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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Russia: Do the Right Thing for the Children

As the mother of a child from Russia, I, like so many others, was appalled to hear of the Tennessee woman who put her adopted 7-year-old son on a plane by himself and returned him to Russia. She and her mother claim that the boy had a 'hit list' of people he wanted to kill, was violent and was caught trying to set the house on fire. The boy, Artem, was adopted last September, a mere 7 months ago.

Now the Russian government, understandably outraged by this betrayal of a child, is threatening to suspend all adoptions by Americans. While I understand the government's anger, I cannot understand how government officials can believe that denying hundreds or thousands of children in Russian orphanages a chance at a better life in America is going to help anything or anyone.

The outrageous actions of one woman do NOT represent me or the thousands of Americans who have adopted from Russia and who are providing loving homes to their children. I know from personal experience and from talking with other adoptive parents how much they sacrifice to care for their sons and daughters, and how hard they work to address their problems in a loving, supportive way.

Adopted children, whether from Russia, the U.S. or any other country, often suffer from emotional problems. Children who have been institutionalized are prone to attachment problems, which affect their ability to bond with their parents, give and accept love, and trust others. Many of these children also suffer from trauma and abuse (physical, emotional or sexual), resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder. They may have been malnourished while in the orphanage or received inadequate medical care. And significantly, many languish in orphanages without the all-important sense of love, without a caring touch, without the nurturing that children need in order to thrive.

I believe that most adoption agencies do not adequately forewarn or prepare adoptive families to recognize and deal with the most common emotional problems they are likely to face. But families do NOT just give up on their children and 'return to sender' those kids who have difficulties. Treatment may not be easy to find, and it is definitely expensive, but there is help for the children and for the families struggling with difficult children. When my daughter had behavioral problems, I got help for her. I am fortunate to live in a part of the country where therapists knowledgeable about attachment disorders and PTSD in children are available. Most therapists do not know how to treat children with these issues, as I learned from personal experience. But help is out there. Support also is available for parents struggling to raise difficult children. It is not clear whether the woman in Tennessee sought professional help for Artem. It also remains unknown whether she reached out for support to other adoptive parents, or to any of the family support organizations in the U.S.

Regardless of this woman’s actions -- and I agree that she did not handle the situation properly -- the fundamental question is, How does suspending adoptions protect children in orphanages? Suspending adoptions because of the thoughtlessness of one person is counterintuitive; prolonging a child's stay in an orphanage is not going to 'make things better.' On the contrary, the longer a child is institutionalized, the greater the risk of emotional problems. This is not to say that the orphanage staff don't care about these children. I believe they do. But they are poorly paid, and funds for caring for the children are limited. There also is a different cultural view of orphans in Russia and Ukraine (and probably in other countries as well) than in the U.S. Because caregivers often are not aware of the thinking in developmental psychology and how to help minimize the impacts of institutionalization, the children often languish, lacking sufficient human interaction, mental stimulation and a sense of being loved.

Although the number of Russian children adopted by Americans has dropped off in recent years, nearly 1,600 Russian children were adopted and brought to the U.S. last year. Adopting from Russia is a lengthy, expensive, paperwork-filled and laborious endeavor. Those who make their way through the maze of American and Russian legal requirements do so because they sincerely want to bring a needy child into their families. The National Council for Adoption, a U.S. adoption advocacy group, estimates that more than 60,000 Russian orphans have been successfully adopted by American families.

Sadly, a handful of Russian kids has died or been abused at the hands of their adoptive American parents. But never have I seen how this number compares with the number of Russian kids who die at the hands of their Russian parents, or on the streets, each year. It seems the Russian government doesn’t talk about that.

I join with other adoptive families and call on the Russian government to set aside its anger and national pride and allow adoptions to Americans to continue. Review the process and requirements if need be. But think about the more than half a million Russian children still living in orphanages. Who is really going to be hurt by the proposed suspension of American adoptions? Certainly the prospective families will be hurt, but once again, the real victims will be the children.