Eastern Promises and Western Realities of Adoption
There we were, on our winter vacation, driving to our hotel after a day of skiing in the Canadian Laurentians. “I miss my violin,” Julia sighed, dreamily gazing out at the frozen tundra, not really talking to my husband or me — just thinking out loud. “Really?” I said, whipping my head around to the back seat. “Yeah. I should have brought it with me,” she lamented. “I miss it.”
A smile spread across my face. Angels were singing. Julia’s words were nothing less than music to my ears. Julia is good at violin and getting better all the time. Is she destined for Lincoln Center? I doubt it. That’s not the point. The fact that she was missing her violin was not about future musical accomplishment. That she was missing something was what made this a screech-on-the-brakes moment. It’s not like Julia to want to commit or form a deep attachment to something, to anything. She’s innately intelligent, so she pretty much gallops by at whatever she does or has to do. But showing passion, well, this was new.
Julia uttered this comment on what was practically her 10th Gotcha Day anniversary — she was 8 months old when we adopted her from Siberia a decade ago. Though she was young, Julia had trouble attaching to anyone — or anything — from the moment we brought her home. She never laid claim to a teddy bear or a favorite blanket or toy. She didn’t attach to me or my husband, or to other caretakers. She never made a good friend. She was like a drifter, taking only what she needed as she passed through. When we discovered the clinical diagnosis for her difficulty with attachments — reactive attachment disorder — we made it our life’s work to pull her out of this dark tunnel. It took years, and it’s the kind of thing from which you never completely recover.
By the time she was 4, my husband, Ricky, and I fully understood the syndrome, which is caused by early separation from a birth mother. It is a cruel and harsh lesson to learn, especially for one so young: Babies who don’t get the nurturing and love they deserve subconsciously learn it’s better not to attach to anyone or anything because everything in life, especially love, is ephemeral. They become skilled at keeping their distance, making sure nothing matters too much. It reminds you of someone who has been burned by divorce and decides to close her heart.
Very often, I think about Torry Ann Hansen, a Tennessee nurse who created an international incident that had negative reverberations for the entire international adoption community when she gave up on the Russian boy she had adopted. In April 2010, Hansen shocked the world after she put her 7-year-old adopted son, Artyom, on a plane alone, returning him to Moscow with a note saying she didn’t want to parent him any longer, that he was psychotic. The boy had only been with Torry, who was a single mother, for six months. While most of the world viewed her as a monster, I had an inkling of what it felt like to parent a child who actively resists love.
On the trail of a broken heart
Earlier this year, Reuters ran an investigative report on “rehoming.” The disturbingly detailed account uncovered a shadow world where parents of children adopted from abroad have been unloading or giving away their children without any intervention from state agencies, counselors or even lawyers. The article reads like a horror movie. It’s astonishing to most, but not me. Nor is it entirely surprising to the legions of adoptive parents who inhabit a parenting world that is comprehensible only to those of us who live in it.
Of course, not all adoptions are problematic. Sam Wojnilower, international services coordinator for the nonprofit organization, Adoptions from the Heart, says that over the past two decades, he has seen many children from Russia and Eastern bloc countries who have not presented with attachment disorders. He points out that a decade or so ago, most of the adopted children were infants or toddlers, and that disorders are more prevalent among older children who have experienced deprivation and/or abuse for greater lengths of time. However, as adopted children from Russia and other countries have skewed older in recent years, the prevalence of attachment issues rises. “Age is a big piece of it,” he added.
Many adopted children, particularly those from Russia, Eastern Europe and other countries, have experienced profound loss at an early age. Most were denied prenatal care. Many carry forth a legacy of parental drug and alcohol use. Some were sexually abused. Most were neglected. Early life in an orphanage deeply influences their emotional and physical wiring. When we make these children our children, we do so with so much love in our hearts. But love alone is not enough to undo their early disadvantages. “Every adopted child has that primal wound from heartbreak,” said Nancy Thomas, author of When Love Is Not Enough: A Guide To Parenting Children With Reactive Attachment Disorder. “The adoptive parent has to know the child is coming to them with a broken heart,” Thompson continued. “You need to spend time and energy to heal the broken heart.” But as Thomas points out, many parents, my husband and myself included, are not trained to watch for the signs.
“If a baby doesn’t cry or seek eye contact or smile when mom smiles at them, if a baby doesn’t wrap her arms around mom when she’s being held, when she puts her hand flat against mom’s chest and pushes away, then we have a problem,” she said. “And when the child reaches for the clerk in the supermarket, something is really wrong.” Thomas’ checklist perfectly describes Julia’s early behaviors. What tends to happen is that adoptive moms, who are so eager to love away the hurt, misinterpret these signs as referenda on their own shortcomings. We believe that we are bad mothers. That we have made a mistake. That if we had been meant to have a child, we would not have struggled with infertility. Damaging thoughts like these compound the problem. Mothers often feel ashamed and isolated and unsupported, even by spouses. This may explain why it takes awhile before we seek help for children or, in some cases, why parents resort to disruptions, or even violence.
As hard as it is to believe, when we adopted Julia a decade ago, we were not given any warnings about the potential for reactive attachment disorder. Not from our home study counselor, not from our agency, and not from the Russian orphanage. We were told that she may have weak muscles or be learning-delayed, but she wasn’t. She was strong as Bam-Bam (still is) and met every developmental milestone early on. She always showed a keen intelligence.
We chose international adoption rather than domestic adoption, which is fraught with the perils of birth mothers changing their minds, because we knew it was a sure thing. Russia felt right to us because all of our ancestors hailed from Eastern Europe.
I can’t imagine an international adoption today in which parents would not be given books or be required to sit in on a seminar. But is it enough? Parents who say they researched like crazy before adopting thought they were prepared, but later realized they weren’t.
Changing hearts and perceptions
Cyma Shapiro has two Russian-adopted daughters, one 8, the other 10. “We didn’t go into this naively,” said Shapiro, editor of the blog, Mothering in the Middle (www.motheringinthemiddle.com). “I didn’t presume that if I loved enough, that would be enough.” After every conceivable therapy and a diagnosis of reactive attachment disorder, Shapiro is coming to terms with the notion that living with a wounded child is always going to be a challenge, and that the chaos is never going to stop. She concedes it’s exhausting.
Those families that are floundering need more understanding, support and societal dialogue about what the parenting of hurt children is like. For those who don’t have first-hand experience with these issues, it can feel analogous to the societal trajectory of understanding about autism. There was a time when autism was misunderstood or not talked about. Over the past few decades, those with loved ones on the spectrum and those who treated them found their voices, as well as research, funding and solutions to raising these children. The subject became known to us all. Parents of adoptive children tell me they wish the world around them understood what it is like to raise a child who throws violent tantrums, who lies, who steals, who hurts animals, who needs to be locked in a room at night, whose brain has been so damaged by fetal alcohol syndrome that he cannot reason or make attachments.
In 2002, Elizabeth Card and her then-husband adopted an 18-month-old boy from Ukraine. He was beautiful, and the orphanage swore his birth mother was not an alcoholic. But from the moment they returned home, the baby screamed nonstop. “It wasn’t like I could hold him and comfort him,” said Card. Six months later, he was diagnosed with pervasive development disorder, ADHD and sensory processing disorder. From that point forward, Card’s life spiraled out of control. Her son has never been mainstreamed at school. Having to care for him, she has let go of her career as a graphic designer. Her marriage itself collapsed under the weight of the strain.
“It’s hard to make people understand,” she said. “People — family included — blame me for his inability to sit still. I’ve argued with schools for more than a decade. I’ve tried to make peace with neighbors who are irritated by a screaming child. People don’t understand when I restrain him in a basket hold restraint to protect him from hurting himself or to keep our animals safe. Or when I give him a time-in versus a time-out.” The greatest sources of support in Card’s life are a couple of other moms who are parenting Russian adoptees with similar issues. “The problem is, nobody’s listening,” she said. “We’re not banded together. Our numbers are not big enough.”
In the past two decades, 60,000 children have been adopted from Russia, and nearly a quarter-million from other countries since the late 1990s. Not every adoption is problematic, but based on chat rooms I participate in, feedback I receive from articles I write and from the website I maintain (www.juliaandme.com), the evidence continues to build that there is a critical mass of parents who need to be better understood, to feel less judged and to be more supported by society at large. Everybody talks about adoption agencies adding more robust post-adoption services, and more certainly needs to be done. “The sooner families are helped, the better,” said Julie Beem, executive director of Attachment & Trauma Network, a volunteer organization that offers online support to families dealing with difficult adoptions. “Significant healing takes really intense amounts of energy, support and resources.”
Finding the way forward
Janet Chilton Ratchford knows all about pouring everything into her two Russian-adopted children, particularly her son, who was adopted in 2004 at 13 months from a Moscow orphanage. At 3 years old, doctors discovered he had five spleens and that all his internal organs below his heart were either in the wrong place or reversed. Although one of his spleens burst (that’s how his condition was discovered), her son, now 10, is physically stable. Chilton Ratchford originally attributed a raft of behavior problems to his being overly coddled and worried over. But as time went on, her son began to wake up in rages, and he only grew more violent. He has been given an alphabet soup of diagnoses, but his mother doesn’t know what is right or what has been misdiagnosed. Recently, she spent two weeks with the entire family at a camp designed to help children bond to their families. She is hopeful her son will allow love in, but realizes the road ahead is long. “When he was asked at camp why he is so mean to me, he said he knows he is, but doesn’t understand why,” she said. “My son is really mad at someone else: his birth mother.”
Ideally, those who work, teach and care for our children — from teachers to pediatricians to therapists — need to be educated about what these children have been exposed to, what this behavior looks like and how to intervene early on. They need to be equipped with therapies that may be counterintuitive because they are dealing with children who don’t trust their parents. Many who interact with our children are understandably misled because our children appear charming and affectionate and independent. But this is because they’ve learned adaptive behaviors in orphanages. What educators and counselors and doctors don’t understand is how stormy things are at home.
Many adoptive parents have multiple nightmare stories about receiving bad advice and the wrong diagnosis. In my case, if we had had professionals around us who understood reactive attachment disorder, we would have caught Julia’s maladies earlier.
I realize how lucky we are and how far we’ve come. At 11, Julia is fully attached to my husband and me. We are a solid forever family. Julia does well in school and in social settings. And violin — well, maybe she is on her way to Lincoln Center.
But every day I hear stories like that of Paul Vincent Craven, who, with his wife, Valerie, adopted two Russian girls, biological sisters, three years ago. One was 8, the other 15. The couple talked to many adoptive parents prior to bringing the girls home. Paul is a professor, and Valerie trained in secondary education. But they weren’t prepared for the difficulty of raising older adopted children, particularly the 15-year-old, who never bonded, dropped out of high school and is estranged from the family.
“The most difficult thing is to raise a child where there is no affection, no appreciation and no bonding,” said Craven. “It’s very draining. I have done my best to not take it personally, but my wife feels a huge amount of guilt because things did not work out.”
It doesn’t always work out, and that is heart-wrenching. And even when you do make progress and get these children to attach, you always hold your breath, hoping that deep-seated demons will not rise up and steal what you have built. A few months after Julia expressed a desire for her violin, we were preparing to go to a Passover seder at her grandmother’s house. We gathered the tinfoil-covered Pyrex dishes waiting in the kitchen and our jackets because it was a brisk day. Just as I pulled shut the front door, Julia said, “Wait, I want to get my violin. I want to play for everyone.”
“Hurry,” I said, even as I immediately realized that moments like this are worth the wait.
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"