Sunday, April 11, 2010

Russian Adoptions: Who's at Fault and What Do We Do?

By Martha Nichols for Adopt-a-tude

When I first saw the pictures of seven-year-old Artyom Savelyev—who is close to my son’s age—in Moscow, after his adoptive grandmother put him on a flight from Washington, D.C., by himself, I wondered what the hell is wrong with us.

Who is “us”? That’s the question. American adoptive parents? Not most of us, by any stretch. The American adoption agency involved, which has now had its license suspended by the Russian education ministry? Again, that’s painting with a broad brush. The Russian orphanage in which by some reports the boy was mistreated? Who knows?

I wanted to blame somebody, though, as did the many commenters on news stories and blogs about Artyom’s fate this past weekend. Adoptive mother Torry Hansen and grandmother Nancy were right at hand, courtesy of the AP. Here are a few comments about the story from Lisa Belkin’s Motherlode blog:
“This is totally unconscionable and irresponsible.”
“This woman's (I cannot say—‘mother's,’ for she doesn't deserve such a title) behaviour is despicable.”
“This article made me cry. It takes the patience and endurance of Mother Theresa to deal with special needs children. Where did this woman not understand the commitment to a young, troubled child that she adopted into her family?”
Last week, Nancy Hansen decided to fly Artyom (called Justin by his adoptive family) back to Russia because his violent behavior had become too much for them. According to one of the AP stories, his grandmother “chronicled a list of problems: hitting, screaming and spitting at his mother and threatening to kill family members.” He apparently slammed one aunt with a statue when she pushed him to do math homework. (The family was home schooling him.) Hansen says he threatened to burn their home down.

Back in Russia, he was accompanied by a note from adoptive mother Torry Hansen, who is a registered nurse: “This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues…I was lied to and misled by the Russian Orphanage workers and director regarding his mental stability and other issues…. After giving my best to this child, I am sorry to say that for the safety of my family, friends, and myself, I no longer wish to parent this child.''

As of Friday, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov was threatening to suspend all U.S. adoptions, calling this “the last straw.”

Grandmother Nancy says she had no idea she was setting off an international incident. She did tell an AP reporter, "The intent of my daughter was to have a family and the intent of my whole family was to love that child."

I hate stories like this, in which a child becomes abandoned over and over again, unwanted by anyone. I hate what this does to me as an adoptive parent of a son born in Vietnam, of the doubts I start to feel about whether I had any right to everything that my family means.

I’m also waiting for more facts. The problem, as usual, is that a media storm has managed to make the situation even murkier, spreading an array of misinformation about international adoption, attachment disorders, and what constitutes “normal.”

Shocking headlines like “Boy from Russia said ‘he’d torch our home’” and “Grandmother: Boy terrified adoptive kin” keep the focus on extreme behavior. Here’s the blurb that introduces the AP report in the Seattle Times: “Torry Hansen was so eager to become a mother that she adopted an older child from a foreign country, two factors that scare off many prospective parents. Her fear came later.”

A distorted look at “the inside story of adoptions that go horribly wrong” aired on ABC's Nightline Friday, including videos taken by parents of children having “meltdowns.” (Click here for the accompanying article.)

This prompted developmental psychologist Jean Mercer to debunk some myths in a Psychology Today blog. She rightly castigates Nightline for running home videos without questioning the parents’ interpretations. In one case, shortly after a pair of Russian sisters had been adopted, the older sister wanders around her American home in tears, clutching a blanket, and crawling under furniture. Mercer notes,
“[T]he parents seem to have regarded it as such bizarre and unacceptable behavior that it needed to be recorded because no outsider would believe it.
“But what do we actually see in this video of a child who has been in the adoptive home for about a week? Let me just inquire how similar it might be to your own behavior, if you had been taken by very large people who spoke a different language, put on an airplane with little comprehensible explanation, and taken far away to a new house, new food, new ways of doing things? Would you be grateful?”
Meanwhile, it’s important to keep the numbers in perspective. According to the U.S. State Department, there have been about 15,000 U.S.-Russia adoptions in the past five years. I’ve heard that in the last fifteen years, it’s about 50,000. As many adoption experts have noted, most of these don’t go “horribly wrong.”

Whether Artyom is really psychopathic and violent is unclear. Even if it were true, shoving him onto airplane is at the very least an act of ignorant desperation. Giving him an American name when he was already six years old indicates a lack of awareness and empathy. The Hansens—not to mention those parents supplying videos of their children for Nightline—appear to have little understanding of what it means to suddenly land in another culture.

Yet something much larger is at play than the actions of two unfit adoptive family members. Based on the official outrage of Russia—following on the travesty of American missionaries trying to hustle Haitian “orphans” out of that country after the recent earthquake—the practice of international adoption is once again under fire.

There are lots of ethical reasons why it should be. In Haiti, a number of the children involved still had biological parents. In many other developing countries, from Vietnam to Ethiopia, there’s always been the risk of money paid for babies to finance a less than savory adoption industry.

Yet there’s the flip side, too, and you see it in Russia and Haiti: social welfare systems that simply are ill equipped and far too under-funded to support the rolls of abandoned children. What you see is poverty and its brutal impact on society’s most vulnerable: children who receive little or no adult care.

Let me say it again: you see poverty, on a global scale, ramped up by the churn of developing economies. The Harvard University Project on Global Working Families, research that surveyed 55,000 people in a variety of countries and is detailed in Jody Heymann’s book Forgotten Families, makes clear that many children have no one to take care of them. Here’s a quote from my own 2007 review of Heymann’s book in Women’s Review of Books:
“Of the working parents interviewed, nineteen percent in Vietnam left their children alone or in the care of an unpaid child; 27 percent did so in Mexico; and a whopping 48 percent did in Botswana, which has almost no publicly funded child care.”
Even the reference in a USA Today story about Artyom—“United Airlines allows unaccompanied children as young as 5 years old on direct flights. Children age 8 and above can catch connecting flights, as well”—chills me.

So maybe we should blame global capitalism and every one of us (that “us”) who participates. Maybe it’s not just the Hansens of Shelbyville, Tennessee. Maybe we should blame general ignorance about international adoption—for example, the various media commentators ranting about the numbers on the rise when in fact they’ve been in steep decline since 2004.

Our son was a baby when we adopted him from Vietnam, from an orphanage in which he seemed very well treated by affectionate staff. He is now a happy and healthy little boy. I say this not to vaunt my own skills as a parent but to add that even my son, who remembers nothing of the orphanage—an orphanage that was far from a horror show—has occasional meltdowns. When he was just a little younger than Artyom, he would cry uncontrollably when I left him at school. My son still sucks his thumb, though he’s working on it.

Loss experienced by young children can be profound and impossible to process rationally. The fact that my mother was hospitalized when I was six still sits in my soul. Sometimes I believe my own loss has helped me to understand my son’s; other times, I think that all humans walk alone.

In my adoptive family, some days we walk in the light. We are together, we are whole. But have we really become a world in which so many children have no safe homes?

Apparently so. At this moment, all I can do is hug my boy close.

This piece also appears in Martha's Open Salon blog, Athena's Head.


Anonymous said...

>Children age 8 and above can catch connecting flights, as well”—chills me.

Why? I took a flight by myself when I was 8 years old, and that was over 20 years ago, when the world was a much more dangerous place than it is today.

Martha Nichols said...

Fair enough. It's not the fact of airlines allowing this that chills me--it's that a boy who was obviously in trouble was stuck on one by himself. But you are right, plenty of parents put their children on planes alone for a variety of practical reasons, and the kids do just fine.

Anonymous said...

I caught planes as an 8 year old, with my 5 year old sister in tow. But we both knew our way around international travel procedures and airports quite well by that stage, it was totally impractical for one of our parents to fly 9 hours with us to drop us off with an aunt/uncle or grandparent and fly back home again, and I remember that flight hostesses were always quizzing me on who was picking us up from the airport, etc, so it wasn't such a big deal for us.

But yes, it is incredibly scary that a 7 year old could be put on a flight by himself for such hideous reasons and nobody to raise any flags.

Something else that strikes me from all this; what kind of 7 year old hasn't lashed out physically at a parent and made all sorts of threats when faced with the 'injustice' of being denied things like video games? I never threatened to burn my parent's house down, but I certainly said horrible things, like "I hope you die" or "I wish you weren't my Mom" or "I am going to run away and never talk to you again because I hate you". Tantrums don't just magically stop at a certain age.

Also, it bewilders me how this woman could adopt an older child and not expect that he would have a (totally logical and justified) bit of a meltdown at being taken away from an orphanage, which would be the only 'family' he had ever known, and shipped off to a strange country to live with unfamiliar people, speaking an alien language and even being stripped of his name. I don't know.. I just feel that he reacted in the way that any normal child would to so much displacement, unfamiliarity and emotional upheaval.

Elvis said...

Our 15 year old son was adopted from Russia at age 3. He killed our cat when he was 5 years old. He has been in 7 schools, he sees psychologist, and counselors and physicians. He screams at us, he steals, he curses us out, he hates school, he tells off his teachers, he lies, he destroys things, he is controlling and has ADD/ADHD with ODD and was put on medication for his anger issues. He is verbally abusive. He has changed our lives for the worst, emotionally, physically and mentally. But we wouldn't think of abandoning him ever. The support is NOT out there you have to find it yourself.

Martha Nichols said...

Elvis -- Really good point about the support not being there, and why rushing to judgment of parents is easy if you haven't experienced the worst. Hats off to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

I know alot of families that ARE having trouble with their Russian Adopted children. The media doesn't want to make that part of it public. The Russians tell you it is impossible to get a infant, and you must settle for an older child. They send you a few pictures of children you can pick from. They are the only ones who will be available for you to adopt. A Russian family warned us about the children. They said even the Russian families do not want to adopt these children because they know about Reactive Attachment Disorder. So the Russian Government (under the disguise of open arms) welcomes American Families to adopt these older "Wonderful Children". From experience- our child was adopted at age 2 1/2. He is 12. He is violent, he is a horder, he is disrespectful, he destroys everything, he swears at us, he has been in 4 different schools, he steals, he tries to control the household- Even to the point of re-arranging the furniture to how he wants it. He has ruined our lives-emotionally and financially. We made this committment to adopt him and we have been doing the best we can. He has seen Doctors for all of his problems. Nothing helps! He has destroyed our lives and our close friendships with other families. (They cannot tolerate him). We pray everyday we can get through another day with him. We love him dearly so we perservere.

Kris said...

excellent post. thank you.

Martha Nichols said...

Anonymous, thanks for sharing your experience. It rings so true to the complicated reality. In writing about this issue, I've been thinking a lot about what kind of public education is needed in order to help families get the services required. The media makes such a hash of adoption messes like this one--so how can the media be used to provide a more nuanced picture of the issue?

We're hoping to run a follow-on next week from a Russian adoptive parent. Stay tuned.

Anonymous said...

The Media is not looking for the truth. They would rather blame the parents-hoping to find something wrong with them instead of the actual problem- the child. The media does not believe these kids could ever be "THAT BAD". Trust me, they can be. We know what Torrey Hansen went through. Believe her when she says he threatened to kill her. I wonder if she slept at night. Sometimes I am fearful of our son too!

Sad Life said...

Hi Everyone,
I am ashamed for friends to know the abuse I have been living with. We have a Russian child. I am 50 and he is 16. He was 4 when we adopted him. He enjoys abusing and hurting me. He is home because he was suspended yesterday. This school also has finally had it with my child. If he gets kicked out -this will be his 8th school. These children do not respect or fear anything. Not teachers, parents, doctors, discipline, the law, NOT ANYTHING. They feel the need to control and will do it with ANY authority. This is a symptom of RAD. There is no cure. There is NO help out there. I suffer in silence caring for him and doing the best I can.

Martha said...

Sad Life, I am so sorry to hear your story, and I thank you for sharing it. I think it took a lot of courage for you to do so. I am sure you're doing the best you can, and I only hope (and wish) there's a way for you to get support for your own suffering under these difficult circumstances. Take care.

Anonymous said...

As I read this posting (where it was crossposted at Salon), I found myself remembering Marjorie Margolies's book "They Came To Stay", about her adoption of two children -- one from Korea, one from Vietnam -- in the early 1970s. Margolies's description of what she and her younger daughter, Thu Nga (renamed "Holly"), went through during the "adjustment phase" is intensely disturbing and reminiscent of this story, because Margolies was indeed lied to by Thu Nga's orphanage. Thu Nga was described as being well behaved and sleeping well at night: when six-year-old "Holly" arrived in America she screamed at bedtime, refused to wear shoes, and stripped off her clothing at any opportunity.

Marjorie Margolies did the only thing she could think of. She FOUND SOMEONE WHO SPOKE VIETNAMESE, someone from Vietnam who was familiar with the nation and the culture. Someone who could ASK what Holly's problems were.

Holly, it turned out, refused to wear shoes because she had always worn soft slippers, and hard leather shoes hurt her feet. She took off her clothes because in Vietnam's climate she'd been accustomed to changing several times every day. She screamed at bedtime because her bedroom was dark and she was alone, and because she'd been inculcated since infancy with a cultural fear of ghosts. Margolies realized -- although not at once -- that her daughter was going through culture shock.

You point out -- accurately, IMO -- that Torry Hansen's summarily renaming a six-year-old child "indicates a lack of awareness and empathy". I've suspected that some (by no means all!) adoptive parents approach international adoption with the notion that the child will conveniently leave his or her former life behind with the former country: that they will be in some sense adopting a child without a past. When you adopt a five- or seven- or ten-year-old from your own community, you're likely to be confronted on a daily basis with reminders of that child's past: "There's my old school", or "That's the mall where my first mommy took me to buy shoes". Parents who adopt a child from another country don't have to face that: they've cut that child off, perhaps at a distance of thousands of miles, from those (to them, distressing: to her, possibly reassuring) reminders of her previous life. And by giving the child a new name, they try to reinforce that: trying to pretend to themselves that this was never anyone's child but theirs.

Anonymous said...

Trust me adoptive families know they've adopted. They do not have to pretend. They know that infertility treatments did not work, they know the invitro did not work. They are not trying to pretend anything. They KNOW the child is not biologicially theirs. Friends and family know so they do not have to pretend. What a selfish, calous thing to say about adoptive parents -trying to pretend to themselves. Also these children are abandoned-they were never anyone else's children. If they were they would not be available for adoption. It sad that some 'know it alls' need to quote from a book the was written 30 years ago and apparently know nothing about adoption.

Anonymous said...

You write "Giving him an American name when he was already six years old indicates a lack of awareness and empathy." That's rather judgmental of you. We adopted an older boy, and changed his name for compassionate reasons. Primarily, we felt that a foreign name would make his life more difficult. His name was not only hard to pronounce and remember, but every time he said his name he would be faced with questions about where he was from, which would lead to his having to address being adopted each time. I am not judging parents who keep their child's name, and I think you need to be careful about judging other parents -- we are not necessarily lacking awareness and empathy just because we made a different decision!

Anonymous said...

What no one seems to address is what would have been a good outcome in this case? Given that the adoption didn't work, is there any potential "good" outcome?
While it is not ideal to put the kid on a plane, there are a lot worse options the mother could have taken, such as physical restraints or abuse.
Consider that even the other outcomes aren't particularly great -- going into the US foster care system is a bad deal too. The poor kid is going to feel abandoned no matter what. An airplane is a relatively safe place! Really folks.

Martha Nichols said...

Yes, I was passing judgment on the wisdom of giving Artyom an American name. In fact, in this piece, because I knew it would also be running on, I tried to reign in some of my initial judgment of the Hansens, because upset as I was about the story, I felt that all the facts were not in. I think that's still true.

What I would say about Artyom's renaming is that it reflects other attitudes. I agree that many adoptees do just fine with American names--my son's first name is American--especially if they are adopted as babies or toddlers. But Artyom was almost seven years old at the time of his adoption. He knew himself under his Russian name.

But you are right to point to how judgmental parents like me can be. The instant judgment of so many commenters in the blogosphere reveals the ugly side of crowdsourcing opinions, especially about something so complex and individually specific as adoption.

Regarding what the good outcome would be for Artyom, I think this is a very good question to raise and one I've seen little discussed. I have read other bloggers and commenters note that it could have been worse than putting him on a plane. I agree. The U.S. foster-care system isn't great, but Russia's institutionalization of at-risk kids is also very problematic.

I don't think there are easy answers here, but I, too, wish that more mainstream reporters had look at the possible outcomes for Artyom and the deficiencies in state-run systems of care for children. I only hope that a few months down the road, we'll get some magazine features that look at this in-depth.

Elvis said...

No one should be able to comment on this adoption issue unless they have adopted. You wouldn't ask the butcher about fish. You would go to a professional, credible, source for good solid answers on a subject you a need advice on.

Anonymous said...

The Russian goverment will lie and say he found a family in Russia and is doing fine. The truth is they are going to place him back into the system. He will go to an orphange. The orphanges are better for older children as they can help out and get rewarded with candy and extra food. When he is 18 he will be allowed to leave. He will find some kind of menial work to do or live off the government. I know- I am Russian.