Birth Country: Russia
Decade of adoption: 1990s
Our adoption experience has been painful. While I have grown as an individual and learned more about unconditional love, it almost destroyed our marriage and caused much chaos for our family. I also suffered a baptism by fire regarding what the social services system can and cannot do for a family in crisis or for a child with severe behavioral or mental health problems. If our adoption experience feels like a failure, it is either because we have not been able to help our adoptive children enough, or because they have been unable to have a relationship with us.
Briefly, our story: My husband and I had a birth child, Emily, in 1992. When I did not become pregnant again, we looked into adoption. Publicity about American birth mothers taking back their children led us to believe an international adoption would be "safer." I naively thought that children in Russian orphanages would be healthy because they were just there because their families were too poor to care for them, not because of the parental abuse that puts children in the foster system here in the states.
We used Lutheran Family Services in Raleigh, NC. (where we lived at that time) for our home study. We picked Maine Adoption Placement Services (now "MAPS") for placement of a child. We accepted our son Peter for placement based on a very brief video taken when he was three, and picked him up in October 1997 when our birth daughter was five.
Because we had parented before, we thought we knew what we were doing and that a toddler would fit right in to our family. Neither adoption agency told us to plan on problems, that adding a child to our family who is a toddler would be very different from an infant. Maybe this all sounds obvious, but we sure did not understand it and no one told us.
Our son was very challenging from the day we met him, but we didn't know why and didn't know who to ask for help. We had him tested when he was four by the school system in Raleigh. They said he was a year behind but didn't offer any help or recommendations. If we had been in Minnesota where we live now, the school system here would have immediately assisted in diagnosing the cause of his problems and provided support.
About the time Peter joined us, we learned that he had a ten-year-old sister still in Russia, and we agreed to adopt her too. Emily was then six, and Peter four. We were told Alessia was "up to speed" on her schooling. This was a gross inaccuracy. We probably would have adopted her anyway, even if we had known how behind she was academically, but we would have understood much sooner she had severe problems that needed more help than a little tutoring.
Alessia lived with us for four years. During this time, I became pregnant again, twice, and we had two more birth children. We worked very hard to help Alessia, but she had progressively worse behavior, did poorly academically and made no friends. The school tested her and said she did not have a learning disability, that we should just help her more with her homework. When she was 14, she suddenly spun out of control, became completely defiant and ran away repeatedly.
When Alessia began to run away, my husband was unemployed, I was on maternity leave, and we did not have any health coverage. Hennepin County Social Services agreed to help us obtain a diagnosis so that we could find out if Alessia qualified for services. From the day the county began to attempt to diagnose Alessia's behavior problems until today, four years later, she has been continuously in residential treatment programs.
During this time, we gradually discovered the depth of Alessia and Peter's problems. Both have reactive attachment disorder and fetal alcohol effect disorder. I knew nothing about these problems when we did the adoptions, but I sure have learned about them since.
Alessia has been approved for SSI benefits, but she ran away again recently and we do not presently know where she is. Because she is still a minor (age 17) we are supposed to be helping her. However, her social worker and we feel discouraged that her four years of excellent care in residential treatment really didn't help her because her problems are so intractable. Once she turns 18, she can make her own choices, and I doubt she will accept any help because she thinks we are the problem because we impose rules (like no hitchhiking on a highway in the dark, no accepting rides from strange men etc.)
Peter, now age 11, is doing somewhat better. His attachment disorder and FAE are not as severe. Last year, his school finally agreed to place him in a special program in our home district for children with severe behavior problems. It is depressing to see how much potential he has that he seems unable to tap. Moreover, although his behavior has matured and improved, Peter continues to be challenging and disruptive to our home. We fear that when he becomes a teen, he will spiral out of control and slip beyond our help the same way Alessia did.
I recognize that when we did our adoptions (1997 and 1998) the programs from Russia were fairly new and maybe the agencies truly did not know the nature of the problems these kids bring with them. I have talked to both of our agencies to vent and to seek help. Lutheran Family Services (LFS) said they now use a DVD tutorial produced by Children's Home Society called "Adopting with Eyes Wide Open" to counsel and inform people considering adoption. I reviewed the program and the key thing I saw was that they included a huge list of potential problems and stated that if you adopt a child older than three months, there is a substantial likelihood the child will have some of these problems. Certainly no one told us anything like that!
I remember sitting in a seminar provided by LFS before the adoption and them emphasizing that a parent can love an adopted child just the same as a birth child, there is no difference. That is theoretically true, but it has not worked out that way for the majority of families I know with adopted children. In particular, attachment disorder is so terrible because it is difficult or impossible for a would-be loving parent to have a good relationship with a child if the child has attachment issues. It isn't fair to the child or the parent, but it appears to be a fact.
While some percentage of birth children are born with health problems (physical or mental), it is still a very small percentage. My experience with the pool of adoptive children is that the majority of them have significant health problems. Thus, this is not the same as having a birth child and people need to be prepared for this so that they can make an informed choice about whether they are going to parent through adoption.
I am concerned that there continue to be many people pursuing adoption that are not fully informed of the substantial risks. There is a severe inherent conflict of interest in the adoption industry because the adoption agencies are in the business of placing children, even if the agencies are sincerely good intentioned non-profits. It is not in their best interest to give a detailed disclaimer to potential adoptive parents because it would dissuade some of those people from going through with the adoption.
No first time parent can really know what they are getting into. However, when I compare my experience as a three-time birth mom with my experience as a two-time adoptive mom, I was grossly unprepared to parent the adopted children. This seems ironic given how carefully the home study checks into your background. They should spend as much or more time preparing parents for the special needs they should anticipate. Then, parents who are not up to the challenge can opt out before the adoption is finalized, and parents who are willing to take on such a task will be best prepared to seek the services needed from the appropriate professionals.
I am sure our two adoptive children are better off living in the States than if they had stayed in Russia, so for that reason alone, you could say the adoptions were a good thing. However, the adoptions certainly did not fulfill our goal of making our family life richer because these children have so damaged the fabric of our family and because Peter and Alessia have so little a relationship with us. Again, this can and does happen with birth children, but not with the regularity that I have seen it happen with adoptive children.
On a good day I recognize that the problems we experienced with our adopted children have helped me better appreciate the miracle of "normal" – a normal child, normal development, the normal family relationship I have with our three birth children. On a bad day, I wish I had never filled out the first piece of adoption paperwork. Most days, I try not to think about how much adoption changed our family.