808 6th St. South
Kirkland, WA 98033
ph: (800) 550-2105
fax: (425) 636-8129
PLAY TIME Kelly Lytle Baehr, center, plays with her three adoptive sons, from left, Ian, 10; Erik, 10; and Viktor, 18, at their Omaha home. She adopted them from Ukraine two years ago
Kelly Lytle Baehr with two of her three adopted sons from Ukraine.
In Some Adoptions, Love Doesn’t Conquer All
At times, Kelly Lytle Baehr wondered how they would all get through it. Two years ago, she and her husband adopted three boys from Ukraine — two of them 8, the other 16 — and brought them back to their home in Omaha. She knew assimilation into a family life would not be easy; all had come from troubled backgrounds, including one who had spent the first five years of his life in a prison orphanage back in Ukraine, and had a mother who drank while she was pregnant.
She was often tested by the strains of raising these three new sons. The youngest of them, Ian (born Igor) had rummaged in garbage dumps in Ukraine for toys, with hub cabs and discarded car parts his only possessions. At the Baehrs’s home in Nebraska he soon became a wild, uncontrollable kleptomaniac, she said. The other 8-year-old, Erik, struggled to attach to her — kicking, screaming, biting and yelling, “I hate you.” Only the oldest son, Viktor, seemed to welcome his new life quickly, blending easily into the family and eventually making the honor roll at his high school.
When Ms. Lytle Baehr, who is going through a divorce and has custody of her children, heard the news break two weeks ago about Torry Ann Hansen shipping her 7-year-old adopted son back to Russia on a plane, unaccompanied, with just a note to the authorities, she felt something approaching sympathy. “When it boils down to it, I’m really similar to the woman in Tennessee,” Ms. Lytle Baehr said in a telephone interview this week. “We’ve all been there.”
The incident seemed unimaginable to most: a mother discarding her young son as if he were a defective product. It generated round-the-clock discussion on the cable networks, front-page coverage in many of the country’s newspapers, and even something of an international incident, with reports that Russia was suspending all adoptions to the United States indefinitely.
It also struck an emotional chord — and even perhaps a slightly sympathetic one — among families across the country who have gone through the process of international adoption and know how difficult the adjustment can be. And it raised questions about how much American adoption agencies know about the background of the children they are bringing in from foreign countries, and whether parents are adequately prepared for the challenges ahead of them.
“You can’t ever think you are getting a clean slate,” said Victoria Barrett, who lives in Tiverton, R.I., and adopted two children from orphanages in Siberia, a boy and a girl, now 8 and 7. “You can’t think that all you have to do is love the child and everything is going to be fine. It’s not like that. It takes specialized parenting.”
Ms. Barrett said she had learned thisthrough trial and error over years of difficulties with her daughter, Renee, who had trouble bonding with her mother and other classic symptoms of institutionalization, anger and acting withdrawn. She has taken both of the children to a counseling program for adoptive families monthly for the last three years, with additional phone therapy for the parents as needed.
The other day she said she was discussing the Tennessee case with her children and Renee asked her, “Why can’t that mommy do what we do and go to Boston and talk to a counselor?”
That’s a question others might be asking as well. “Most of these parents are grossly, grossly ill-prepared,” said Ronald S. Federici, a developmental neuropsychologist. “Agencies saying they do all this training and support — that’s a bunch of junk. Some do, most don’t. A lot of families are uneducated at huge levels about the psychological trauma of being deprived and neglected, of under-socialized children who have had profound developmental failures.”
Russia is the third largest source of adoptions to the United States, after China and Ethiopia, with about 1,600 adoptions in 2009, according to State Department figures. About 3,500 Russian children and 3,000 American families were in some stage of the adoption process when the country reportedly halted adoptions. Russia has been a popular choice because the process can be much faster than in countries like China, and because there are often more boys available.
But adoptions from Russia have slowed in recent years, as the country has placed more emphasis on domestic adoptions and required more paperwork and visits from adoptive families.
The majority of both international and domestic adoptions turn out well, but the Hansen case has shined a spotlight on those that are problematic and the need for more post-adoption services for struggling families, adoption experts say. Some agencies, including the one Ms. Hansen used, offer extensive training and preparation and continuing support services, training parents on issues like fetal alcohol syndrome and the psychological and neurological effects of institutionalization on children. Studies show, for example, that for every month in an orphanage a child’s I.Q. drops one point.
“Most reputable agencies try to drum into the heads of prospective parents that they need to be prepared for risk and a wide range of possibilities, that they have to give some serious thoughts to this,” said Kathy Legg, executive director of Spence-Chapin, a well-known adoption agency in New York. “Sometimes we give them the worst story and scare them away.”
But services available after parents adopt are erratic — comprehensive in some places and nonexistent in others — and state budget cuts are eating away resources to fund them, advocates for adoptive families say.
ELLEN McDANIELS took her daughter, whom she adopted from Russia in 2001 at the age of 8, to therapists for years. The child spent her first five years in an orphanage and was later adopted by two families who ended the adoptions before Ms. McDaniels, who lives in western Massachusetts, and her husband adopted her. Ms. McDaniels, 52, said she later discovered the child had a history of being sexually abused and was sent to the orphanage when she was 18 months old, after her mother, an alcoholic, died of tuberculosis. A psychiatrist diagnosed severe reactive attachment disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder, and an inability to understand or have remorse for her actions, Ms. McDaniels said.
The girl later would tell her mother, “The voices inside me are telling me to have sex with little kids and kill them.”
Finally, two months ago, after what Ms. McDaniels described as nine years of frightening, exhausting and heartbreaking efforts to cope with her daughter’s behavioral problems — including, she said, her sexually abusing and threatening other children, threatening to burn down the house, hiding knives in her trundle bed, refusing to take medication and running away — she terminated her parental rights. (When parents end an adoption, legally terminating their parental rights, it is known as a disruption. Parents turn their child over to the custody of the state, through a children’s agency, or, more likely, contact their adoption agency for guidance on how to end the adoption. The adoption agency can then try to find the child another home.)
“We lived a life of hell,” Ms. McDaniels said. “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.”
And some advocates for adoptive families — who note that the majority of domestic and international adoptions are successful — say parents should feel less ashamed of considering the option of disruption. It could have been better for Ms. Hansen’s son, Justin, who might have found another family, they said, although the Associated Press reported that three Russian families had come forward offering to adopt Justin.
“Disruption should come out of the closet,” said Susan L. Caughman, editor and publisher of the magazine Adoptive Families, which features articles on how parents in need of support can get help. “It’s a horrible decision to have to make. But if you can’t parent a child, if you’re not prepared to do all these things that have to be done, don’t struggle in silence.”
Typically parents must sign a waiver with their adoption agencies, who say they cannot be held liable for problems with a child that were not previously disclosed to the agency, and advocates say that reputable agencies make clear the risks associated with international adoption, because often children are abandoned at birth or orphanages do not keep complete medical records.
Earlier this week, all seemed fine at the Baehr home, with Ms. Lytle Baehr posting this status update on her Facebook page: “Enjoyed dinner with the boys at a fairly questionable Mexican restaurant. Followed it up with some rocking Black Eyed Peas at home and a family dance party! Whoo hoo!”
But the past is never far away. During a telephone interview, Ian was talking about how he liked living in the United States because it was “more peaceful.”
Then, asked where he was from, he said, “I’m from jail.”
Those early months were a difficult adjustment for all. But after six months of counseling to help with his impulse control, common in older children who have been both institutionalized and exposed to alcohol in the womb, things improved for Ian. And he seems to know how fortunate he now is.
When he turned 9 and received his birthday presents, he told his adoptive mother, “I wish I could take what I have now and give it to myself when I was little.”
She reported the problems to the state child protective agency, and eventually the child went to a state-run residential treatment center for a year. When Ms. McDaniels told the state she could not handle taking the child back, she said abandonment charges were filed against her but later dropped.
The decision to end the adoption, even after so many awful years, was heartbreaking, Ms. McDaniels said, and she was wracked with shame and guilt.
“I felt that I was a failure and that I condemned her to a life of hopelessness,” she said. “I knew I couldn’t help her, but I knew I didn’t want to throw her away. But sometimes as a parent you feel like you have a lot more power than you do. You say to yourself, ‘Can I make a difference in this child’s life?’ And if the answer is no, you need to walk away.”
“I don’t agree with what Torry Hansen did,” she said. “But I almost think there’s a certain little part of me that says, ‘You just saved yourselves nine years of torment.’ Knowing what I know now, I would have given up sooner because a lot of people got hurt.”
AN adoption gone awry is how Wendi Morton, 58, and her husband, Trevor, who live in Carthage, a small town in East Texas, ended up with their son Elijah, a little over five years ago. Mrs. Morton had two biological children from her first marriage, and she and Trevor decided they wanted to adopt another child together.
The couple began pursuing an adoption from Russia, and completed mounds of paperwork, but then learned through other adoptive parents Mrs. Morton had met on the Internet that an 18-month-old infant with fetal alcohol syndrome had been given up by his American adoptive family and needed a new home.
Because Mrs. Morton was interested in adopting from Russia, she had learned about the syndrome, which is more common in Russia than in most countries, adoption medicine experts say, and said she recognized the signs as soon as she met the baby in Dallas.
“He couldn’t chew, he didn’t walk, he had very serious delays, autistic-like behavior,” she said. “His hands were flapping all around. He had some of the facial features, all the things you read about it. But I can’t explain it, I just knew he was ours.”
The child, now 7, was originally named Oleg. His first adoptive family named him Ethan, and then the Mortons named him Elijah. The first few years were rough.
“He would fight you with every power in his little body not to face you,” Mrs. Morton said. “If you touched his face or head, he would scream and cry. He was perfectly content to sit in his room and spin in a circle, or rock, or hit himself on the head.”
The Mortons have paid for speech therapy, occupational therapy and other services for him. They said they were happy when they were able to place him in a special-needs classroom, though they don’t know if he will ever be able to live on his own.
“We’ve never regretted a minute of it,” Mrs. Morton said. “I’m not going to say that this has been an easy road, but he is honestly our little miracle.”
The couple then adopted a girl, Grace, from Guatemala, who is now 5 and in perfect health.
Then Mrs. Morton hired a private investigator to find out more about Elijah’s family. He tracked down an older brother, Nikolai, who had been living in an orphanage in Siberia since he was 2. Two months ago the Mortons brought him to their home as well.
The boy, whom the Mortons call Paul, does not have fetal alcohol syndrome. But he has other health problems and, as the Mortons have learned in the last two months, overwhelming rage. He injures himself, banging his head on walls and biting and bruising himself, melting into fury when he is told he can’t have what he wants.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” Mrs. Morton said. “We were fearful that somebody was going to think we harmed him.”
She took him to doctors. She called the local adoption agency, which she did not want to identify because a friend of hers is in the process of adopting through the same agency, to ask for help.
“I told them the ugly truth of the things that were going on. What I got was ‘I’m real sorry to hear that, I hope things get better,’ ” she said.
And it’s not easy to ask for help, she said. When she goes to church or meets people around town, everybody tells her what a saint she is for taking in these troubled children, she said.
“You always get this, ‘Oh you’re wonderful,’ and all this, and the whole time you are thinking, if you only knew how upset I get at this child, how I really don’t like him sometimes.”
But, she added, “I love him. I have loved him for over three years. Although I didn’t lay eyes on him, I have been in love with this little boy for all this time. And just like my biological children, I cannot fathom turning my back on him.”
There are no reliable statistics on how often adoptive families decide to give up their children, because many states do not keep track of children after they are legally adopted. But there is growing research, with a new study being started next month by the Attachment and Bonding Center of Ohio, into the phenomenon, which researchers said appeared, at least anecdotally, to be on the rise.
A Safe, Loving Home
The story of Artyom Savelyev, the boy who was sent back to Russia by his American adoptive mother, is heart-wrenching. It is also threatening the dreams of thousands of other children and prospective families.
Artyom, who turned 8 on Friday, arrived in Moscow by plane this month, alone and with a note asking Russian authorities to take him back. His mother, Torry Ann Hansen, a nurse from Tennessee, wanted to return the boy to his orphanage, saying he had severe psychological problems. The family says that orphanage workers misled them about Artyom’s condition.
We do not know all the details. But returning a child like he was a damaged pair of pants is profoundly wrong.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said last week that the government had halted adoptions to the United States until stronger safeguards are in place in both countries. It is unclear whether the hold applies to all United States adoptions and how long it might last.
Since 1991, 50,000 Russian children have found homes here, the vast majority with happy endings. Right now, as many as 3,500 Russian children are in the adoption pipeline; the cases of 250 American families are near completion. They should not be penalized while authorities fix what are clearly worrisome problems.
This week, an American delegation will go to Russia to discuss ways to ensure that Artyom’s ordeal is not repeated. American adoption agencies do home studies on prospective parents. Russia also requires American agencies to do post-adoption assessments, but compliance is spotty. Moscow is expected to ask Washington to be the enforcer, a role it is not eager to take on. There should be more post-adoption oversight. And Washington should add a requirement that agencies provide access to follow-up counseling for parents.
The Russians need to fix their system. Many orphanages are overcrowded, with too few staff members and resources. Adoptive parents complain that they are not told key facts about their children. The Americans want to be sure adoption agencies and prospective parents have sufficient data — in advance — about a child’s health. The Kremlin can also prove its concern by providing more financial support and regulation of orphanages and anyone involved in the adoption process.
Russians are understandably sensitive about sending their children abroad. The Kremlin should find ways to encourage more Russian families to adopt. Denying orphaned children a chance for a loving home outside Russia would be a tragedy.
It takes more than love: What happens when adoption fails
Famous moms like Angelina Jolie, Madonna and Charlize Theron have brought adoption into the limelight, and perhaps even made it look easy. But what happens, and who's to blame, when an adoption doesn’t work?
In as many as a quarter of adoptions of teens, and a significant number of younger child adoptions, the parents ultimately decide they don’t want to keep the child, experts say.
Writer Joyce Maynard revealed on her blog that that she'd given up her two daughters, adopted from Ethiopia in 2010 at the ages of 6 and 11, because she was "not able to give them what they needed."
Other cases have been more outrageous, like the Tennessee woman who put her 7-year-old adopted son on a plane bound for Russia in 2010 when things went south. Recently she was ordered by a judge to pay $150,000 in child support.
In the adoption world, failed adoptions are called “disruptions.” But while a disruption may seem stone-hearted from the outside, these final anguished acts are complex, soul-crushing for all concerned and perhaps more common than you'd think.
"It's heartbreaking when disruption occurs and I want to prevent it as much as possible," says Zia Freeman, a Seattle-area adoption counselor who in her 20 years in the field has dealt with at least two dozen disruptions. "We [give parents] a huge list of behaviors to expect and they're not fun. But I'll have parents come back and say to me, 'I sat through those classes and heard you say that, but I still believed it wouldn't happen to me. That I wouldn't get a kid that wouldn't respond to my love.'"
On her blog, Maynard wrote that giving up her two adoptive daughters was "the hardest thing I ever lived through" but goes on to say it was absolutely the right decision for her – and the children.
She has been "severely judged by some, yes," she told TODAY Moms in an email interview. "But I have also received well over a hundred letters of a very different sort from other adoptive parents – those who have disrupted and those who did not, but struggle greatly. The main thing those letters tell me is that many, many adoptive parents (and children) struggle in ways we seldom hear about."
Drama and trauma
Sage, a 38-year-old stay-at-home mom from Salt Lake City, gave up the Ethiopian daughter she adopted in February 2009 after a year and a half. She declined to give her full name in order to protect her family’s privacy.
"We submitted our paperwork for an older child and were open to [adopting a child with] HIV," says Sage, who in addition to having four biological children, has an adopted African-American daughter and has been a foster parent multiple times. "And we got this picture of a 4-year-old who absolutely melted our hearts. We were told that her grandmother gave her to the orphanage because her birth mother died of AIDS and we felt like HIV was going to be our biggest concern. But we sorely, sorely misjudged things. HIV was the least of our concerns."
Trouble started even during her first visit with the girl in Ethiopia.
"She'd sit on my lap when the nannies were around, but the minute they'd walk away, she'd spit in my face," Sage says. "And whenever I'd get in the shower, she'd tear the room apart. She even ripped up the documents that I had to give to INS. I came home with PTSD."
Sage says she told herself that things would get better as soon as she brought her newly adopted daughter back to the U.S. (the adoption was finalized in Ethiopia), but unfortunately, the behavior escalated. In addition to the spitting and name-calling, the little girl was defiant, manipulative and soon became sexually precocious.
"I'd be washing dishes and she'd stick her hand into my crotch," says Sage. "Or I'd have her on my lap and she'd stick her hands down my shirt. And once she learned English, she started telling my 18-month-old daughter 'Your mommy doesn't love you' and pushing her into walls. I watched my little one's behavior completely change. She went from loving me to being scared of me."
Sage sought therapy for her daughter and eventually discovered the little girl suffered from reactive attachment disorder, a condition where children don't establish healthy bonds with parents or caregivers and display a host of symptoms such as aggression towards peers, withdrawal or attention-seeking behavior. She also discovered the 4-year-old was sexually abusing her 18-month-old, which was when she and her husband decided to find a new home for the girl.
"Making the decision was awful," she says. "I didn't bring a child into my life to let her go. But after I found out what she was doing, I realized the best plan of action was to put her in a home that didn't have younger children. She needed a special kind of parent, one who could be detached and not let her stuff affect them. Now she's with a great family with no younger children and thriving."
Jessica, a 31-year-old small business owner from Kent, Wash., who has a daughter she adopted at age 7, says older children can definitely be difficult.
"Often kids adopted at older ages don't have age-appropriate coping mechanisms and some are violent, dramatic or act out in various ways," says Jessica, who also asked that her last name be withheld to protect her family’s privacy. "Our daughter certainly was. I don't think her placement would have worked out if we had younger kids in the family at the time. That kid broke furniture and parts of our house for sport. She also did things like running directly into traffic or screaming that she was being kidnapped in public places. Not every family can handle that level of drama."
Bonding and baggage
Although statistics on disruption vary, a 2010 study of U.S. adoption practices conducted by the University of Minnesota and Hennepin County, Minn., found that between 6 percent and 11 percent of all adoptions are disrupted before they are finalized. For children older than 3, disruption rates range between 10 percent to 16 percent; for teens, it may be as high as 24 percent, or one in four adoptions.
Adoptions can take anywhere from a few months to a couple of years to become final – and that window is when most disruptions occur, experts say. While some families do choose to end an adoption after that, those cases are rarer (ranging from 1 percent to 7 percent, according to the study).
"Disruption rarely occurs with infants," says Freeman, the Seattle-area adoption counselor. "But if you're talking about older children, it can be anywhere from 5 to 20 percent. It's significantly higher because of the complexities of parenting a child who already has life experiences and certain behaviors. When we're rejected and traumatized early in our development, it changes the way we function and respond to people."
Older children – especially ones who have been neglected, rejected and abused -- distance themselves from others and become "a bit hard-shelled," says Freeman.
"It's like marrying someone who's been married three or four times," she says. "Do you think they're going to go into the next marriage without any suspicions or ghosts from the past?"
According to the study, the older the child, the more likely the adoption is to fail. Children with special needs also face greater risk of disruption, particularly those who demonstrate emotional difficulties and sexual acting out.
Certain types of parents are more likely to end up giving up adopted children, as well. Younger adoptive parents, inexperienced parents, and parents who both work outside the home are linked with higher levels of disruption. Wealthier parents and more educated mothers, in particular, are also more likely to disrupt an adoption.
"I understand where that might seem odd, but I think there's a potential for less tolerance if someone's more educated or they make more money," says Brooke Randolph, director of adoption preparation and support services at an Indianapolis adoption agency.
Dismantling a family
What happens when a parent decides to give up an adopted child?
It depends on whether the adoption has been legally finalized or not.
"If a child has been adopted legally, then it's like giving up a birth child," Freeman says. "The parents who adopted the child have to find a home for the child. Or find some resources."
Those resources might include the adoption agency or the state, which would most likely put the child in foster care. If the parents decide to end the process before the child has been legally adopted, the child would then likely go into foster care, she says.
International adoptions follow the same rules, except the adoption agency usually notifies the country that the adoption has failed.
"Returning the child to their country is never an option," says Freeman.
If an adoption fails before the parents become the formal, legal parents of the child, the courts usually aren’t involved. If the adoption has been finalized, however, then the parents must go to court.
"A dissolution – or annulment – takes place after a child is formally adopted by a set of parents," says Jacoba Urist, a lawyer and TODAY Moms contributor. "As you can imagine, the law treats this very seriously, and while states can vary on how they handle these types of situations, in general, a parent must petition the court where they adopted the child to in effect 'unadopt’ them."
Freeman says adoption agencies will do everything in their power to keep a family together, including encouraging the family to get counseling, providing them with classes and support groups and going into the home to see what's going on.
"We absolutely recommend that they go to a family therapist and we recommend they do that long before they get to the point of disruption," she says. "As soon as we sense families are having any type of challenge, we recommend they get assistance."
While different families have different breaking points, the process is never easy for the child.
"It takes an extreme toll," says Freeman. "It can cause lifelong issues of distrust, depression, anxiety, extreme control issues and very rigid behavior. They don't trust anyone; they have very low self-esteem. They'll push away teachers and friends and potential parents and if you put them in another placement and they have to reattach again and then if they lose that placement, it gets tougher and tougher."
Preparation is everything
Randolph, whose job it is to pull the rose-colored glasses off prospective parents, says education and preparation are the best tools against disruption or disillusion.
"I tell them, 'I'm here to bring you the bad news,'" she says. "I want their expectations low. I want them to think it's really hard because for some people – for a lot of people – it really is."
"The more research a parent does before adopting an older child, the better," she says. "You've got to be open to educating yourself and being honest with yourself. Ask yourself, 'Can I live with someone who doesn't like me for a few weeks or months or years?'"
Jessica, whose adopted daughter (now 13) put her family through the paces, says adoptive parents have to let go of their "ideal child" expectations while the child adapts and learns to navigate the new family structure, expectations, values and opportunities.
"Most families we know struggled for a couple of years, and once their child or children felt secure, things evened out," she says.
"We had growing pains but now things have settled in very well. Most of our sticking points are less about 'adoption struggles' and more normal adolescent struggles that all of our peers' biological kids are going through."
For those parents who can’t make adoption work, even with support, public judgment can be harsh.
Maynard, who wrote about her decision to adopt for More magazine but has declined to go into detail about what made the adoption fail, has been pilloried as selfish and heartless. Sage says she lost friends over her decision to find a new home for her Ethiopian daughter and received emails from strangers "telling me I'm a horrible person."
Freeman says rather than go into "blame mode," people need to understand the complexities of the issue.
"The parents are not hideous people and the children are not demons," she says. "This is just how you are when you've been abused and you're a child. We believe we can help and change someone if we love them enough, but it takes so much more than love."