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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    The Case for Dissolution
    Adoptive parents who experience the agony of giving a child up for readoption are often reluctant to broadcast their stories, out of shame or worries that their former children will forever be mired in the past. Rebecca and Jeff Johnson, who spoke to Time on the condition of not publishing their real names or their former daughter's, are one such couple. Their experience indicates that the challenges associated with parenting older adoptees are not limited to those from Russia.

    The Johnsons realized quickly that Katya, the 9-year-old girl they adopted in 2006 from an orphanage in Ukraine (where the institutional culture resembles that of Russia), was not the blank slate they were hoping for. Days after she arrived in the U.S., Katya began sharing disturbing details about life in her home country: before she became an orphan, her birth mother, a prostitute, extinguished a cigarette on Katya's ankle and tried to drown her; she was left alone for weeks as a young child; she witnessed the killing of a family dog; she was sexually abused.

    "We had great empathy for these stories and how wounded this child was. Our hearts were breaking for her," says Jeff, a digital sound designer living in the South. Katya was racked by violent nightmares and would sometimes scream for hours or become catatonic.

    Just five weeks after Katya arrived home, an event took place that some adoption professionals would say sealed the family's fate: Rebecca gave birth. After years of failed fertility treatments and miscarriages, she had miraculously brought a pregnancy to term while Katya's adoption proceeded.

    "She felt she would never be as loved" as the baby, says Rebecca. "We figured the newborn was going to be the most time-consuming child," says Jeff. In fact, it was the opposite. Jeff and Rebecca spent nearly every night in bed debating how to help Katya, who confessed that she had never wanted to be adopted in the first place. "How do you parent a child who doesn't want to be parented?" Jeff asks. In addition to consulting with professional therapists, Jeff spent hours each day counseling Katya about right and wrong and how to function in a family — all to no avail. "It was crisis management all the time."

    The torment and turmoil continued for three years. Once, Katya held a knife to her throat. The police were called; she was hospitalized. "We felt like we were prisoners in our home," says Jeff. "We were paralyzed."

    Katya was no happier. She demanded a new family. She dog-eared the section of the phone book for adoption services and hurled it to the floor. Jeff, stunned that his family was falling apart, remembers searching for help online and coming across the term adoption disruption . "I couldn't believe people were suggesting rehoming her. We believed this is our forever child," he says.

    After scores of calls to adoption agencies and lawyers, he stumbled across Lucy Armistead and Mending Hearts. Almost immediately, Armistead referred Jeff to an out-of-state couple with two other children from dissolved adoptions. The families connected, and Katya happily consented to being adopted into a new family.

    "I just believe there are reasons for things," says Rebecca. "We were there to get her out of her environment and situation and get her into [her new family's] hands, where she's thriving."

    At 13, Katya is doing well in her homeschool classes and recently signed a contract with a modeling agency. Katya "is our success story. She's an absolute joy to me," says her new mother, whom Jeff and Rebecca asked that we not name to protect Katya's privacy. "Maybe I'm just reaping the benefits of all their hard work."

    She may be right. "Disruption or dissolution can be a great option for some kids," says Armistead. "They can scapegoat their first family, and they can move on. Until they have a place to put the blame, they can't seem to move past it."

    The Struggle to Adapt
    There are no reliable statistics on how many Americans adopting from abroad later decide to relinquish their parental rights, but researchers know that disruptions and dissolutions are more common with children adopted at older ages. Ronald Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist in Virginia who specializes in international adoptions, has, in 24 years of practice, witnessed 357 disruptions out of the approximately 11,000 children he's seen. A leader in the field of orphan trauma and rehabilitation — and an adoptive father of seven children from Eastern Europe and Russia — Federici estimates there have been about 4,000 disruptions or dissolutions since 1990. (He bases his tally on consultations with parent support groups, adoption agencies and social services.)

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