Russian Kids in America: When The Adopted Can't Adapt

Many U.S. parents of neglected Russian orphans hope love will conquer all. But what happens when love is not enough?

  • Larry Fink for TIME

    The Massis in front of their New Jersey home. Clockwise from front left: Ilia, Roman, Marianne, Ray and Shain

    As their mom Marianne cut up celery and opened a tub of hummus, the three Massi boys alternately darted and drifted through the kitchen. In between snacking, one took the two family dogs into the backyard to play. Another wandered in from the living room and leaned against a counter, a pair of iPod earbuds slung around his neck.

    Late afternoon sunshine bathed the Massis' white colonial house in suburban New Jersey. The words "Together ... a great place to be," painted in script, adorned a wall in the kitchen, where Marianne scooted from the chicken cutlets sizzling on the stove to consult her recipe on the counter. Her husband Ray, a former police captain, arrived home from his job at the U.S. Attorney's office, and the family settled into their chairs around the dining-room table and held hands. Ray said a short prayer, and they dug in.

    The only clue that the Massis are different from most other American families is visual. While Marianne and Ray have dark complexions and black hair, their boys are fair-haired. They were born in Russia and adopted by Marianne and Ray in the years after the pair wed in 1995. It was Ray's second marriage; Marianne was a 40-year-old first-time bride.

    Around the dinner table that night, as on most other nights, the easy flow of the Massis' conversation obscured the painful challenges confronting them. Shain, the eldest son, has been diagnosed with a severe fetal alcohol spectrum disorder. Adopted at age 6, he is now a 16-year-old ninth-grader at a special-needs school. He cannot tell time on an analog clock, and his words are tinged with a speech impediment Marianne believes is a result of his inability to hear much as a small child. Shortly after Shain arrived in the U.S., a doctor discovered an impenetrable buildup of wax in his ears that had to be removed surgically while he was under general anesthesia. Shain also steals money from Marianne and has punched holes in walls. "When he goes into a meltdown, you have to leave him alone," she says.

    Ilia, the smallest of the Massi boys, is startlingly outgoing. His slight stature and rosy cheeks make him look younger than his age, 13, and the trauma he suffered during his early childhood seems long behind him until he brings it up unprompted: "Do you know about my old mother?" He has described in graphic detail how she hanged herself in front of him when he was 4.

    Roman, also 13, is the quiet one, with blue eyes that look as though they could cut glass. He was adopted from an orphanage in southwestern Russia in 2004 by another New Jersey couple, who relinquished their parental rights to the Massis after just a few months. The couple was disturbed by Roman's wild behavior and the lack of affection he showed them. When he first arrived in the Massi home, he hated being touched. "He would turn his back to you and back into a hug — and only with me and my husband," Marianne remembers.

    The Massis are, by their own account, an imperfect unit, propelled forward by report cards and movie nights but held back by destructive patterns and behaviors that Marianne and Ray never expected when they decided to start a family through international adoption.

    Among those who have adopted school-age orphans from Russia, the Massis' experience is not atypical. For a host of reasons, children adopted from that country — some 58,000 in the past two decades — tend to be older and more likely to arrive in the U.S. developmentally behind their American peers and in many cases reeling from the effects of substandard orphanage care and trauma suffered at the hands of their biological parents or fellow orphans.

    For a generation, American adoptive parents of these children have coped, suffered and in some instances given up hope in relative obscurity, silenced by a popular adoption culture preaching that love can heal all in "forever families" — a term used to describe families formed via adoption.

    In April, Torry Hansen , a single parent and registered nurse in Tennessee, gave voice to those families' experience through an act both desperate and cruel. Sparking an international scandal, Hansen sent her adopted Russian-born son, age 7, alone on a plane to Moscow. In a note addressed to the Russian government, she wrote that the boy was "mentally unstable." She was promptly and brutally condemned by the Russian state and the American public.

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