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Tuesday, September 16, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 57.0° F  Fair
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Sins of the son
How a family's desire to give a child a chance led to unspeakable tragedy
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Isaac, Scott and Debbie, in happier times.

They arrived during the two months of the year when the weather in Perm was mild. The Russian city, nestled at the foot of the Ural mountains, was gripped by cold for much of the year. But in July, the sun shone, and the birch trees were full of leaves.

It was a lovely city, despite the poverty and decay.

The Rev. Scott Carlson and his wife, Penny, had come to Russia to adopt a child. The couple lived in Eau Claire with three daughters of their own. But they'd always talked of expanding their family by adopting.

When they asked their daughters about the idea, it was 9-year-old Whitney who said, "Look, we've got enough girls! Whatever you do, don't bring another girl home."

In Russia, they met up with a woman named Lena. She had arranged the adoption, emailing the Carlsons photos and medical records of potential adoptees. Now she drove them to the orphanage.

They walked in the back door. There were stairs leading up to a landing and a second-floor meeting room. When the Rev. Carlson looked up, he saw Isaac's tiny face between the iron bars, peering down at them. He was 7 years old.

No one at the orphanage - including Isaac - spoke English. So Lena acted as interpreter, going over the paperwork. While the adults talked, Isaac played on the floor with some toy cars. After a while, Carlson sat down beside him, took a car and started making engine noises. Isaac laughed.

"He acted like a typical 7-year-old meeting people for the first time," recalls Carlson. "He was polite, respectful."

And he looked them in the eye. That was significant. Carlson and his wife knew that many children coming out of the orphanages in Eastern Europe had attachment disorders. They'd been so severely neglected, they couldn't bond with adults. Isaac displayed none of the symptoms. He was shy, but not distant.

The orphanage allowed them to keep Isaac in their hotel room while they waited for a court date the following week. "It was terrific," says Carlson. "We had him with us for 10 days."

They explored Perm, taking Isaac to the zoo, to restaurants and the market. They also discovered that Isaac knew almost nothing about the modern world. He had never used a flush toilet. He didn't know how to step onto an escalator.

"All those little things that you teach kids - how to flush the toilet, how to wash your hands - we were doing it with a child of 7," says Carlson. "That was fun. And odd."

Isaac asked a lot of questions about their family. They showed him pictures of their daughters, of the dog and cats. They told him about his new grandparents and the rest of the family waiting to meet him.

He was excited. "It was a shot at a life for him," says Carlson. "The tragedy is that shot at a life has just been thrown away."

Last summer, Isaac, now a teenager, did something unthinkable. Something those days in Russia, and years growing up in the U.S., hadn't warned Carlson he would do: He killed his sister Whitney.

Pain and betrayal

Isaac's adoptive mother, Penny Ripplinger, lives in North Dakota with her new husband. She declined to be interviewed by Isthmus.

Sergei Isaac Carlson's trial begins next week in Bismarck. He has been charged with first-degree intentional homicide and a deviate sexual act. According to the criminal complaint, in July 2007, Isaac snuck into Whitney's bedroom, strangled her with his hands, then performed a sex act on her. She was 16 years old. Isaac, who was only 15 at the time, has pleaded not guilty. Prosecutors and the defense attorney have submitted a plea deal to the judge.

Ripplinger divorced Scott Carlson in 2002, three years after the couple had adopted Isaac. Afterward, Carlson moved with his son to Sun Prairie, where he became senior pastor at United Methodist Church. He has since remarried. His three daughters, including Whitney, lived in North Dakota with their mother after the divorce. Isaac would visit them during the summer and on school vacations.

Carlson agreed to speak about Isaac's past, though he won't divulge details about Whitney's murder or what Isaac said in his confession to police. Instead, what emerges in conversation with Carlson is a portrait of a man struggling to forgive his son while accepting the loss of a beloved daughter.

"When he killed Whitney, as a parent what I had to do is say, What am I going to do now?" he explains.

Carlson knew he could remain angry with Isaac, and cut off all contact with him. In fact, that's what Ripplinger did. She won't visit Isaac in prison, nor speak to him on the phone. Carlson agonized over whether he should do the same.

He worried whether forgiving Isaac meant he had to excuse what Isaac had done. "I think for a lot of people, that's what forgiveness means," he says. "Some people reject it because they can't ever accept those horrible actions."

But for Carlson, forgiving Isaac means working toward a reconciliation, while at the same time never forgetting nor accepting what he did. "I struggle with this whole concept of forgiveness. A lot."

A month and a half after Whitney's death, Carlson called Isaac for the first time. Before he talked to his son, he thought about what he could possibly say to him.

"The first question I asked myself was, How on earth can I relate to Isaac in a way good for my soul? As a pastor, I see people hurt all the time." How they responded to that pain, he knew, affected the rest of their lives. "I see them live life always hurting."

Carlson decided to be truthful with Isaac about the pain and betrayal he felt. "If I was going to talk to him again, it was important to be honest and not pretend this didn't happen," he says. "The real option was to just cut him out of my life. I made a conscious choice not to do it."

When he's in North Dakota, Carlson will visit Isaac, though he won't make a special trip to the state to see him. He speaks to Isaac by phone several times a week.

He won't say much about their discussions, worried he might let something slip that could affect the trial. But he has noticed things about Isaac's behavior in lockup that weren't obvious before. A court-appointed psychiatrist told him that Isaac appears to have a mild form of reactive attachment disorder and even a mild case of fetal alcohol syndrome. The judge has since ordered a mental evaluation to determine if Isaac suffered an "extreme emotional disturbance" at the time of his sister's death.

"He did a good job of trying to fit in," says Carlson of Isaac. But his son's background was tough to overcome. "His understanding of things is different. He learned to depend on himself for basic things. By the time we became his parents, he had never learned he could count on other people."

Unanswered questions

Like most families adopting abroad, Carlson and his wife did their research. They knew that children coming out of the institutions suffered a host of developmental problems. They were often malnourished, so they would learn to hoard food. They lacked stimulation - raised in white, sterile environments - so they developed motor and sensory problems. And those problems, in turn, led to cognitive delays.

"A lot of aspects of development are hardwired," says Seth Pollak, director of the UW-Madison's Child Emotion Research Lab. "The human brain expects certain kinds of information. Without those experiences, it may be that the brain doesn't grow normally."

Pollak has tracked 3,000 children in Wisconsin and Michigan who were adopted from abroad. His studies have led to remarkable discoveries about the importance of stimulation and even affection on early child development. A big issue with the lack of attention is reactive attachment disorder, in which a child is so neglected, he becomes unable to form normal relationships. A baby needs to be rocked, to be held, soothed and comforted.

"Knowing when you're scared that someone protects you - that someone responds to your distress call," says Pollak. "All these kinds of things can't happen when children are cared for en masse."

In Russia, where alcohol abuse is rampant, children often suffer from fetal alcohol syndrome. But the photo Lena sent of Isaac showed a healthy boy. He had none of the facial deformities - small eyeholes and flattened cheekbones - common in children with fetal alcohol syndrome.

The Carlsons knew there was a danger of an attachment disorder. Isaac had spent about two years in the orphanage, living there until he was 7. Before that, he had lived with his alcoholic mother and a father who came and went. The Russian authorities finally removed him because of severe neglect.

"It's a mystery what took place before he got to the orphanage," admits Carlson.

Isaac remembers a little of it. He told Carlson he once hid from his drunken father by crawling into a trunk. His father sat on the trunk for a long time, never knowing his son was inside.

And there are scars on Isaac's torso. He can't explain what happened, other than to say his mother had cut him.

"When you're adopting from another country, there are a lot of unanswered questions," says Carlson. "The reality is, you're probably going to get a child damaged in life." He pauses, then adds, "It's almost unfair to say that, because we've all been hurt in some way."

But Carlson says he never saw anything in Isaac's behavior to indicate there might be a problem. He sent Isaac to counseling after the divorce, but says even the counselor was shocked when Isaac admitted to police that he killed Whitney.

"You didn't have him hurting himself, hurting others. He seemed fine," says Carlson. "But on the flip side, he killed his sister. He clearly doesn't attach to people like you or I do."

Indications of something more?

Looking back, there were little signs that something was amiss. One day while they were in Russia, Carlson left Isaac and his wife alone in the hotel room. She could not control him.

"He had a lot less respect for women," says Carlson, describing his son as acting "defiant" when women were present. In America, he did better with male teachers.

And Carlson says the difficulty his former wife had getting along with Isaac "played a part" in their decision to have Isaac live in Sun Prairie after the divorce. His new wife, Debbie, he adds, had a better relationship with him: "He sees her more as a mother." Last year, Isaac sent Carlson and Debbie Christmas presents from the correctional facility, marked "to Mom and Dad."

Isaac also struggled to adapt to school. If he had not been adopted by the Carlsons, he would have eventually moved on to a Russian school orphanage - institutions notorious for their brutality and abuse.

Dana Johnson, head of the International Adoption Medicine Program at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities, calls these orphanages Lord of the Flies environments, where the younger kids are abused physically and sexually by both their caregivers and older kids. "It's a terrible, terrible situation," he says.

Isaac knew about the orphanages and was subsequently scared to go to any school, says Carlson. It didn't help that for the first six months in America, he couldn't speak English, and the other kids picked on him. He eventually learned to defend himself, usually physically. When Isaac was in first grade, Carlson got calls from the school sometimes two or three times a day.

Once, when a student at the middle school called him a "Russian" and teased him for not eating cereal with milk, he responded by calling the kid - who was black - "Martin Luther King Jr." Later, the kid and his friends surrounded Isaac on the playground. A fight ensued.

"He tends to be very intimidating," says Carlson. "He was a quiet kid. But you also knew, don't mess with him."

Isaac also developed some addictions. In fifth grade, he became obsessed with Yu-Gi-Oh!, a Japanese trading card game similar to Pokémon. He even stole about $130 from his parents so he could buy more cards.

Later, when he was spending summer vacations with his adoptive mother in North Dakota, they discovered he was surfing the Internet for porn. Eventually, they took his computer away.

But Carlson never knew if Isaac's problems were because of his background. "That's one of the things we struggled with. Is this a typical kid thing, or an indication of something more?" Being addicted to trading cards or spending time online - "most teens do the same thing."

Adopting children from abroad became common in the late '90s. Now those children, with all of their attachment issues and other problems, are on the cusp of adolescence. No one knows yet how they will handle it.

"Will the child outgrow this?" asks Pollak. "Will he go to college? Will he make close friends? We don't know. We're really waiting."

Pollak's studies have helped some parents find treatments for their children. Those kids with impaired motor ability have shown improvement. Those with impulse control issues less so. But Pollak is optimistic.

"Even in the areas where they're not improving, we don't know if they won't ever," he says. "Maybe we've not found the right treatments."

'My heart still breaks'

Whitney would have celebrated her 18th birthday on Aug. 30. Her friends maintain a Facebook page in tribute to her, and over the past year, they've posted photos and memories. They've also marked special occasions she missed, like her high school prom.

A couple weeks ago, Carlson logged on to the page and wrote, "I miss you so much. My heart still breaks. I wish we could create some new memories by sending you off to college with many of your friends."

He wears a purple bracelet engraved with her name. And his office at the church is full of family pictures, featuring her. He also keeps one of Isaac.

As much as he has tried to forgive and understand his son, he also wants to see him serve time in jail. He has no problem with Isaac, who turned 16 this year, being tried as an adult. Allowing him to be tried as a juvenile and being released after a few years "seems really unjust for the crime committed."

But Carlson does not want Isaac to spend the rest of his life in prison. He supported a plea agreement reached earlier this summer that would have sentenced Isaac to 30 years in prison. The judge in Isaac's case rejected the agreement, prompting Carlson to send him a letter arguing that this was Isaac's only chance for rehabilitation.

"With your rejection of this agreement, frankly, I feel like I have been kicked in the stomach," he wrote. The family supported the plea agreement, in part because a trial would reveal publicly the disturbing details of Whitney's death. "I had hoped to avoid that for my daughter Whitney's sake," Carlson wrote to the judge. "I had also hoped to avoid that for the sake of my son, and his incarceration."

Isaac's trial starts Sept. 15. On Monday, prosecutors and the defense attorney asked the judge to reconsider the earlier plea deal.

Carlson has often been asked if he regrets adopting Isaac. He responds that he's proud of what he tried to do for his son.

"My best parenting took place with Isaac," he says. "I'm a better person because of him."

Carlson helped Isaac learn English, gave him a safe home environment and the opportunity for a good education. He cherishes the memories of both his daughter and his son. And he misses them both.

"The reality is, you do the best you can as a parent. Ultimately, your kids end up making their own choices," he says. "I didn't kill my daughter. My son made that choice. What I know is we gave Isaac a shot. That I feel really good about."

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