Are Adoptive Parents Who Give Up on Children Uncaring or Unprepared?
Last week I received an e-mail from a bereft mother about how she adopted a Russian orphan 13 years ago, and how it all went wrong. In sharp, spare sentences, she told me she has traveled twice to Siberia. She told me how her son has been in and out of a juvenile detention center. At 16, he is now in state custody and wants nothing to do with her. This woman was devastated and could hardly make sense of what has happened. She said after investing everything she has in this boy, both financially and emotionally, she has been left with nothing and no one.
She knew I would understand. She read an essay I wrote about the difficulties my husband and I had raising our daughter who was adopted from Russia, and knew I had a memoir focused on adoption and attachment disorder coming out next year.
In her e-mail, she asked if I could call her. I did. We talked about how my husband and I worked with my daughter in her early years when she would not bond, when we were scared to death that she would never be able to attach to us or love others. She was happy to hear that things had worked out well. Mostly this woman needed to unleash her feelings of guilt, inadequacy and despair. She wanted to unpack her burden. Maybe I could make it a bit lighter just by relating to her.
Oddly, we were having this conversation hours after I had read a Reuters investigative report on “rehoming,” a ghastly account of how parents of children adopted from abroad have been “unloading” or “giving away” their children to strangers without any intervention from state agencies, counselors or even lawyers. The article reads like a horror movie: A Liberian adoptee with severe health and behavioral problems who had been with her adoptive family for two years was handed off to another family at their mobile home park. No lawyers or welfare officials were involved in the exchange. The parents of the adopted child simply signed a notarized statement declaring these strangers to be their daughter’s guardians.
Reuters analyzed more than 5,000 posts about rehoming over a five-year period from a Yahoo message board. Most of the children had been adopted from overseas, from countries like Russia, China, Ethiopia and Ukraine. In one case, an ad read: “We adopted an 8-year-old girl from China … Unfortunately we are now struggling having been home for 5 days.”
Wow, five whole days and they are ready to give up!
If you are not an adoptive parent of a child from abroad, I am willing to bet that there is no part of your brain that can wrap itself around something so heinous. How does a parent dump a child? Even if the child is not responding to love or seems filled with hate, how do you hand him or her off to a stranger? Such a person is not only unfit to parent, but must be depraved and heartless. Right?
As an adoptive parent, I have an insider’s understanding of how difficult adoption can be. I do not believe people travel to China, Russia and Ethiopia with bad intentions. In fact, people wanting to parent a child who needs a home likely begin with a heart full of love and optimism. But when they return home with their child and the excitement dies down and the troubles begin because they cannot handle their child, their dreams turn to muck. They find themselves alone, frightened, bereft and full of regret. How they behave under those circumstances might not only surprise the world, but might also shock the parents themselves. In a posting on the message board cited in the Reuters article, a woman who adopted an 11-year-old boy from Guatemala wrote, “I am totally ashamed to say it but we truly do hate this boy!”
Naturally, the Reuters article makes us grasp for a quick fix. There have been calls for these adoptive children and their families to be monitored, along with a system of checks and balances. Disrupting an adoption to find a child a new home can be successful for both the original adoptive family, the child, and the new family, and the legal mechanism is often the same one that is used by families in the Reuters article: the power of attorney. But how can we protect children from the abuse of that power?
Here is what I think we should be talking about: many, maybe even most, adoptive parents are not really prepared for the ramifications of parenting a child who begins life in an institution or orphanage. We are ill equipped to handle reactive attachment disorder, fetal alcohol syndrome, or violent, self-injurious children. My husband and I, for example, had no education on the subject before we brought our 8-month-old daughter home a decade ago from Siberia. I’m told that in most states, things have changed, and adoptive parents must take workshops or read up on the issues, but I know how I felt about what little I had read. I’m pretty sure most of us truly believe that with enough love, the hurt will subside. That enough care, nurture, food and toys will erase the past.
We can’t and they don’t. Adopting a child from these circumstances is rarely an easy road. If parents are lucky, as I have been, we find the resources, resilience and love we need.
The one good thing that could emerge from the tragedies described in the Reuters article is a societal effort to be more involved in the lives of families with children adopted from abroad. Those of us who are floundering need more understanding, support and dialogue about what our parenting experience is like. We need to be better understood and to feel less judged. While everybody talks about adoption agencies adding more robust post-adoption services, more needs to be done. Ideally, those who work, teach and care for young children — from teachers to pediatricians to therapists — should be educated about institutionalized children who are adopted. They should be trained to recognize and treat their symptoms. In my case, if we had professionals around us who understood reactive attachment disorder, we would have caught Julia’s maladies earlier.
I get e-mails all the time from parents of children adopted from abroad who are struggling. What they always tell me is that they feel comfort knowing they are not alone.
Tina Traster is the author of "Rescuing Julia Twice: A Mother's Tale of Russian Adoption and Overcoming Reactive Attachment Disorder" (Chicago Review Press). Her website, an archive for information on Reactive Attachment Disorder, is www.juliaandme.com. Traster, an award-winning journalist, has written on international adoption for the New York Times, New York Post, Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, Inside Magazine, Adoptive Families Magazine, and for many blogs and literary journals. Purchase her book on Amazon. Traster and her family are the subject of a short film on Russian adoption called "Raising Julia"