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Destinations, Dreams and Dogs - International adventure with a fast-track family (& dogs) of Old World values, adopting the Russian-Italian-American good life on the go…!

Of Diagnoses and Disruptions

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Maybe like you, I watched the Friday night (Nov. 28) documentary on foreign adoptions gone awry: “The Toughest Call: What Happens when Foreign Adoption Ends in Regret?” What can I say? I know first-hand parents whose lives have been threatened, whose kids have tried to burn the house down, who kill the family pet, and who have rushed their parents with deadly objects.

Inevitably, either the parents divorce, or they disrupt (discontinue/dissolve) the adoption. Occasionally, both. It’s not a large percentage, and I can’t imagine which survey the journalists are quoting when they put it between 10-25% for disruptions. We have never been surveyed and who would be surveying us, anyway?

I am not trying to place any blame, but come up with workable solutions for those who are suffering day in and day out. Unless you have been sleep deprived, had every psychological button pushed, and been repeatedly berated by your new arrival, you have no concept how worn-out an adoptive parent may be.

(Let me say for the record that this blog is not funny. It’s no laughing matter. If you want humorous, go to another date. This is a serious problem, and there’s no one in the adoptive community who is amused.)

The television program highlighted the Ranch for Kids Project in northwestern Montana. Founded by Joyce Sterkel, adoptive parent and general compassionate and intuitive person, the Ranch offers therapeutic boarding programs for adopted children whose parents are in need of respite, or who may be considering disruption. Her work is amazing and has been profiled in People magazine, among other publications. She is an angel, a pragmatic angel, who tells it like it is and candy-coats nothing.

What are she and her staff doing, that the original adoptive parents did not do? Some possible suggestions include:

1. Do not take the children to Walmart or Disney World. Less is more in the beginning. Stop taking them shopping and buying them things to fill their emptiness. Joyce Sterkel claims that it’s the No. 1 sin of adoptive parents: the overindulgence of commercial and material benefits….

2. Have a Russian speaker available, to talk about feelings and fears, and their past. Do not wait until the child speaks English, which can be a while for any deep conversations.

(And it’s not just Russian adoptees experiencing extreme problems, but that’s where a lot of the older child adoptions originate. Even in Russia, most adoptive parents end up with younger children and babies who may develop similar situations as they grow up. The age is not at the crux of the issue. There are abandonment and grief issues, as well as ingrained institutional behaviors and coping skills that will need to be addressed.)

3. Recognize that a child’s internal rage against a birth parent may be transferred to you, the adoptive parent.

4. Be ready to spend time with the child, bonding over specific project, whether gardening, pets, chores, or other work-together interests.

5. Understand that some children may be brain damaged from fetal alcohol ingestion, while others may have severe emotional issues from years spent in an orphanage, when survival of the fittest was a way of life. The former will never greatly improve. The latter will, with the right approaches.

There are ways to beef up your chances at not falling into these pits of despair. May I humbly submit the following:

1. Find out as much information as available about this child when visiting on the first of two required trips to Russia. Get school records and medical records. Ask leading questions of the orphanage director, caregivers, and doctor: “What are this child’s strong points? With what does he/she struggle the most? Is behavior appropriate for the age level? What will we need to work on if he/she comes to live with us? Do you believe there is any indication of brain damage?

2. Refuse to fall in love at first sight. Think of it as an audition, an interview, or an arranged marriage. Have a checklist of negotiable and non-negotiable characteristics. Cute is not enough–even in marriage, that gets old. A simple, sweet, or even somewhat slow child is preferable to a hardened toughie. Just my opinion. A perfect child we don’t need, but a child with potential would be nice.

3. Is the child currently attached to any caregiver or friend, indicating a potential future ability to bond with you? How does the older child interact with others?

4. Get rid of any sugarplum dreams. You may have a fantasy of having happy children around the Christmas tree, but hold that thought for now. Without putting feet to the fantasy, it can easily unravel into a nightmare. The goal is not a Pottery Barn Kid’s bedroom or designer kiddy clothes. That can come later, after you do the real work of fitting together as a family. Who ever said that adoption is without hard labor?

5. Reserve judgment for the first three to six months. You cannot disrupt before then. You cannot. There, I said it. That’s Alexandra’s Law. If you are flipping out after a few weeks, you are terribly underprepared for adoptive parenthood. Exhausted, I understand. Confused, I grasp. Get a respite caregiver so you can have a break. You must. I would suggest that adoption agencies have respite referrals on call in your geographic area. But you cannot get off this happy-go-lucky merry-go-round that has turned into a raging rollercoaster until you have put in the time needed to make it work. Some neuropsychologists offer intensive home visits where they teach the parents how to cope. I know, you’re wiped out economically from the adoption, and you’re emotionally at your wit’s end. Remember that parents of newborns experience some of the same. Alright, it’s not an 80- or 120-pound devil child stalking them in their own home, but there are similarities. Take a break, and then jump back into the fray.

6. Alexandra’s Second Law is to learn some Russian. I personally know of one tragic adoption case where the mother learned a bit of the foreign language… only to kill the child. These cases are even more rare than the adoption disruptions. Maybe this is big news to a percentage of the college-educated adoptive parents, but… don’t you think you would have a better start to your newfound family life, if everyone spoke some of the same language? Why should the child have to learn English, but you don’t need to meet him/her halfway? If it were up to me, I would not let you adopt an older child if you had this much disregard for their wellbeing. These are not puppy-dogs from the pound. Preparation is everything. Lack of preparation can push you over the edge.

Adoption “education” is often a joke. I took the online classes that graciously informed me that my child may be used to different language sounds and types of music. The child may not come from the best background. Okay… thanks. That might be news to about 5% of the adoptive parent population and yes, I am acquainted with some of that 5%. But to leave it at that, is woefully lacking. Give an info sheet to every adoptive parent of older children (say, age 5+) about what to do and say if X, Y, or Z happens. That’s where the rubber hits the road.

7. And while I’m holding forth, Alexandra’s Third Law: hold the adoption agencies responsible. Put their feet to the fire. There should be licensing bodies who can intervene when things go bad. Yes, we all have to sign contracts that state that our adopted children “could arrive with undiagnosed physical, emotional, mental and/or developmental problems”. That’s called adoption agency “cover your tushie” sneaky-speak.

Fact is, many behavioral or learning problems ARE known prior to adoption. These could be shared with adoptive parents, but are not… not because they are unknown, but because if they were shared, the agency would not “complete the sale” and would lose a big chunk of cash. We are not buying babies, but we are buying services that are often substandard in every respect. The agency personnel, whether in the US or most likely in Russia, will often pressure you to accept a child with whom they will not be living for the rest of their lives. Take your time and make an informed decision.

Agencies need to provide follow-up care after the adoption. Have we received one “How are you?” phone call or e-mail after adopting three months ago? No. The sale is over. They hope for the best and try to avoid us at all costs.

Which leads us to our son, Pasha. We were warned in Russia not to adopt him. We were specifically told that he would destroy our family. They were honest with us, brutally honest. There was another dreamy-eyed adoptive parent, who brought home two kids from this orphanage years ago. Within a few months, the boy was beaten to death because of his incorrigible behavior and smearing feces all over their apartment’s walls. These were kids in a specialized correctional orphanage, thought to be retarded and damaged for life.

Our son is none of the above. He is extremely bright. Prior to adoption, specialist after specialist were paraded before us in the Russian orphanage director’s office to state how he was substandard in his heart, liver, kidneys, and brain. Social workers and special teachers detailed each infraction in terms of behavior and inability to learn. So far, no doctors in the US have found any basis to the diagnoses.

As far as behavior, we run a tight ship. Everything comes to a screeching halt if there is lying, or disrespect. The child has to learn what is acceptable behavior and what is not. What flew in the “dyetsky dom” (orphanage) will not fly in a home. We spend a lot of time building up his self-esteem and telling him what a winner he is… when we’re not correcting him for doing the wrong thing, yet again.

It takes time with all of these kids. And that’s not a readily-available commodity in America. If you think you’ll adopt, put the child in school and sports, and go on with your life, well, it might work and it might not. Time and patience are the missing ingredients in most of the doom-and-gloom stories of adoptions gone bad. You cannot buy off the kids. They need bonding time with you. Some need more time than others. They also require structure, and schedules, and love, and clear expectations, and hugs, and encouragement, and pared-down bedrooms, and Russian speakers, and time to chill and think. Therapy is helpful, but most of all, the kids need you. (Not 24/7, but maybe 22/7–make sure you have a break each day. I know, easier said than done.)

If the child does not do well in Location A, but thrives in Location B, the problem is not the child. The parent must be willing to dance in tandem with the child’s needs, and at times, you may feel like you’re going through the wringer, a loser at the limbo dance of love.

It’s not easy. We could have disrupted. Pasha originally thought that when we said, “Nyet” to a certain behavior, it translated into, “Do it again ten times with gusto!” The difference between a terminally ill child and a poorly attaching adopted child is that you have already built up years of feeling connected to the terminally ill child. That gives you the strength to stay by their side through hard times. When a newly-adopted child greets your good intentions with hitting, biting, backtalking, and stealing, you feel like an idiot, and naturally want to get rid of the “problem”.

Change what you’re doing. Listen to the experts. Read some books on the topic. Hike up those parenting pants. You’re not the problem, but you are a major part of the solution.

Hang in there. Get respite care when you need it. Do not make rash decisions. Ensure that both husband and wife are fully invested in the process of becoming a family before you adopt. You can do this. The child will change. The love will come. You will connect. There is light at the end of the tunnel in 99% of the cases.

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