Thursday, April 22, 2010

Adoption, Russian-Style: Are We Up to the Challenge?

By Fran Cronin for Adopt-a-tude

The saga of seven-year-old Russian-born Artyom Savelyev’s adoption gone wrong has once again focused attention on the controversies that dog international adoptions.

Artyom’s tragic journey begs us to consider if there is a difference between an adopted and a biological child—and if so, does adoption give a parent the right to return a child when the relationship disappoints?

As the adoptive mother of a twelve-year-old born in Russia, I have to say an emphatic no.  From the moment I held my son in my arms and smelled his skin, I knew he was a part of me. These kids are not Russian dolls. They didn’t ask for us. We wanted them.

The problem is, Artyom’s story has become a convenient hook for Russian politicking as well as for commentators who know little about the experience of parenting deeply troubled children. Sensationalized headlines make great copy, but they distract from the truth.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev called the actions of Artyom’s adoptive mother, Torry Hansen, a 33-year-old single mom and nurse, “a monstrous deed.”  Pavel Astakhov, the Russian Children’s Rights Commissioner, threatened to suspend adoptions unless Russia and the U.S. sign a treaty to ensure that Russian children are better protected once they leave the Motherland. Acrid complaints about the treatment of Russian adoptees in the hands of American families have resurfaced, specifically 16 deaths due to abuse since 1996.

What is omitted from the storyline is Russia’s own treatment of children who are abandoned and orphaned and then placed in institutional care.

The Russians also conveniently seem to forget that protective laws are already in place. The United States and about 80 other nations have signed on to and ratified the Hague Convention, a body of treaties whose purpose is "to work for the progressive unification…of private international [adoption] law…” (from Article 1 of the Statute of the Hague Conference). Standardizing these practices, especially when it comes to money, adoption disclosure, and parent training, seems a crucial tool for monitoring pre-and post-adoption placement. Russia, however, is currently a non-Hague Convention country.

Brandeis researcher E.J. Graff, laid out in the Boston Globe this past week just how dire Russia’s intransigent position could prove to be.  Thousands of institutionalized children who desperately need homes may not be placed in one. Those placed might fear return to their first country if the placement does not go well.  

Russia officialdom’s outrage is a hollow distraction as it tries to dig into the deep pockets of American largesse. Lacking both the political and financial will to fix their corrupt institutional care system, the Russians would love nothing more than to have American dollars pay for the care and oversight they themselves have chronically failed to provide.

In the pecking order of Russian social services, institutionalized children get a very thin slice of the safety-net pie. In a 2007 report, Unicef cited that nearly 200,000 Russian children lived in state institutions and were provided only the minimum of custodial care. With a low qualification threshold for childcare workers and a woeful lack of adequate resources, the staff often reflects the same lethargy as the children in its care.

Compounding the neglect is the Russian political tactic of delaying international adoptions. Since 1998, when we adopted our son, the waiting period has doubled from four months to eight, if everything goes without a hitch. The intention is to give Russian nationals the opportunity to adopt before proceeding with an out-of-country placement. The reality is that Russians have been slow to adopt.  The number of children available greatly outpaces the demand.

While the media, the U.S., and Russia wrangle and posture over the legal machinations of this case, the real-life tragedy has been pushed off-center like a sidebar. 

Last year, Americans adopted 1,586 children from Russia, the third highest rate for non-domestic adoptions. Chuck Johnson, CEO of the National Council for Adoption, stated on NPR last week that more than 60,000 Russian children have been successfully adopted in the United States.

When looking at failed adoptions, Johnson said the rate is 15% for both foreign and domestic adoptions. Biological families, like adoptive families, can also become unhinged. In 2006 (the most recent year for which there are statistics), the number of children in domestic foster care topped 510,000.

So if many kinds of families do fall apart, why has this story captured our collective consciousness?

Simply stated: shame.

Artyom’s story tells us not just that two nations and assorted agencies supposedly working on his behalf failed him but that our American ideal-laden notions of parenting, family, and adoption did as well.

How frightened and alone this seven-year-old must have felt, plucked, like a toy in a claw-operated prize booth, from where he lived and flown across the ocean to an English-speaking home in predominately white, rural Shelbyville, Tennessee.

Although some facts have dribbled out through the media free-for-all, we really know very little about Torry Hansen or what actually occurred in her home. Hansen herself says she will not speak or meet with investigators unless she is formally charged with a crime.

Artyom’s life both prior to and after his adoption is a mystery, deeply concealed by both language and cultural barriers. It is unclear when Hansen began to feel overwhelmed by his unhappiness. Was she self-blaming and resentful? Or was the reality of life with her adopted son so removed from her imaginings of motherhood that she found the situation unbearable?

Adoptive parents may be able to empathize with Hansen, but what we need, as a society, is a reality check. Adoption is not a trial run. When we adopt, as when we birth, we bring into our orbit of love and care a being wholly dependent on us. It’s about a no-turning-back lifetime commitment to raising a child and helping that child navigate his or her way safely into adulthood.

I know something about what Hansen must have been going through. Like her, I am a single parent. (My husband died three months after we adopted our baby son. Our biological daughter was three at that time.)  Like the alleged reports about Artyom’s disruptive behavior, my son has been a tough kid to parent: four schools, multiple therapists, meds, lots of acting out, and need for in-home support.

But unlike Hansen, I never thought it an option to relinquish my son, despite extreme moments of exasperation, his bouts with unpredictable behaviors, and the number of gray hairs he has given me.

Although my son was just five months old when we adopted him, institutional neglect was already apparent. He was constantly hungry, underweight, malnourished, listless, prone to self-soothing, and subsequently chronically ill for the first four years of life.  In pre-school, the best that could be said about his social skills was “does not play well with others.”

But instead of his challenges pushing me away, they have fueled my quest to be a better, smarter mother. I have attended workshops, support groups, individual and family therapy, and secured mental-health services.

I say this not as a putdown to Hansen, or any other parent who has struggled with difficult children, but as a way to offer insight into what it takes to nurture, care for, and love a child that flails against your best intentions. Living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I have benefited from a highly educated, massively professionalized, and resource-intensive urban area. As an older parent, I have many friends who have also adopted, and together we share our uncertainties, experiences, and support systems.

With professional help, I learned to overcome the great waves of inadequacy I encountered when my son was a toddler and I wasn’t sure I was up to the job of being his mother. With the loving support of friends and family, I have navigated through the tough social and educational choices I needed to make for the well being of my son.

I have learned that asking for help is not shameful and does not reflect on my parenting inabilities. I have learned, as all parents must learn, that the needs of my son are often much more urgent than my own.

And I have also learned that the only thing shameful about this kind of struggle is a lack of funding and political will for the services families truly need to care for their children. If we’re not up to the job, then who is?

To read more about Fran's personal story of adopting an infant son in Russia, read her 2009 Adopt-a-tude piece "Why Do the Russians Make It So Hard to Adopt?"


Anonymous said...

powerful unvarnished awesome.

fran cronin said...

now if only we can get some traction with this issue! as harrowing as artyom's story is, his story has shed light where none has been. help is out there, but so many don't know that nor do they know where to seek it or how to access it. let's hope for constructive positive changes in placement of children and follow-up supports. tx for caring.

Ken H. said...

Awesome article Fran. Not only did you so clearly frame the issue with the kind of clarity and nuance that is so often lacking from the media sound bites, but through your own example you offer hope for other adoptive parents in challenging situations. Bravo.

Ken H.

fran cronin said...

thanks ken. parenting is never simple, and as all adoptive parents know, adoption raises its own unique issues. factor in a child that is un-predicatable or hard to access and it is easy to see how things could unravel. it is often tempting to self-blame or succumb to feeling overwhelmed, but with better support and deeper understanding our most vulnerable kids and families will be better able to remain strong and power through the tough times. there are tremendous rewards and joy to be had.

Kris said...

thank you for posting this!! One only has to enter a Russian baby home or see the condition of the children at the American Embassy in Moscow to see that Russian orphans are by and large not being treated well in their home country. My daughter has major food issues 5 years after adoption which I can only imagine stem from severe hunger while in the orphanage (and she was in a "good" baby home, very clean and new).

Artyom's story is really a story of how he was failed at least twice - first by the Russian system and then by the woman who was supposed to be his adoptive mother.

I was once asked if I felt anger toward the adoption industry and our adoption agency for their lack of support and glossing over of potential problems. My response was that I had a lot more anger about the way my daughter was treated in Russia. At 18 months she had yet to have solid food and mostly drank tea for nourishment.

I have nothing but disgust for Torry Hansen but this little boy's problems began way before she entered the picture. This is the first post I have seen pointing that out. Great job!

fran cronin said...

hi kris: yes, life before adoption remains the great unknown for kids who were placed in institutional care. much conspires against changing the culture: shuttering these kids away is a soviet hangover that sadly still persists; changing the system would take enormous social, political, and financial capital that the russians have been loathe to provide; and bottom line, there are many who financially benefit from the system as it is. perhaps the prime-time exposure of artyom's life pre- and post-adoption will prove a catalyst to systemic changes.