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E.J. Graff

Preventing adoption disasters

By E.J. Graff
April 17, 2010

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THERE’S A little tragedy — and, possibly, a big one. The little tragedy is what happened to Torry Ann Hansen’s 7-year-old son, the adopted child she recently put on a plane to Moscow with a note disavowing him. The big tragedy is that Russia may respond by suspending adoptions to the US — “may,’’ because the State Department says it has received no such notification, despite news reports.

Two policy lessons suggest themselves. First, Russia should ratify and implement the Hague Convention on Intercountry Adoption. Enactment would require Russia to offer a fuller social history for each child available for adoption, which might help US agencies place children with the most appropriate families.

Second, the United States should require fuller post-adoption services and training when parents adopt children older than age one — for all adoptions, even those not governed by the Hague Convention.

And yet it’s not clear that either would have helped Hansen’s son. Hansen’s was an exceptional response from an overwhelmed parent who should have, and apparently didn’t, reach out for help.

Consider some background. First, sources who are often highly critical of adoption agencies have told me that Hansen’s adoption agency is excellent. The World Association for Children and Parents is licensed under federal regulations to offer adoptions from countries that have signed the Hague Convention.

The agency has been licensed to work in Russia since 1993, and reportedly works hard to prepare families for the sometimes extreme problems that can come in older-child adoptions from Eastern European orphanages.

The agency requires prospective adoptive parents to write a crisis plan identifying support systems for any post-adoption problems — and reportedly goes the extra mile to help find social services or new families if necessary. Adoption medicine specialist Dr. Jane Aronson says that Hansen did make an appointment with a psychologist with relevant experience, but failed to show up.

Second, Russian and other eastern European orphanages hold children with some very severe problems, more severe than some Americans who want to adopt can imagine. Some have Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, which can include brain damage resulting in serious behavior disorders. If the state did take this child away from his alcoholic mother, as has been reported, he may have been suffering not just the trauma of losing his mother but also the effects of abuse and neglect. And although we don’t know specifics about this orphanage, post-Soviet institutions are reported to often be large, antiseptic places with untrained workers.

Impersonal institutions can leave serious damage. And, experts say, if this boy had reactive attachment disorder, the intimacy that comes with a new family might have set it off. Add to all those factors the loss of your country, language, familiar smells and customs — and many children can behave in ways that exhaust and stress their new families.

Given its reputation, the adoption agency probably told Hansen all this in advance. But sources say that many prospective parents aren’t open to hearing it. They’re so excited that they don’t fully absorb what they’re taught in pre-adoption trainings; in their hearts, some believe that love will solve all.

If US regulations were to mandate significant post-placement training — and if Russia were to join the Hague, or if Congress were to extend those regulations to all international adoptions — new adoptive parents might hear about how to respond to potentially troubling behaviors, such as violent tantrums or threats about burning down the house, at a time when they are ready to learn.

But the biggest lesson is too personal to be written into policy. Everyone needs help sometimes — most certainly, exhausted and terrified parents who have adopted traumatized children. Asking for help is no shame. The World Association for Children and Parents says that, until it got a call from the Russian government, it had no idea Hansen was having trouble with her adoption. But if Hansen did not ask for help, she couldn’t get it.

Thousands of internationally adopted children are now worrying that if they misbehave, their families will send them back to their first countries. That’s traumatic. Russia is threatening to make adoption policy based on this outlier. If it does indeed close, thousands of institutionalized children who desperately need homes may end up stranded and without hope. That would be a deeper tragedy.

E.J. Graff is associate director and senior researcher at Brandeis University’s Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism.

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