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

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    Hansen should have called her adoption agency, her social worker or even the local police. But even if she had, it's not clear what help she would have been offered. Despite a broad understanding that parents often face enormous challenges after bringing home foreign orphans, no official infrastructure exists in the U.S. to help families postplacement. (The Russian government requires agencies to submit written postadoption reports, but these are seen as bureaucratic formalities, not a means to help struggling families.) The note Hansen wrote said, "I no longer wish to parent this child." Most adoptive parents won't go that far. For those unwilling to simply abandon their children, what's next?

    "He Became the Enemy"
    "The agency's job is to process your legal paperwork, not help you take care of your child when you come home," says Joyce Sterkel, an adoptive parent who founded the Ranch for Kids. Sterkel's year-round nonprofit camp in Montana houses mostly Russian children whose American adoptive parents have chosen not to keep them at home because of their behavioral problems. The agency that facilitated Hansen's adoption, World Association for Children & Parents, offers support to families postplacement, but it's clear that most agencies do not devote nearly as many resources to struggling families as they do before the adoptions are complete.

    Organizations like Sterkel's have sprung up to help parents cope. About 300 children adopted from abroad have spent months or even years under Sterkel's care since she opened the ranch in 2004. Some return to their adoptive families, others are adopted by second families, and still others stay at the ranch until they are adults.

    In Kentucky, Lucy Armistead, executive director of All Blessings International, an adoption and humanitarian-aid organization, remembers encountering a set of parents who were horrified by their adopted son, who was sexually abusing other children. (His adoption had been processed by another agency.) "As social workers, we're not used to not being able to find resources for any given need, but there was nothing for them." In response, Armistead started Mending Hearts, a program that provides support to parents considering disrupting or dissolving adoptions. ( Disruption refers to an adoption halted before it is finalized; a dissolution happens after an adoption is complete.) Mending Hearts has assisted more than 30 families across the U.S. since December 2008.

    But these organizations, while laudable, can hardly handle all of the adoptive parents overwhelmed by behaviors that in extreme cases can include violence, hoarding, suicidal tendencies, catatonia, inappropriate sexual behavior and pyromania. These behaviors are not the norm, but they have been reported in hundreds if not thousands of international adoptions.

    One suburban mother from the Northeast says she was warned about hoarding before she adopted a 6-year-old boy from Siberia in 2003. He exhibited the behavior and seemed to lack a sense of remorse when he misbehaved, but the family managed — at first. Eventually, though, the boy began collecting sharp objects and started a fire in the basement. "He became the enemy," remembers the mother. Other family members noticed that the dog stiffened when the boy approached; they wondered if he was hurting the animal in secret. For safety purposes, the family installed an alarm on his bedroom door so they would know if he was moving freely around the house.

    Five years after the boy arrived in the U.S., the mother, through a Yahoo! group, found a family in the Midwest with experience parenting foster children. The family eagerly took the boy in, fully aware of his dangerous behavior. He's happier now, according to his first adoptive mother, who says she's thrilled he was able to become part of a new family. But she remains "very bitter" toward her agency. "I do think people need to be more informed beforehand," she says. "Their philosophy is just get them here — save these children — and we'll worry about the rest afterward."

    From Russia with Risks
    In the past decade, Russia has consistently been among the top three countries from which U.S. families adopt internationally, and it is one of the few major sources of foreign orphans who are white. Nearly all Russian children adopted by American parents have come from orphanages, where children 3 and under lose one IQ point for every month spent inside, researchers say. Russian orphans are more likely to have fetal alcohol spectrum disorder than those adopted from elsewhere. They are also, on average, older than adoptees from other countries and have spent more time institutionalized — the factor that most impedes adjustment to life in an adoptive home. (Doctors and agency workers who have visited the worst of these facilities in Russia have described zombie-like toddlers who sit alone, rocking back and forth, staring blankly or banging their head against walls.)

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