Russian Adoption: What Happens When a Parent Gives Up?

Torry Hansen's abandonment of her adopted son, 7-year-old Artyom Savelyev, has rocked Russia, the U.S. and the international adoption community

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Rossia 1 TV / AP

Artyom Savelyev, 7, gets into a minivan outside a police department in Moscow

It's hard for people to comprehend Torry Hansen's desperate act. It was troubling enough to hear that she'd sent her adopted son back to his native Russia, arranging for 7-year-old Artyom Savelyev to fly to Moscow by himself, arriving on April 8 with a note from Hansen saying, "I no longer wish to parent this child." She was giving him up, the note explained, because he was "mentally unstable." But she wasn't giving up on her desire to be a mother. According to ABC News, Hansen, a registered nurse in Shelbyville, Tenn., was trying to adopt a child from another country at the same time she was hiring a driver over the Internet to shuttle Artyom from the Moscow airport to Ministry of Education authorities in Russia.

Russian President Dmitri Medvedev called Hansen's decision to abandon her child a "monstrous deed." Hansen's adoption agency, World Association for Children and Parents — one of only about 30 agencies fully accredited by the Russian government — had its license to facilitate Russian adoptions suspended in the wake of the Hansen case, and some Moscow officials are calling for a halt to all foreign adoptions. The Joint Council on International Children's Services, which helps oversee intercountry adoptions, has started an online petition urging President Obama and Medvedev to allow adoptions to continue.

Police in Tennessee haven't decided yet whether to file criminal charges against Hansen, whose attorney says she won't talk to investigators unless formally charged with a crime. Artyom's adoptive grandmother, who placed the boy on the flight to Russia, told the Associated Press he was violent and threatening to burn his house down.

But exactly what made Hansen snap — and why she didn't seek help or pursue other avenues, like putting the boy up for adoption in the U.S. — is still a mystery. Hansen reportedly consulted a psychologist but never took her son in for a session. There's no evidence she sought help from her adoption agency, child-welfare authorities in Tennessee or even the well-regarded International Adoption Clinic at Vanderbilt University in nearby Nashville. The media that have descended on Hansen's home have not gleaned much insight. The boy, whom Hansen renamed Justin, did not attend school in the six months he spent in Tennessee, and some neighbors said they barely knew the family.

"All of that shows you a picture of a kid and family in isolation," says Jane Aronson, an adoptive parent and pediatrician in New York City who specializes in international adoption. Isolation, adoption experts know, spells trouble — especially for a single woman adopting an older child from abroad. "You can make a great family as a single parent, but you have to have your ducks lined up."

By Russian law, Hansen would not have been able to adopt Artyom without making at least two trips abroad, first to meet the boy and then to pick him up. She would also have been required to complete a home study, in which a social worker would have entered her house and interviewed her extensively about her reasons for adopting and her preparations for parenthood. Social workers in these circumstances also typically educate would-be parents about the challenges that are likely to emerge post-adoption — all of which makes the notion that Hansen could have been blindsided by her son's difficulties almost as shocking as the difficulties themselves.

Violent outbursts and emotional detachment in older children adopted internationally are "very familiar to those of us in the field, as sad as it may be," says Michael Goldstein, an adoption attorney in Rye Brook, N.Y. Older adopted children often arrive in their new homes after being taken away from or abandoned by abusive parents. In the case of Russian adoptees, children have to spend at least a year in an orphanage before the country deems them eligible for international adoption. It can take years for older adopted children to fully integrate into their new families; some never do, and require a lifetime of therapy and extra care.

"This woman had alternatives," says Debbie Spivack, an adoption attorney with offices in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware who has helped facilitate placement of children given up by their adoptive families. "She really endangered the child and did something exceptionally damaging for everybody else."

Families in the midst of adopting children from Russia have been thrown into terrifying limbo. The country has been a popular choice since the mid-1990s for Americans hoping to adopt. But the Russian government has recently been promoting adoption domestically, spurred perhaps in part by a handful of high-profile abuse cases involving adoptees in the U.S. From 2004 to 2009, the number of Russian children adopted by American parents dropped by two-thirds. Families trying to adopt Russian children are bracing now, hoping the number will not drop to zero as a result of Hansen's reckless act.

"This is not a failure of the system. It's a failure of the parent," says Tom DiFilipo, president and CEO of the Joint Council on International Children's Services. "If someone's setting fire to your house, you call the police, not a travel agent."