Monday, April 26, 2010

Who Gets Baby Emma: Her Single Daddy or Her Married Adoptive Parents?

Guest Post by Laura Deurmyer for Adopt-a-tude

I bring two distinct and sometimes warring perspectives to bear on media accounts of adoptions. I am an adoptee—adopted at birth during what is known as the Baby Scoop Era. I have also been a foster parent who tried unsuccessfully to adopt a baby I loved.

If women are to have a real adoption option when confronting an unplanned pregnancy, we must take adoption questions and issues seriously as a society. We must stop treating adoption as the next human-interest story or as a tear-jerker movie of the week. 

The baby Emma Wyatt story featured in the Washington Post and the New York Times recently interested me as much for what it didn’t say as for its unmistakably fascinating facts. What set it apart and got it featured in the Post and in the Times and ultimately on Good Morning America rather than simply in a few obscure adoption blog sites, was its play on the Dr. Phil show.

The basic story—birth father who wants to raise his own child is denied that opportunity by birth mom who places the baby for adoption against his wishes—has been played out numerous times in recent years. It’s a common enough problem that there are whole websites devoted to helping unwed birth fathers retain custody of their children. Several of the players in the baby Emma story—the adoption agency, the lawyer, the state of Utah—feature in more than one of these tales.

(Note: One website that does catalog and discuss problems with adoption is Although I don’t agree with much of that site’s seemingly anti-adoption bent, I have linked to it in this story because it clearly lists and explores problematic cases like baby Emma’s.)

Even in major media coverage of the story, a rational discussion of adoption policy or a thorough examination of states’ roles in voluntary placement adoption is mostly lacking. Instead, the story has devolved into the heart-wrenching tale of a father’s loss with class-warfare overtones.

Emma was born in Virginia and spirited away to Utah—a state that makes it notoriously difficult for unwed dads to asset their rights—for adoption immediately after her birth. Virginia courts have sided with the father, John Wyatt, and have ordered the little girl to be returned to him. Utah courts have thus far maintained that John Wyatt did not comply with their regulations for asserting parental rights and that the adoption should stand. 

There has been no intimation that the child would be unsafe either with her adoptive parents or with her natural father. John Wyatt works at a nightclub; he is twenty-one. The adoptive parents are established, successful college-educated mid-career professionals who are very economically stable, married, and no doubt desperately in love with this little girl after raising her for almost a year. 

Much of the news coverage of the story sides openly with John Wyatt, and I would have to agree with that. However, the idea that Emma might be better off with the more economically advantaged and martially stable adoptive parents—the state of Utah’s underlying basic argument—is implied in Lisa Belkin’s New York Times piece on her Motherlode blog, in which she asks:
Who do you think should have custody of “Baby Emma”? The stable married couple who are, as their lawyer says, “the only parents this child has ever known,” or the single 21-year-old nightclub worker who has never seen her, though he certainly has tried?
My heart goes out to John Wyatt. He has been trying, since his daughter’s birth, to be a responsible father. Had he been married to Emma’s mom, Emma would likely be with him now. 
My heart also goes out to the adoptive parents. They put their trust in the adoption agency, the lawyers and the birth mom. After having Emma in their homes and in their hearts for a year, they stand to lose a daughter. I know what that feels like—it’s like a death in the family.

Most of all, however, my heart goes out to Emma Wyatt. She deserves to know her Daddy. She deserves the chance to be Emma Wyatt. Perhaps her material future would be brighter in a home with higher net worth and two parents. But she has a birth parent who loves her, who wants her.  Ask any adoptee—that’s all most of us ever wanted—to know that our “other” parents did love us.

For the families involved in this situation, it is no-win deal. Someone will end up devastated. Baby Emma will deal with emotional issues for the rest of her life.

Adoption can be a wonderful thing; it is a gift of the heart. A choice to love. So many children need desperately for someone to choose them. Their birth parents either don’t want them, or can’t get their lives in order enough to parent them safely. 

You will never convince me that an adoptive parent can’t love an adopted child just as fiercely as a “real” parent. Having been both the child and the parent in an adoptive relationship, I know better. 

Though I have wanted to know my birth background most of my life, I have never doubted that my parents—and they are my parents—love me.  Though I knew that raising our baby girl would have had its problems—crack babies can have behavioral issues well past infancy, and we would have had to address racial identify questions sensitively and honestly—I loved her, and love her, with all my heart.

Love aside, adoption is not always the best choice. We should be talking about cases like this in order to shape our adoption expectations as a society. If states like Utah, with its majority Mormon population and overwhelming prejudice against single parenthood are allowed to compromise the rights of parents in other states, that is unacceptable. We need to talk about that.

If as a society, we believe a two-career, multi-degreed, financially successful married couple should trump a blue-collar daddy or a single mom for parental rights, in the best interest of the child, despite that single parent’s desire and ability to raise the child, that is unacceptable. We need to talk about that. 

Adoption should be easy, when the circumstances call for it. It should be virtually impossible when we are taking children away from biological parents against their will absent abuse or neglect. 

Some states are toying with the idea that they can choose not to follow federal law in selected matters; now is the time to codify exactly what we can and can’t stomach in the adoption process as a society. Otherwise, states with a hard-right theological bent might move even farther in the direction Utah has taken, with disastrous results for children and families.

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?"

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.