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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    Nina Ostanina, a member of the Russian parliament who sits on the committee for family, women and children, concedes that even within her country, thousands of adopted children have been returned to state care by parents unable to cope with them. "On the whole, only 10% of the children are able to normally adapt to society after they [age out of orphanages]," she says. The rest die young, turn to crime or drugs or alcohol, or end up in prisons or on the streets, says Ostanina — a sign that Russian orphanages may cultivate destructive behavioral patterns and mental illness no matter where the children end up.

    "The longer the period of time in institutional care, the more brain damage and emotional and social damage occurs," says Federici. "It's inevitable." Orphanages are often unregulated, chaotic environments with one caretaker overseeing 30 or more children. Children can emerge, says Federici, "feral, undersocialized, sexualized, aggressive and inappropriate." When these children arrive home with their new American families, they are "square pegs," he says. "You can take the kid out of the orphanage, but taking the orphanage out of the kid takes a systematic process."

    This is where adoptive parents falter, and they don't have a safety net. Uninformed about their children's needs, these moms and dads frequently land in the offices of therapists with no experience treating postinstitutionalized children. Some therapists prescribe drugs to control kids' behavior; others steer parents toward "attachment therapy," a mishmash of techniques designed to prompt adopted children to bond with their new parents, including holding or touching them for hours on end. Many of these children suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder and need specialized therapies, which don't come cheap.

    "Slow and steady wins the race," says Federici. Long-term therapy with professionals experienced in the field of international adoption and a stay-at-home parent are often crucial. A calm, routine home life is also far more effective than trying to treat adopted children to the wonders of life in America, a common mistake parents make. Federici recalls one set of parents arriving in his office fresh from a trip to Disney World, distraught that their newly adopted Russian children had ransacked a hotel room and urinated on Main Street U.S.A. The trip "blew [the kids'] hard drives," Federici says. It was too much, too soon.

    Not a Fairy Tale Yet
    Ray and Marianne Massi hope they are on the other side of their most difficult challenges. All three of their boys are in therapy, and the family is buoyed by their strong Christian faith and a network of extended family, including Marianne's six sisters and Ray's three adult daughters from his first marriage.

    "We had it in our minds that we would end up with who we were supposed to have. That's what we believe," says Ray. "It's a tremendous sacrifice, but you can't say it was a sacrifice that wasn't worth it. Would I give this up and not know these three young men? It's part of God's will, and it's been absolutely wonderful."

    The sacrifice for Marianne included giving up a successful career as a marketing executive. (She works part time at her church but is now on an extended leave of absence.) "I had a dream job, but I knew I was going to have to walk away from it," she says. Ray and Marianne also borrowed from Ray's pension and sold a camper to help pay the adoption costs for their boys.

    Despite the relative calm that has finally settled over their family, Ray and Marianne worry about the future. Will their eldest son keep stealing and one day wind up in jail for it? Will their youngest forever be haunted by the death of his biological mother? Will their son from a disrupted adoption ever trust anyone enough to form an intimate relationship?

    But they are combat veterans. Survivors.

    "I love my children with all my heart and am committed to doing all that I can to help them, but it is overwhelming at times," says Marianne. "If you're looking for a fairy-tale story, I'm not it. Not yet, anyway. But the story isn't over."

    — With reporting by Simon Shuster / Moscow

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