and hit her."
"She was not behaving and not listening and just crying," Hilt told police. "I was so angry so angry. I got up to her bedroom and I said stop it, stop it! I dropped her on the floor and I kicked her."
Hilt told police she then put Nina back in bed and continued punching her on the back with a closed fist. She could not say how many times she hit Nina or if the child cried.
Hilt and her husband, Christopher, had adopted Nina, a curly-haired girl from Siberia, 16 months earlier. She told police they immediately encountered problems: potty training issues, speech delay, a lack of connection. "Since I brought Nina home we never bonded," Hilt told police. When asked whether the child favored someone else, she replied simply: "Anybody but me."
Nina died a day after the abuse occurred. She had slowly grown paler and more feverish during a four-hour drive to Prince William County, where the family visited friends. An autopsy determined that the cause of death was blunt trauma to the abdomen.
Hilt will remain in jail until her sentencing on May 25. Her attorney, William Stephens, said that psychological evaluations found Hilt to be sane and competent, but he plans to have another evaluation done before sentencing.
"It's sad," Stephens said. "Looking back, I suspect that there was easily a way that this would never have happened."
Hilt also had a second adopted child -- Nataliya, 4 -- from the Ukraine. Police said she showed no signs of abuse. Officials said Nataliya is in social services custody.
Prince William's chief prosecutor, Paul B. Ebert, said after the hearing that he believes the maximum sentence of 40 years in prison would be appropriate. "We can't justify our actions simply because we don't bond with the child," he said. "It's a horrible case when an innocent child is beaten to death. It's hard to understand how anybody could do that."
Ebert said he has received numerous calls from Russian media representatives since the slaying. At the same time, some U.S. parents and officials have taken out full-page ads in major Russian newspapers.
"The American adoption community spoke very respectfully and very passionately to the Russian government saying we are heartbroken over these deaths, we are going to enact reforms to continue improving so these things don't happen, but please don't shut down adoptions," Thomas Atwood, president of the National Council for Adoptions, said. "That's the only way these tragic events could be made more tragic."