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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    Recent guidelines instituted to encourage domestic adoption make Russian children ineligible for international adoption until they've spent six months or even a year languishing in orphanages. In 2009, just 5% of Russian orphans adopted by U.S. parents were younger than a year old. (In contrast, 86% of all children adopted from South Korea in 2009 were under a year.)

    In most cases, Russian children end up in orphanages because they were abandoned, abused or neglected. Some are lucky enough to land in private institutions with adequate staffing and nutrition or to come from biological families that, though ravaged by poverty, aren't abusive. Experts say nearly all institutionalized children must catch up to their peers developmentally and academically once adopted, but in extreme cases, even remediation and counseling aren't sufficient to get adoptees on track.

    An international adoption treaty, which Russia is not a party to, requires that adoptive parents complete 10 hours of preplacement training. But this baseline training often takes place via the Internet, and even the best-prepared parents can be caught flat-footed. With Russian adoptions in particular, parents eager to learn more about the children can be left in the dark. Medical records for adoptable children in Russia are widely known to contain misinformation or omit vital clues that trouble lies ahead. (Much of this is due to inaccurate translations of records and medical terminology.) "Especially in older kids, the little things that are going to stress families, like emotional and behavior problems, are very poorly described most of the time," says Dr. Dana Johnson, a pediatrician based at the University of Minnesota who has reviewed medical records for about 20,000 foreign orphans since 1984.

    Hansen, for one, claimed to have been blindsided by her son's problems. "I was lied to and misled by the Russian orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability," she wrote in the letter she tucked into her son's backpack. In response, Russia's Foreign Minister said in a statement that "adopted children from Russia are defenseless against irresponsible American adoptive parents" and called for a temporary halt to all foreign adoptions of Russian children. The 3,000 U.S. families in the process of adopting children from Russia are panicked over whether their cases will be permitted to proceed.

    There has been irresponsibility on both sides. Armistead, of Mending Hearts, says there can be a wide gulf between "what parents were told and what they actually heard." After failed efforts to conceive or to adopt domestically — stories abound of American birth mothers promising their baby to a couple only to change their mind at the last minute — some parents who adopt internationally simply choose not to be fully aware of what difficulties may ensue.

    A 2008 study co-authored by Johnson surveyed 1,834 Minnesota parents who adopted foreign children in the 1990s and found that 58% hired independent U.S. physicians to review medical records preadoption. But just 31% of parents who adopted children age 5 or older — the ones most likely to bear the scars of institutionalization — did so. Nowadays, Johnson says, "more and more families are having their records reviewed," which some agencies require. But, he says, "there are agencies that discourage this type of thing because they think it's negative or they're very interested in placing the children." International adoption is big business, with costs ranging from $20,000 to $50,000, including fees to agencies, governments, social workers, orphanages and doctors.

    Contrast the information typically available about Russian orphans with that of orphans from China. Sara Lang, an adoption-agency professional based in Delaware who specializes in China, began working in the field after adopting two biological sisters from Russia in 2000. "We've had as much as 10 pages on children from China — blood tests, urine tests, growth reports. With my own children, we got half a page on each one. We didn't know anything about their birth parents or reason for abandonment. We had no medical test results, no psychological information, no developmental information. We had nothing."

    Lang's elder daughter is now struggling with behavioral issues caused, Lang believes, by neglect she suffered during early childhood. As a toddler, she was often left alone to care for her infant sister.

    "When she's been really bad, I've thought, I'll send her back to Russia, but I would never have actually done it," says Lang. "To me, that's not an option. It's the same as birthing a child. They're your child, and you deal with whatever problems they have." When Lang adopted, she took a leap of faith. "If you're not someone willing to accept all of the risks," she says, "Russia isn't where you should be going to adopt your child." In her job, however, Lang has helped find new American families for three East European children rejected by their first adoptive parents.

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