Damaged Good: No Return Receipt Requested
The pictures make my stomach hurt. A confused looking little boy in a bright yellow jacket staring with vacant eyes into the camera after flying half way around the world. A photograph of a smiling woman playing with a happy little boy at a table in an orphanage pre-adoption belying the tragedy just a few months away. A front door festively decorated with a Happy Easter sign, when it was anything but a happy Easter for this troubled family.
The facts simply don’t add up. Torry Hansen, a thirty- three year old single woman and registered nurse who lives near her extended family in Shelbyville, Tennessee, adopted Artyom Savelyev from the Far East region of Russia in September 2009. All adoptions from Russia require parents to meet the child on one trip. They are given the medical and social history of this child to take home and consider before deciding to adopt. If they decide to adopt that child they go back to Russia to finalize the adoption. Presumably this process was followed in Artyom’s adoption. Prior to the adoption Artyom had been removed from his alcoholic mother and placed in an orphanage. His age at removal and how long he lived at the orphanage have not been reported.
Hansen used WACAP Adoption Agency to process this adoption. Since WACAP is located in Oregon and Hansen in Tennessee, WACAP partnered with Adoption Assistance, Inc., a local Tennessee adoption agency to prepare the home study. A home study is in part to evaluate the parent’s suitability to adopt and in part to educate and prepare the parent to adopt. At the end of the home study, the social worker prepares a report that is sent to Russia approving the family to adopt.
Russia requires post adoption reports be submitted at 6, 12, 24 and 36 months after placement. In preparation for the submittal of the first post adoption report a social worker from Adoption Assistance visited Hansen and Artyom, whom she had named Justin, in January of this year, four months after he arrived home. The social worker noted no problems and said that Artyom appeared to be adjusting and Hansen was enthusiastic.
Artyom’s American grandmother, Nancy Hansen, told the Associated Press that behavior problems began after January. She said Artyom started hitting, kicking and spitting when he didn’t get his way. He threatened to burn down the house and drew a picture of a burning house with his family inside. Nancy Hansen says her daughter talked with a psychologist, but never had Artyom evaluated and apparently never began family therapy.
In March, Hansen contacted a Russian lawyer to ask about options to “annul” the adoption. Last week, Nancy Hansen flew with Artyom to Washington DC and put him on a United Airlines flight to Moscow–alone. They had hired a “tour guide” found online for $200 to pick up the boy at the airport and drop him off at the Ministry of Education. A note pinned to Artyom’s jacket explained:
“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 a Russian national, I am turning him over to your guardianship.”
It seems inadequate to say that this is a tragedy. It will make us all feel better to blame someone—the mother, the agency, the orphanage officials, international adoption in general. We think we can make sense of the unimaginable if we can find the one person or thing to blame. I’m certainly not saying these players are blameless, but pointing the finger at any one of them allows us to avoid the bigger, harder picture.
Fingers most quickly point to Torry Hansen. True enough, her actions are unjustifiable. She may well have reached the end of her rope, but from the outside looking in, it certainly seems as if her rope was mighty short to begin with. She claims she was lied to about Artyom’s mental conditions and behavior by the Russian orphanage officials. In truth, it wouldn’t surprise me if indeed the orphanage workers didn’t report behavioral problems. Some kids don’t act out in an orphanage setting because it’s not safe. Sometimes rapid turn over amongst orphanage workers prevents them from knowing the kids well enough to see problems. Sometimes the officials or workers that talk to the parents never spend any time with the kids and have no idea of their behavior. Sometimes orphanages lie because they don’t think the child will be adopted if they tell the truth.
However, adoptive parents have a responsibility to investigate on their own potential problems. Anyone who adopts a 7 year old child who was removed from an alcoholic mother due to abuse and neglect and raised in an institution shouldn’t need an orphanage official to tell her there may be psychological problems. Most parents adopting from Russia have a US doctor specializing in international adoption review the medical and social records of a child they are considering. I have no doubt that most international adoption doctors would have said this child was at risk for neurological damage and attachment disorders since his mother was an alcoholic, he was abused and neglected prior to being removed from her, and was then raised in an orphanage. Most social workers would also have prepared the parent for this possibility during the home study even without specific evidence from the orphanage of these problems. A quick perusal of any internet Russian adoption forum would also have put Hansen on alert for the possibility of these problems prior to adoption.
Nancy Hansen claims that the problems didn’t begin until after January. She started looking for a way to return Artyom one month later. I suspect problems existed before that, but even if they had lasted six months that is too soon to give up on an adoption. In no way do I minimize the pain, the trauma, the hard unrewarding work of raising a child with either fetal alcohol syndrome or attachment disorders, or heaven forbid both. Children with FAS and attachment disorders can be helped, but it takes time and good therapy. Hansen gave Artyom neither. And when time and therapy don’t work, legal humane ways exist to disrupt the adoption and find a new and safe place for the child.
The fingers of the blame game are also pointing at the adoption agency. I have not spoken with WACAP, but they have the reputation for being a good agency that tries to prepare parents for the reality of adopting an institutionalized older child. They require 10 hours of adoption education pre-adoption, which is more than the industry standard for Russian adoptions. They require parents to research pre-adoption local resources that are available to help a child with attachment or behavioral issues. They ask parents to address how they might handle various “what if” scenarios that might arise with a child that has been abused, neglected, institutionalized, or affected by drugs and alcohol. This is standard for WACAP, and I have no reason to believe this type of education did not take place with Hansen.
A social worker visited 4 months post placement. I think a visit closer to placement is preferable with older child adoption, but since according to the grandmother and to the social worker she didn’t acknowledge problem at 4 months, it’s unlikely that more and sooner visits would have helped. It is possible that she stayed quiet about the problems because she feared being judged. Good Morning America reported that she had applied to adopt another child and perhaps she feared that she would be denied the second adoption if she acknowledged problems with the first. Perhaps she felt that she should be able to handle things on her own. Perhaps she was a hopeless optimist believing that love or her faith would conquer all. Perhaps her tolerance for acting out really was so low that she would “return” a child after one month of misbehavior. Perhaps she was clueless.
It is true that the agency actually doing the training was not WACAP. Usually, for legal and ethical reasons the placing adoption agency keeps a tight rein on the home study agency, but maybe that failed in this case. There is a fine line between preparing adequately and terrifying needlessly. Maybe the social worker erred when searching for that balance.
Russian officials are quick to blame the institution of international adoption and the American system. Russian President Dmitri Medvedev said, “We should understand what is going on with our children, or we will totally refrain from the practice” of allowing Americans to adopt. While I agree that the American system of international adoption should be reexamined in light of this case, I also think that the Russians have room for self evaluation as well. Being put on a plane for Russia was the last in a series of tragedies in this small child’s life. We don’t know the specifics of this case, but we do know that far too many children in Russia are suffering from Fetal Alcohol Syndrome from a prevalence of drinking during pregnancy and attachment disorders from dismal institutionalized care. The damage caused by these practices is often irreparable regardless whether the child is adopted into a loving American home or Russian home.
I agree completely that Russia has the right to establish adoption standards and to question our compliance, but in addition, if they want to really help their children they should improve the care of their children pre-adoption to increase the odds of a successful placement in any family—Russian or American or any place in between.
The uncomfortable truth is that there is no way to prevent this from happening again, just as there is no way to prevent all forms of child abuse. We can set standards for adoption education, we can make prospective parents listen and read and talk, but you can’t make all of them understand. Closing down international adoption isn’t the solution. The reality is that children are being abused daily in orphanages throughout the world in far greater numbers than they are in their adoptive homes. Even the best of institutions pale by comparison to even the most average adoptive home. Hansen’s home was not the norm.
Kids aren’t objects that can be returned once a defect is found. We aren’t given any warranties when our kids arrive, regardless whether they come to us through birth or adoption. One screwed up woman who failed to grasp this fact shouldn’t be able to eradicate the day-in, day-out 24/7 work being done by thousands of adoptive families that are helping to heal badly damaged children and who sometimes wish they could return them, but do not and would not even if given the opportunity.
P.S. The Creating a Family radio show this week will be on Adopting a Child with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome and Drug Exposure.
P.P.S. Please check out the We Are The Truth: A Campaign and Call to Action by the Joint Council of Children’s Services “You, the community of adoptees, adoptive parents, adoptive grandparents, child welfare professionals and child advocates know that the outrageous and indefensible actions of one parent are not indicative of how children are treated by adoptive families. You know that families who encounter difficulties do not simply abandon their child. You know that help is available, that solutions are found and that families can thrive. And you know that suspending adoption does not protect children but only subjects them to the depravity of an institution…and an entire life without a family.”
Image credit: La Shola y El Gringo