September/October 2010 Issue
Russian Adoption — Lessons for Social Workers
Adoption isn’t easy for anyone. Read about the special challenges facing parents and children involved with intercountry adoptions and what social workers can learn from them.
Love conquers all. Love is enough. Good parents make good kids. For U.S. families who adopt children from Eastern European orphanages, if these truisms sometimes prove untrue, what’s going on?
This question was highlighted dramatically in April when Tory-Ann Hansen put her adopted 8-year-old son from Russia unaccompanied on a flight back to the orphanage he came from. Hansen, 32, a nurse and single woman in Tennessee, adopted the boy, Artyom Savelyev, then age 7, in September 2009 and renamed him Justin Hansen.
Media accounts of what happened provide scant reliable information, and many reports conveyed thinly veiled judgment and blame. Accounts alleged that Artyom’s behaviors were intolerable, Hansen did not seek postadoption support when her situation became difficult, the orphanage failed to disclose Artyom’s behavioral challenges to Hansen before she adopted him, and the adoption agency failed to provide Hansen and Artyom with adequate preadoption education and postadoption support.
The veracity of these allegations cannot be determined from the news accounts, but what is clear is a sense of outrage that this sort of event could occur.
In this blame game, many longstanding questions surface about social work practice and policy in international adoption. Social workers counseling prospective adoptive parents need advanced knowledge of the unique challenges facing any adoptive family, families who adopt children with difficult histories, and children from other countries, including Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Clinicians need a sound grasp of the clinical, policy, and ethical dilemmas involved in international adoption so they can provide effective care.
According to news reports, Artyom’s adoptive grandmother, Nancy, allegedly placed him on a plane with a note supposedly from his adoptive mother pinned to his clothes, reading, “This child is mentally unstable. He is violent and has severe psychopathic issues.” A Russian driver his adoptive family had hired to take him to the Russian Ministry of Education met Artyom at the Moscow airport. A spokeswoman for Kremlin’s Children Rights Commissioner, Pavel Astakhov, told the Associated Press that “the child reported that his mother was bad, did not love him, and pulled his hair.”
Regardless of the facts in this case, it is clear that the adoptive mother and child had a hard time and are both profoundly affected by what occurred between them. According to USA Today, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation began a criminal probe. In addition, Russia’s foreign minister called for a freeze on all Russian adoptions to the United States. The U.S. ambassador to Russia “said he was ‘deeply shocked by the news’ and ‘very angry that any family would act so callously toward a child that they had legally adopted.’“
Rather than yield to the impulse to vilify, it is useful instead to seek lessons from the debacle so social workers can do what is needed to protect children from Artyom’s fate.
Some Issues in Adopting From Russia
For instance, this past April The New York Times reported on the McDaniels family who adopted a daughter from Russia at the age of 8. Before being adopted by the McDaniels, the child had lived in an orphanage for five years, then was adopted by two families who ended the relationship.
“We lived a life of hell,” said Ellen McDaniels. “I stayed up all night when my husband slept. We had alarms on the doors; she tore them off. The more I asked for help, the worse it got. I became the warden.”
The McDaniels ended the adoption after nine years, feeling “wracked with shame and guilt.” McDaniels said, “I don’t agree with what Tory-Ann Hansen did. But...[k]nowing what I know now, I would have given up sooner because a lot of people got hurt.”
The New York Times reported, “Scores of complaints have been made in recent years against adoption agencies by people claiming they were inadequately informed or ill-prepared for problems their children turned out to have.” With perhaps 700,000 Russian children awaiting adoption, there may be incentives for the sending agencies in Russia to be somewhat unassertive about obtaining information about a child. U.S. agency thoroughness and effectiveness when providing preadoption education for prospective parents can vary. In addition, adoptive families in the United States encounter difficulties finding essential postadoption support services. Crucial services may be nonexistent or cost-prohibitive. These factors can contribute to families adopting children they are unable to manage.
Intercountry adoption presents predictable issues for children. Some U.S. adoptive parents gravitate toward adopting a child from another country because they want no contact with the child’s birth family. This lack of understanding a child’s need for connection, identity, and information may deepen the child’s sense of loss. Today’s adoptive parents are advised to maintain some sort of contact with the child’s birth family and weave the child’s ethnicity into the fabric of adoptive family life by, for example, eating foods, celebrating holidays, speaking the language, or socializing with people from the child’s country of origin. Doing so can be hard in a family’s busy life and requires earnest, sincere, ongoing parental commitment and effort.
While all adoptees encounter loss, children adopted from other countries face additional losses. These may be minimized, denied, and dismissed in a world that sees adoptees as lucky to have been rescued from an orphanage or poverty abroad.
Children who live in Eastern European orphanages have not only lost their birth family; they may not have had the opportunity to form a relationship with a consistent nurturing caregiver. Research suggests this may change the developing brain in ways that create attachment issues later in life. Many children available for adoption in Russia have been exposed to alcohol in utero, which can affect fetal brain development, resulting in thinking problems, learning disorders, abnormal behavior, hyperactivity, poor impulse control, extreme nervousness and anxiety, poor coordination, sleep problems, heart defects, and vision, hearing, and other physical problems.
Even the most skilled, committed, loving adoptive parents can be sorely challenged when caring for a child whose special needs are unknown at the time of adoption despite everyone’s well-intended efforts to acquire that information. Any child, adopted or not, may inherit genetic mental health issues. A Russian birth parent may not know about these issues at the time of relinquishment and thus cannot disclose them to the orphanage. A child may have prenatal alcohol exposure that does not manifest in the facial features commonly used to identify fetal alcohol syndrome. The case record might not include losses and traumas a child experienced prior to adoption that could lead to behavioral challenges after adoption. All these issues may lead to a child’s disruptive behaviors that exhaust an adoptive family’s emotional, physical, financial, and social resources. All parents, whether birth or adopted, including those adopting from Russian orphanages, are wise to hope for the best and prepare for possible challenges down the road.
Why Not Adopt a U.S. Child?
Most people are stunned to learn that the United States, a world leader in the number of children adopted from other countries, also sends its own children abroad to be adopted: The U.S. children sent abroad for adoption typically have special needs. The irony is that many of the children adopted into the United States from other nations also have special needs.
In 2008, 123,000 children living in the United States were awaiting adoption through the public child welfare system. The financial cost of adopting through the public child welfare system is minimal, while an international adoption may cost tens of thousands of dollars. There are safeguards available in U.S. public child welfare adoptions that are not present when adopting from Russia; for instance, a prospective family can meet with a child many times over a long period as the parties get to know each other to determine whether they are a good match. There is a much shorter time frame to decide on a match when one must travel from the United States to Russia to explore a specific referral.
Generally, the preadoption records available for children in the U.S. child welfare system are more complete and provide more consistently thorough information about the child’s history and needs, empowering prospective adoptive parents to make informed decisions. Children adopted through the public child welfare system are eligible for subsidies that help adoptive families pay for special education, medical, and mental health services that may be needed in the future.
There are several possible explanations for parents choosing a child from Russia instead of one from the United States. Some prospective adoptive parents who are themselves of Russian heritage may prefer to adopt a child of the same heritage. Some adopters may hold misguided beliefs. They may, for instance, assume that birth parents are likely to intrude, so it’s safer to adopt a child an ocean or a continent away. They may think they are more likely to adopt a younger child when adopting internationally, mistakenly believing that the only children available for adoption through the public child welfare system are older.
Some adoption experts wonder whether the price tag associated with international adoption conveys a certain panache or that there may be some romance in the idea that one has “rescued” an orphan. Prospective parents who long for a child may minimize and dismiss as a mere bureaucratic hoop preadoption education about the importance of maintaining a child’s connections with the birth family, original identity, and country of origin. They may believe that adoption is an event, not a lifelong process.
Also, a disincentive to pursuing a domestic public child welfare adoption, for some, is the practice, based in federal law, of placing a child into a possible preadoptive home as a foster child. Foster parents who hope to become adoptive parents are expected to support all efforts to reunite the child with the birth family. The foster family can adopt only if reunification fails. Hence, the preadoptive family may see the process of intercountry adoption as having a more certain outcome.
Policy and Practice Considerations
All children need families, including children whose struggles make it virtually impossible to live in a family home. The intimacy and demands of family life may be more than some children can tolerate. In these tragic situations, many states require that families hand over custody to the state or terminate parental rights in order to obtain funding for the residential services the child requires. Parent/child connections can, and often should be, sustained and nurtured even when residential placement is needed.
Before events reach the point where out-of-home placement is required, families need access to community and home- based family preservation services. Adoption disruption (ending an adoption plan before finalization) and dissolution (dissolving a finalized adoption) traumatize the child, parents, extended family, and social workers involved.
Adoption disruption and dissolution can be prevented. A comprehensive, well-articulated, coordinated continuum of programs and services can sustain families in distress. A crucial component of this continuum is comprehensive preadoption education that helps families explore and assess their motivation for pursuing adoption, the risks they believe they can manage, and learn about the normal, predictable developmental crises that particular routes to adoption entail.
Families are best able to explore these issues in the context of a noncoercive collaborative relationship with a clinician who is well educated about adoption issues and takes a nonjudgmental, strengths-based stance. Each adoptive family needs access to a longstanding relationship with an adoption-informed clinician who can help them navigate the turbulent waters they may encounter on the lifelong adoption journey. Training programs to prepare clinicians for this highly specialized work are needed.
When community- and home-based services are not enough, families need access to a wide array of specialty out-of-home programs, including therapeutic respite programs, therapeutic foster care, wilderness therapy programs, emotional growth boarding schools, boarding schools for children with learning differences, and residential treatment programs. There are many options that lie between outpatient psychotherapy and hospitalization. Clinicians are wise to educate themselves about these options and know how to make referrals to educational advocates and consultants who can help each family find and fund the best option for their child. As the costs of specialty programs are often prohibitive, social action to ensure access is essential.
The decision to parent is a leap of faith—in oneself, the child, and the future. Children in Eastern European orphanages desperately need families. Justice, which forms the heart of social work’s mission, demands that all reasonable efforts be made to keep children safe within the protection of their birth families; when that is impossible, they are best served when nurtured and protected by families within their countries of origin. International social welfare programs should pursue these goals. When children cross national boundaries for adoption, their new families also need support and compassion.
— Deborah H. Siegel, PhD, LICSW, DCSW, ACSW, is a professor in the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College, a clinician specializing in adoption issues, an adoption researcher, and an adoptive parent.